Martin Grove’s Filmmaker Focus – 03/12/12
Kenn Viselman, producer of “The Oogieloves in the BIG Balloon Adventure”
“The Oogieloves in the BIG Balloon Adventure” – In theaters August 29th
“Oogieloves” overview: As genres go, family films are one of Hollywood’s best boxoffice bets — as we just saw with Universal’s $70 million launch of “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.”
With “Lorax” grossing nearly $122 million through last weekend, that’s definitely good news for other family films opening this spring and summer. Mostly, these are sequels targeted to older youngsters, but an interesting exception is the live action interactive family adventure “The Oogieloves in the BIG Balloon Adventure,” from Kenn Viselman Presents, opening wide Aug. 29.
That’s the Wednesday before Labor Day and a great springboard to the long holiday weekend where the indie release won’t face competition from other new films aimed at kids. And the way time flies, moms and dads should circle the date because “Oogieloves” will be here before they know it.
“Oogieloves” is designed to play to young kids and get them to stand up at their seats during key scenes to interact with the movie. At the same time, the film is also designed to have playability to older siblings and parents.
Clearly, that’s no easy thing to do, but Viselman knows his way around the children’s entertainment track having been the force behind kids blockbusters like “Teletubbies” and “Thomas the Tank Engine.”
“Oogieloves” stars Toni Braxton, Cloris Leachman, Christopher Lloyd, Chazz Palminteri, Cary Elwes and Jaime Pressly. Directed by Matthew Diamond, its story is by Scott Stabile and Kenn Viselman. It was written by Stabile and produced by Viselman. Co-produced by Angela Rivet, it was executive produced by Michael A. Chirco, Scot J. Moceri and David R. Schwarcz.
In “Oogieloves,” three unique young friends living in Lovelyloveville — Goobie, Zoozie and Toofie — go on an unforgettable adventure when their plans for the best surprise birthday party ever go awry.
I was happy to be able to focus recently with Kenn Viselman on the making of “Oogieloves.”
- Q: How did “Oogieloves” come to be?
- A: The idea for the film is something I’ve been obsessed with for more than a decade now. When you’re an independent filmmaker you don’t have the luxury of having the studios and thousands of employees and billions of dollars and all that behind you so you have to find a way of creating a niche. That’s why I spent a long time looking at the market.
What I’m noticing is the way caregivers are feeling about what studios are doing. They’ve started to really get away from anyone under six or seven and they’re targeting their films to older kids. But then they’re taking the ancillary merchandise and targeting it to younger kids. I started looking at it and asking, “Why are we ignoring the younger kids?” I’ve amassed a fortune by being successful in the pre-school marketplace. I know those kids. I know three and four year olds as well as anybody else in America does, maybe anywhere around the globe.
- Q: I know that your background includes children’s hits like “Teletubbies” and “Thomas the Tank Engine.” Tell me a little about how you got into that business.
- A: You know, I used to work in the garment industry (in New York) and buy clothes and design clothes for young girls, women and juniors. I really didn’t like working in the garment industry (because) it lacked a certain professionalism. It also wasn’t something I was interested in doing long-term. I got a call one day about a TV series that Ringo Starr was in and Didi Conn (who played Frenchy in “Grease”). It was for young kids. I really had no real interest in getting involved in anything with young kids, but I thought about it and, you know, “It’s television and that sounds exciting to me.”
Everyone I know thinks that they’re a producer and they have an idea for a TV show. So I’m no different from them except I did a TV show. So I started working as the head of marketing for this brand, which eventually became “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.” Business was doing very poorly when I got there. In retrospect, I feel that I was hired as a scapegoat so the Brits could go back to the UK and then blame the American when it didn’t work. But with a great deal of effort and sweat equity (it worked).
Forbes Magazine wrote two years later from when I got there that we went from doing negative, I think, $70,000 in business to something like $750 million retail. I started there in 1990 and was there until 1995. But it was the first two years that we had this major, major turnaround. I started looking at the brand a lot differently than the company, itself, was. I really tried to understand what makes young children tick and what makes their caregivers want to purchase something. I’m curious that way, and analyzing it, putting a plan in place and then seeing it succeed was a fascinating thing for me.
Most New Yorkers have a reputation for being very driven and very focused. I really was focused on, very honestly, working in television and making a lot of money and having a good time. One day I got a phone call. It was just a fluke that the call came to my office directly. I picked it up and it was a mother who had a son who was autistic. He was six years old and had never spoken. Somehow, he was in a catatonic state most of the day. But when “Shining Time Station,” the show that featured Thomas the Tank Engine (and on which Ringo Starr played Mr. Conductor for 20 episodes, after which he left the show and was replaced by George Carlin), came on, her son stopped shaking and he would just stare at the screen.
