Treading the boards

Pre-school theatre shows are now delivering to sell-out crowds over each school holiday and every entertainment brand worth its salt seems to want a piece of the action. Katie Roberts reports...
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Twenty years ago, the only chance a child had of meeting film or TV series characters in the ‘flesh’ was if they were lucky enough to visit the theme parks in Florida. At Disneyworld, kids could have a photo taken with a mute Mickey or Minnie or watch in awe as they danced past in the daily parades.

The excitement these encounters provoked did not to go unnoticed in the preschool industry and seven years ago, Britain stepped up to the experiential marketing plate, when BBC Worldwide launched the incredibly popular Tweenies Live tour in 2001.

The BBC opened up a veritable floodgate with the show and since then, we have seen masses of licensed preschool stage shows touring the theatres of the UK. The list is seemingly endless and includes Cbeebies, Milkshake, Mr Men and Little Miss, Barney, Bob the Builder, Scooby Doo, Thomas and Friends...

With yet more companies following suit with shows including Angelina Ballerina and Scooby Doo set to tread the boards this year, the trend looks set to remain popular for the near future.

Audience figures to date generally sell in the region of 100,000 tickets per tour, with primary shows reaching up to 200,000 or more. Over the course of five tours, the Tweenies Live tours have racked up an impressive 1.2 million ticket sales in the UK alone.

With statistics like this, however, the market is possibly at risk of becoming saturated, so companies now need to turn out innovative and engaging shows, which stay true to the characters being licensed, in order to stay ahead of the competition.

Greg Lynn, MD of Chapman Entertainment, advises that appropriateness is the key to success: “The average age of children’s pre-school shows is three and their attention span is very low. Long passages of dialogue simply lose their attention. Also, retaining the integrity of the character is vital. The live show should be a direct reflection of what the kids see on television.”

Dan Colman, MD of production company Dan Colman Limited, agrees: “The quality of the show, the script, music and production needs to reflect those qualities that have made the brand successful.”

Most in the industry believe the key to successfully licensing characters from screen to stage is keeping as close to their on-screen personalities and idiosyncrasies as possible, meaning the audience can relate to them. CEO of AEG ThemeSTAR, Mark Avery explicates: “Characters can make the move, but only by maintaining the brand essence in terms of image, dialogue, colour and personality.”

Nick George, co-founder of Premier Productions, also warns: ”The producer needs to do his homework and work closely in conjunction with the licence holder. I think a child visiting the theatre expects to see exactly what they are used to seeing on the television or on DVD.”

So if all of these factors have been checked and researched and a company has a relevant property in its portfolio to move to stage, next it needs to look at if and how the production will benefit the brand.

Theatre tours obviously create a new aspect to the licensed pre-school products aside from the tried and tested toys, food, apparel etc. But aside from this, they provide a vast new audience for the characters.

Five’s commercial development controller, Emma Derrick, outlines the reasons behind the Milkshake series moving into live events. “We have three main motivations, the first is brand awareness. A successful live tour is an excellent way of marketing the brand on a very personal level.

“The second is to generate additional revenues outside of TV advertising – we are continually looking at new ways of diversifying income, particularly in light of the decline in advertising revenues. The third is to offer our viewers a more interactive experience with both our presenters and the characters.”

With such a range of benefits resulting from transforming a pre-school programme into a stage show, many companies have followed suit. It is easy to be fooled into thinking, however, that this is an easy way to gain extra exposure and make a quick buck. Craig Stanley, general manager of live entertainment and events for BBC Worldwide outlines his concerns: “What I am worried about in our industry at the moment is that there are more and more shows, but I think producers are probably finding out that, though characters might be incredibly popular and have high ratings, not everyone works in every format and have enough pedigree or enough heritage to actually sustain a live audience.”

Stanley continues: “This year in particular there are too many shows for the size of audience and some of the new producers coming in don’t understand the importance of timings to do with school breaks, etc.”

Having said that, if companies are careful with content, it seems the majority think the industry will remain lucrative. “With a culture of almost 24-7 children’s cable television now in place, the demand for these shows is massive,” says George.

Already, new avenues of experiential marketing are being explored for pre-school brands. Angelina Ballerina will tour with dancers from the English National Ballet this summer. An interactive Ben 10 game show will be installed in the Butlins holiday camps and families can take a day out with Thomas at local heritage railway stations across the UK.

This year has also seen the movement of licensed brands into theme parks. Thomas Land has opened at Drayton Park and Postman Pat’s village at Longleat house has been revamped and refurbished.

It looks like the next live licensing opportunities will be further afield though. Building of the Harry Potter ‘theme park within a theme park’ in the Universal Orlando Resort is underway and due to open in 2009 and the Marvel Super Hero theme park in Dubai will open its gates in 2011.

Colman looks forward and has the final word: ”Experiential live marketing will need to be innovative in developing new live formats and finding new live distribution channels. Our most successful shows have been those where we were able to offer something new to the market.”

He continues: “As a company we produce shows in theatres, arenas, holiday resorts, concert halls and festivals. We are looking at theme parks, cruise ships and other areas where we can develop.

“It is also important as a producer that licensors understand the importance of the international opportunity. In a crowded UK market, it is hard to maintain production values without the knowledge that a show has the potential to recoup its cost base on an international basis. The key is understanding that children react exactly the same world over. A good show will work in any language.”

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