A Boy and His Franchise

Michael Mallory is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Amid all the hoopla this year over the commercially cuddly boogeymen of Disney-Pixar's "Monsters, Inc." and DreamWorks-PDI's "Shrek," there's been a cute little guy flying under the radar. His name? Jimmy Neutron. If you don't know who he is, just ask any kid, because he's probably no stranger to them.

The computer-generated star of Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies' upcoming animated feature film "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" might be unfamiliar to many adults. But the grade-school rocket scientist with the dipped-cone Tastee-Freez hairdo and robot dog seems to be everywhere kids are looking these days--on television, online, and in magazines and video games. What's more, even before the release of the feature, a spinoff television series is already in production.

The effectiveness of Paramount and Nickelodeon's marketing strategy (officially, it's called a "multi-platform franchise") was becoming clear in May, when a Q Score survey showed that Jimmy Neutron, a character with no pre-sold awareness in the traditional sense (in other words, no existing book, toy or movie character), placed within the top 25 cartoon shows on television--and there's not even a show yet. This Q poll, which is basically a twice-yearly popularity/familiarity survey conducted for marketing executives, came seven months before the Dec. 21 release date of the film, and a year and a half before the premiere of the television series.

In the Q survey, "Jimmy Neutron" even topped many shows long on the air, including the Cartoon Network's "Cow and Chicken," Disney's "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" and Fox Kids Network's "Digimon."

How has Jimmy Neutron already become so popular with kids? Very deliberately.

The creation of Texas animator John A. Davis, who created a seminal version of the character in the 1980s, Jimmy made his first appearance in 1995, under the moniker "Johnny Quasar," in a 40-second short made for a Lightwave competition at the computer graphics show SIGGRAPH. (Lightwave is software that was used to make the film.) The film took home two awards and prompted Davis and partner Ke ith Alcorn, owners of DNA Productions in Dallas, to spend time in between their commercial gigs creating a show bible for a prospective TV series.

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, performer-writer-director Steve Oedekerk, at that time hot off of "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" with Jim Carrey, and coincidentally a fan of 3-D animation, happened to see a one-frame image from the short in a computer magazine and was struck by the design. "These were the first [computer-animated] humans I'd seen that I thought were designed in a very fun, cartoony way, which at the time really wasn't being done," says Oedekerk, whose more recent writing credits include "The Nutty Professor" and "Patch Adams." "I cold-called them and started talking about what they were thinking [about a TV show], and we were very much on the same page regarding the tone."

"We didn't know who he was," Davis recalls with a chuckle, "but he kept calling and said, 'I'd love to partner with you,' and we went, 'Oh

With Oedekerk's participation and encouragement, the property was taken to Nickelodeon, where it spent the next three years moving through the network's review process. Finally, in 1998, a 13-minute pilot was commissioned. Davis and Alcorn were still thinking in terms of a series, but by then Nickelodeon had other ideas.

Nickelodeon executives "were really, really excited about it, and said, 'We definitely want to talk to you about a series, but what we really want to talk about is a feature film,"' Davis recalls. "And my jaw hit the floor, because I was trying to think of a way to introduce the notion of doing a theatrical short before the next 'Rugrats' movie."

Paramount, a sister company of Nickelodeon under the Viacom umbrella, had already scored with Nick Movies' "The Rugrats Movie" (1998) and "Rugrats in Paris--The Movie" (2000). It green-lit "Jimmy Neutron" in the fall of 1999, with Davis, Oedekerk and "Rugrats" veterans David N. Weiss and J. David Stem all contributing to the script. In February 2000, production not only began in earnest, but in a hurry. "Since we were fast-tracking this, everything had to happen really quickly," says Davis, who directed "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius." While the normal production period for animated films is about four years, "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" went from script to screen in half that time.

The film was made for less than $30 million at DNA's Dallas studio using off-the-shelf software Lightwave and Messiah. The story revolves around the efforts of the pint-sized genius, his robot dog, Goddard, and his schoolmates to save the parents of the world from a race of malignant, egg-like aliens called Yokians (Patrick Stewart and Martin Short voice the lead aliens).

While DNA has maintained a much lower profile in the world of computer-generated imagery, or CGI, than the other major digital houses working in feature animation--such as Pixar, PDI, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Industrial Light & Magic and Blue Sky--this was not the company's first national exposure. Originally a traditional 2-D animation house, it embraced digital animation in the mid-'90s and, in 1997, also in partnership with Oedekerk's O Entertainment Productions, made the first all-CG-animated primetime special, "Santa vs. the Snowman," for ABC.

Conventional industry wisdom holds that to be successful, an animated film has to be marketed to the public using "the Disney model," with a theatrical trailer appearing as much as a year before the release date, a licensing and/or publishing blitz, media cross-promotion wherever possible, and even down to such specifics as a bus-stop poster campaign with one animated character per sheet. Outside of releasing an early trailer in November 2000, Paramount and Nick jettisoned the existing model to create a new one.

