The green, yellow and purple faces smiling down from a billboard over the Toys ‘R’ Us in Times Square await their moment of fame. While children may not have heard of Goobie, Zoozie and Toofie yet, a film industry newcomer hopes the characters will soon be as ubiquitous as Barbie or Elmo.
Kenn Viselman, an entrepreneur who in the 1990s handled U.S. marketing for Thomas the Tank Engine and Teletubbies, plans to introduce the Oogieloves through a film opening Aug. 29 that is produced and distributed independent of Hollywood’s big studios.
If all goes according to plan, the Oogieloves—a trio of giggling, puppetlike characters played by human actors in costumes—will become the cornerstone of a franchise comprising two more films, merchandising, a stage show and television programming.
That is, if the movie gets into theaters.
Self-distribution has historically been a difficult proposition in the U.S. Striking deals with theater chains and sales agents can be expensive and time-consuming. Because it is a relationship business, breaking in is difficult for newcomers.
Mr. Viselman acknowledges those problems. But he says the alternative—paying a high fee to a studio to distribute his film—didn’t make financial sense after getting some early estimates. Instead, he has set himself a go-for-broke goal: opening “Oogieloves” on more than 3,000 screens, a release typical of big-budget Hollywood, not do-it-yourself puppet movies.
The vast resources of big movie studios such as Sony Corp.’s Sony Pictures or Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures enable them to produce thousands of costly film prints and to blanket the country with advertising. On top of that, their steady stream of films means they have ongoing relationships with multiplexes, which translates into ready access to screens—even for films with shaky commercial prospects.
Mr. Viselman won’t learn how many screens his movie will potentially open on until roughly three weeks before the movie’s release date. That is when movie-theater circuits will have a better sense of how his film is “tracking,” or generating awareness with potential audiences, he says, and will adjust their screen allotments accordingly.
“It is a big risk,” says Mr. Viselman, 51 years old.
Even Mel Gibson, who put out his hit religious drama “The Passion of the Christ,” without a major studio, needed a distributor, Newmarket Films, to help release his film in the U.S. and Canada.
“Theater chains are extremely risk-averse nowadays and turn independent films away fairly frequently,” says T.C. Rice, a theatrical booker who has worked in the industry for over 35 years. However, he says, if a well-funded filmmaker starts talking to theater chains early enough and can convince theater owners he is committed to publicizing the film, the process gets easier.
“The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure” cost roughly $ 60 million: about $ 20 million to produce, before tax credits, and over twice that to market and distribute, according to Mr. Viselman and the movie’s other producers. The movie follows the three Oogieloves, who resemble giant Cabbage Patch dolls but with jelly bean-colored faces—as they search for five magical balloons in their hometown of Lovelyloveville. It co-stars singer Toni Braxton, Cloris Leachman and Christopher Lloyd, who play regular human characters.
Building pre-opening awareness “is crucial because we need to prove to these exhibitors over and over again that this [film] isn’t a fluke,” says Mr. Viselman.
To generate that audience awareness, Mr. Viselman has been employing the same marketing philosophy he used to introduce the Teletubbies in America: Come out with guns blazing.
He has committed to spending more than $ 10 million on television advertising. He also has bought ads on small popcorn bags, kids’ trays and small soda cups in several theater chains, along with posters and standing cardboard displays in theater lobbies. He has planned ad campaigns in malls known as “takeovers,” scheduled radio contests and stops at “mommy blogger” conventions and forged marketing partnerships with companies including Celebrations.com, an online party-planning cite.
“You either go out and blitzkrieg or you go home,” says Mr. Viselman of his marketing plan, which, like the film’s production, is independently financed and executed by Kenn Viselman Presents Inc. Mr. Viselman says a Michigan-based real-estate developer named Mike Chirco has helped raise more than $ 100 million from private equity to fund all three Oogieloves films.
Mr. Chirco declined to be interviewed.
Several of the film’s stars, including Ms. Braxton, plan to promote the film in press interviews and television appearances.
To further improve his chances with the theater chains, Mr. Viselman says he is looking to book his movie only before 7 p.m., leaving theaters free to fill evening showings with regular Hollywood-studio fare. He plans to give out a “magic glow wand” toy to all children who attend.
Mr. Viselman is unfazed by the very real possibility that his vast marketing effort will come up short at the box office.
Even if this summer’s Oogieloves film loses money, he intends to make two sequels. Preproduction has already begun on the first.
In fact, he has already started preproduction on the second film.
Mr. Viselman, who was born outside Boston, started his career in sales and marketing at Quality Family Entertainment, a licensing company, and had his first big success when he turned around a foundering effort to sell Thomas the Tank Engine toys in the U.S. The TV show was successful, but the ancillary playthings were gathering dust on shelves at Toys ‘R’ Us and other big retailers. Shifting focus to mom-and-pop retailers, he boosted Thomas-related sales to $ 200 million in 1992, from $ 2 million in 1989.
He formed Itsy Bitsy Entertainment Co. in 1995 to bring brands like the Teletubbies to the U.S. After selling a stake in his company to Handleman Co. in 1996, he had a messy split with his new owner and left the company in 2001. He has mostly been lying low since, punctuated by intermittent projects such as a toy line called Li’l Pet Hospital.
Write to Michelle Kung at email@example.com