And the mother immediately recognized that there was some connection that he had experienced. So she asked me if we had any Thomas products at all. I said I’d look into it. We went to the stockroom and there really wasn’t any products. There was a T-shirt that had been over-dyed and a couple die cast engines, just a couple of things. So I had my assistant send it away to this child and never thought about it again. About three weeks later I’m in the middle of a meeting and I’m opening my mail and I see there’s a letter and a Polaroid drops out of it. I pick it up and there’s a young boy wearing that T-shirt. So I make the connection, but didn’t really think about it any more than that.
In the letter, the mother writes that I changed her life. The moment that the package came, she said to her son, “There’s a package for you.” Of course, he was in a catatonic state and not really paying attention. She opened the box and pulled the T-shirt out and the son looks at it and stops shaking. He looks at his mother and says, “choo choo.” It’s the first words that he had ever spoken to her. He put the T-shirt on and wore it for six straight days. She had to bathe him in it — she couldn’t get him to take it off.
Somehow that moment changed my life more than it changed theirs because I realized the power of children’s entertainment. I realized how we can change lives through entertainment and through speaking to kids in an open and honest way.
I don’t have children, but somehow or other I went from the guy who used to tell kids to shut up in movie theatres and tell parents to keep their kids quiet on an airplane to being the guy who carries toys and coloring sheets in my bag to give kids something that entertains them. I didn’t set out to be an advocate for kids. It wasn’t something I was particularly interested in, but it’s become a responsibility that I take in the same way that I think that any actor or sports personality should take — when you have a platform you should try to do good with it.
- Q: Tell me a little about “Teletubbies.”
- A: What happened was that after the success of “Thomas the Tank Engine,” I ended up opening my own company. I didn’t intend to open my own company. I left “Thomas the Tank Engine.” I went to Europe with a friend of mine and by the time I came back I was representing what I think are some of the greatest children’s properties of all time (from) really great European programming.
The people who made (the children’s series) “Tots TV” were a company called Ragdoll. Anne Wood handed the company and Anne and (her creative partner in the company) Andy Davenport were working on a new series. I was very intrigued with them, and they with me. The next thing I knew I owned the rights to the “Teletubbies” in the Western Hemisphere and my company was producing the series in association with Ragdoll for the whole Western Hemisphere.
I was responsible for the marketing plan for the brand worldwide and took this very, very unknown and very, very skeptical project and helped turn it into something extraordinary. That said though, if the project hadn’t been extraordinary, I couldn’t have made it extraordinary. Anne and Andy did something brilliant and I just had the opportunity to expose it to everyone. That was in 1996 or '97.
Then I had the pleasure of acquiring the rights to “Eloise” and helping relaunch her. “Noddy” is one of the biggest children’s characters in history and I was able to launch it in America. I had some real fun and then I got to create some of my own programming that actually beat its time slot (as) the number one kids show on the network. That was very exciting for me.
- Q: Let’s come back to your latest project. Tell me how “Oogieloves” came to the screen?
- A: When Anne and I were working together on “Teletubbies,” Anne controlled all the content on the screen. I was in charge of everything off the screen. Brad Krevoy, a super producer who’s made a ton of movies (including “Dumb & Dumber” and “Beverly Hills Ninja”), wanted to make a “Teletubbies” feature film. He offered us a lot of money to make (it) and Anne turned it down, saying that young children don’t go to the movies.
I argued it and argued it, but in the end it was Anne’s decision to make and not mine. But the idea of why young children don’t go to the movies — which Anne believed to be true — was the first thing I needed to try to sort out. And then why don’t we make something that young children can go see in a movie was the thing that became my obsession. Ninety-two percent of all children in America watch at least an hour of screen time a day from the age of two and up. Young children go the movies in droves in this country.
But the content that they’re going to see isn’t really age appropriate for them. We ask young kids to go to the movies and be young adults. We ask them to sit there and eat their popcorn, drink their soda and not talk. But that’s not what a child does naturally. And so literally for 10 years I obsessively deconstructed the moviegoing experience from every angle I could think of.
I had retired basically. My Mum and I were traveling the world together. One day my Mum said to me, “Kenny you’re too young to retire and too old to not work. You should go do something.” In the way that only life can do, I got a phone call from an old friend (saying) that someone was trying to contact me. I had basically really removed myself off the grid, it was quite difficult to locate me. Turns out these people had a project and they were desperate to find me to see if I would help them with it. When I looked at it, I immediately knew I could make this movie and it was one that I wanted to be a part of.