"When I presented Jimmy to everybody [at Nick], I said, 'Let's treat him like a star,' so he's a star in all these media already," says Albie Hecht, president of film and TV entertainment for Nickelodeon who describes the character as "half Einstein and half Bart Simpson."

"Immediately, Paramount and [Motion Picture Group Chairman] Sherry Lansing fell in love with Jimmy, and the video game people fell in love with Jimmy, and the online people said, 'This would be a great platform for us,' so we had an immediate creative connection to him," Hecht says.

Rob Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures' Motion Picture Group, says the strategy was to first introduce Jimmy as a character and define his world, and wait until later to zero in on the story of the feature film. "We've been doing a lot of groundwork to introduce him to the Nickelodeon audience, so that they familiarize themselves with who Jimmy is, who his friends are, what makes him tick," Friedman says. "Slowly, we'll take them into what the movie is about, so by the time it opens, they'll have an idea of what it is they are going to see."

The rise of Jimmy Neutron began in February with the airing of the first of seven interstitial shorts on Nickelodeon. They were directly tied into games that could be played online at Nick's Web site. In April, Nickelodeon Magazine launched a monthly Jimmy Neutron comic, and his television presence was reinforced through his "introduction" in Nickelodeon's 14th annual Kids' Choice Awards. In July, Jimmy began appearing on Nick in commercials for Trident chewing gum.

The most unusual audience-awareness campaign was launched in September by having Jimmy pop into other Nick shows, such as "Rugrats," "SpongeBob SquarePants," and even live-action series such as "Taina," to mischievously disrupt the episodes. Using an electronic zapping device, Jimmy forces the Rugrats, for instance, to speak Spanish, turns animated "SpongeBob" into a live-action puppet for a few seconds, and flips the frame for "Taina" upside-down.

The "pranks," as the network calls them, were animated by Nick Digital and staged with the cooperation of the producers of each of the affected shows. "We talked ahead of time to the creators and producers, and they all thought it was a kick," Hecht says.

It helps that Jimmy is created in the computer, which allows the easy transfer of images for any number of uses, many times over.

"One of the things I was pitching to [Nick] was reusable assets," Oedekerk says. "Nobody was really doing it. As much as Pixar had huge success with CG, nobody was really taking a CG property and saying, 'We're going to make a movie and then use those exact same models and elements for the TV series, and if there are any TV commercials, we're going to use them for that, and anything we do on the Internet, we're going to use those exact same elements, and every time we build more elements for one area, all of the other areas will benefit."

By contrast, Disney's "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command" series, a spinoff of the computer-generated "Toy Story," is done in traditional 2-D animation. "To a small degree people have done that," Oedekerk adds, "but before 'Jimmy Neutron,' nobody sat down and said, 'We're going to plan to do all of these areas in advance."'

The reusing of assets will perhaps be most valuable for the Jimmy Neutron TV series, on which DNA is beginning production, now that the feature is completed, with barely a break. "You have the whole universe built, you have all your 3-D digital assets, so the series is going to look really close to the feature, all that production value will be retained," Davis says. "Obviously, when you go from doing an hour and a half in two years, versus six hours in a year, it's going to have to be done quicker. But we're starting with so many assets that, translated to the smaller screen, it's going to be pretty impressive looking."

A Jimmy Neutron special titled "When Pants Attack" (one of Jimmy's inventions is a system by which his pants put themselves away) is scheduled to air in April. The weekly Neutron series will launch in September--and as a point of interest, it will be the first network cartoon series in nearly two decades to be animated in the U.S., rather than sent to overseas facilities. For his part, Oedekerk is as heavily involved in the TV production as he was in the feature film.

"Right now, I'm executive producer and show runner," Oedekerk says. "I won't be able to do that forever, but I really wanted to get it on its feet in as strong a possible way, so I'll be doing a pass on every script and [sitting in on] all the voice records." Voice specialist Debi Derryberry, as Jimmy, and Mark DeCarlo and Megan Cavanagh, as his retro-sitcom-ish parents, carry over their roles from the feature to the television series. "At a point, I will need to hand the reins off to somebody else, because of my film career," Oedekerk says.

While no one can deny this strategy has certainly raised awareness of Jimmy Neutron to the level of a pre-sold, it is unlikely that it will become a standard animation marketing model. "I think it's pretty unique to Jimmy and to Nickelodeon and to Paramount," Hecht says. "There are very few other situations that you can see being this way."

The other companies that have in-house theatrical, broadcast and cable venues at their disposal--namely Disney, Fox and Warner Bros.--have so far taken advantage only of cross-promotional or advertising possibilities for their upcoming movies, rather than a unified strategy to develop a project across film and TV platforms.

Even the Viacom siblings would only do this again, Friedman says, "if we're as excited about another character that has not already come from a known property as we were with Jimmy." He concedes that Jimmy is, for the foreseeable future, unique.

But with so many platforms already covered, how much more can the Jimmy Neutron franchise expect to expand?

"I think, no pun intended," says Friedman, "the sky's the limit."

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