I needed very specific kinds of characters to do it and I needed to be able to have the autonomy to make the choices that I needed to get it done. So they were incredibly agreeable and they basically gave me all the range that I needed to make what is now the world’s first interactive film. It’s designed in a way that would be all inclusive so instead of being exclusive to an age group or to a demographic, it’s as wide a film as you can possibly make. And in the way that the Blueman Group or the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” have become an interactive experience, “The Oogieloves in the BIG Balloon Adventure” is what I hope to be the first of at least three “Oogieloves” films in this franchise.
- Q: When you say “interactive,” we tend to think of the Internet. What does that mean in the context of a movie theatre?
- A: We use the word interactive because it’s hard to find a way to tell people that they’re going to have an active versus a passive viewing experience. Right now, people do look at the word interactive and they think, “Oh, I have to bring my iPhone with me.”
What we did is we’ve created both auditory and visual cues that tell the audience when and how to participate. Before the movie starts we give you the pre-show and that tells you how the movie works. So you know that when the butterflies go across the screen it’s time to stand up and when the turtles go across the screen it’s time to sit down. There are lots of things that happen and the way the movie’s shot the Oogieloves treat you as though you were the fourth Oogielove. Sometimes when they’re talking, they’re looking directly at you and the younger you are the more you believe they’re looking at you. They often ask for your help. They break the “fourth wall” down.
We’ve created what’s truly interactive, but on so many different levels. While the butterflies are coming across the screen, the youngest child who is a pre-reader knows what that means. The older child, who is school grade, can read the words and interact in that regard. But something very unexpected happens in another form of interactivity where the very young child ends up sitting next to the mother or father or whoever the caregiver is and the caregiver actually ends up reading the words to the child as though it’s a storybook that’s come to life. It’s created the most fantastic bonding experience that we didn’t anticipate. We knew that we were going to allow a caregiver into the child’s world, but we didn’t really once we got there anticipate the amount of bonding that happens within the experience.
- Q: Clearly, you’ve tested the movie so you know how it’s working.
- A: We’ve tested bits and pieces and we’ve tested the whole film — New York, L.A., Minneapolis, Detroit. We were in Tel Aviv. We tested it there. We tested it in Scotland. We’ve tested it in quite a few places now and the reaction is remarkably similar in every case. At the movie theatre, there’s always one father that falls asleep. The hardest part for me was that I wanted every child to get up at every cue. My ego as a creator wanted to see that and, it just doesn’t always happen.
What does happen is that different kids get up at different cues, different kids respond at their own pace. It’s not about age. It’s not about whether it’s a boy or a girl. It’s just different children respond differently. Kids who’ve seen the movie two or three times respond more than kids who saw it for the first time. But (one of our marketing people said to me), “If they’re getting up five or six times in a movie, if they’re screaming and yelling at the screen two or three times, you’ve still created the most interactive movie ever made.”
I didn’t want to force interactivity on people. I wanted to give them the opportunity to be able interact. So now a young child doesn’t feel the necessity to sit there and be quiet or not be able to move. They have a much, much greater experience because now the characters are literally talking to them and they get to talk back to the characters in the same experience.
- Q: What were some of the challenges you faced in production?
- A: We were blessed with two things. One, the movie qualified for the Michigan production incentive. So that was really helpful. It meant that we could stretch our dollar an extra 40 cents or so. It allowed me to put more on the screen than I would have had if I’d shot it someplace else.
The other thing is that I had Matthew Diamond as the director of this film and Matthew and I got along and continue to get along in such an extraordinary way. It’s not that I’m a control freak — (laughing) although I’m sure that some people will say that I am — it was more that I have a vision and that this project has been a passion of mine for years. I needed a director who understood children. Matthew did because he directed the original “Shining Town Station” episode.
I needed someone who understood dance and Matthew got nominated for an Academy Award ® for dance (in 1999 for best documentary feature for “Dancemaker”). I needed someone who understood drama and who understood pacing. Matthew does. He’s directed (11 episodes of) “So You Think You Can Dance,” as well as, “Desperate Housewives,” and “Ugly Betty,” among other shows.
Matthew could do drama without having to have a bad guy — and there was no bad guy in this movie very, very deliberately. I wanted something that felt like a family unit. I wanted them to stay intact from the beginning to the end of the film. I wanted them to be open and honest with each other. And I wanted to be able to create a pace that was very deliberate, but allowed the youngest child to keep up with the action, but didn’t bore the adults at the same time. The challenge of this film was finding Matthew, but once I did and once Matthew was there with me that part was fantastic.
With that said, if “Bound” and “Determined” were not my middle names, this film would not exist. We faced some tremendous obstacles along the way here. But none of it matters and none of it feels so big at this point because the film got made.
- Q: How long did you shoot?
- A: Pre-production was about 12 weeks. The initial shooting was five weeks. We ADR’d the entire film so that went on for several weeks. And then we had a lot of animation to put into the film. So after the production was done we had weeks and weeks and weeks of post-production. It might be as much as six months of post-production work.
- Q: You’re ready now to bring the film into the marketplace on August 29. Why did you choose to go out at the very end of the summer?
- A: I don’t want the film to get lost. You try to put an independent film up against any of these blockbusters that are opening in the summer and you’re going to get lost. I could have done something clever with counter-programming, but I want to be the number one movie of the weekend. I would love that for the kids. I’d love that for my team. I’d love that for a whole lot of reasons. We looked at every weekend. We looked at everything that was happening. And we felt that if we tried to compete at the beginning (of the summer) we’ll compete with a whole slew of movies that are out.
If you look at what “Lorax” did by not having any competition and coming out before the summer started and before Easter, their (marketing) money went a lot further. They had no competition and they basically cleaned up beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. For us, I think there’s a real (misunderstanding) about Labor Day weekend. Most people are still living in a place in their heads (thinking) that kids don’t go back to school until the Tuesday after Labor Day. Yet 65 percent of children in America are in school two weeks before Labor Day.
So we looked at it saying, it’s still summer, it’s still beautiful (weather). For the kids that aren’t in school, what do they have to do? What are young kids doing while their older siblings are in school? We looked at the idea that people use Labor Day weekend (as something to plan for, asking), “What are you doing on Labor Day?” And I want them to say, “We’re going to see the 'Oogieloves.'” And after Labor Day, when the soccer moms are taking their kids to school and (their friends ask), “What did you do Labor Day weekend?” I want them to say, “We went to 'The Oogieloves in the BIG Balloon Adventure.'”
I wanted to create an event because for caregivers who have children, most of them will get out of work early Friday. They’ll have kids Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday and what are they going to do with them? They’re going to go to a barbecue one of those days and then what? So it gives them an event and that’s what we were looking for with “The Oogieloves” — to be an event. It’s not like any other movie that’s ever been made and I wanted it to feel like something special.
The movie has the potential to do something special. The idea that you can really allow a family who can’t afford to go see Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus in concert, who can’t afford Disney On Ice — I wanted parents to be able to take their kids into a theatre and have an event with them and do something very exciting. So the mission for me (was clear) because I know what caregivers want. All a caregiver really wants to do is to know that their child is happy. The idea that they can be happy, too, is sometimes secondary — “Oh, I’ve got to suck it up and go take my kids to this movie that I don’t really want to go to.”
You look at the film and you see how we cast it. We turned down A-List celebrities, which nobody in their right mind would do. I wanted the best character actors in the world and I believe we have some of them in this film. It will be fun for an adult to see it. I told you we did some exit polling from the screenings that we did and it’s universally the same. We placed the actors in a certain order to keep the kids interested, but we did it to keep the caregivers interested at the same time.
- Q: Looking ahead, do you have titles yet for the next two episodes in the franchise?
- A: I do. The next title is “The Oogieloves in the BIG Family Adventure.” One of the nice things about producing and distributing a film yourself is that you have a lot of flexibility there. I don’t have to feed it into some studio’s schedule or calendar. Ideally, I’d like the movie to come out maybe next Labor Day weekend or next fall. It all depends on production and how smoothly it goes. And then the same thing would happen for the following film — “The Oogieloves in the BIG Holiday Adventure.”
- Q: Sounds like you could wind up owning Labor Day weekend for years to come!
- A: That would be great!
- Q: Just finally, can you tell us a little about the extensions of the movie in terms of ancillary products?
- A: I believe that caregivers today grew up with merchandise as part of their experience. So they go to stores looking for the merchandise. And I won’t disappoint them. We won’t put out a lot of product, but there is a really fantastic plush toy that we’re making that will be in the toy stores. And there’s a slew of bed and bath products that we’re also making that will be in drugstores and supermarkets. We’re doing that because it helps us to do some of the promotional stuff that we’re doing (in terms of) how we’re reaching moms and children. So there are some very specific products.
I’m quite happy with that so I can extend the fun off the screen into kids’ lives. It’s a very weird thing for someone who makes things for a screen — whether it’s TV shows or film — but I would love once the show is over that kids then got on their bicycles and went for a ride or did something physical. We have a lot of sedentary kids and we need to find ways to extend the viewing span and get kids to be up and active or make the viewing experience active in the first place.