As kids growing up in the 1980s, Jeff Norton and Michelle Crames loved navigating the world of tigers, exotic valleys and fantasy realms that came alive in the pages of the popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s books.
Now, as young adult entrepreneurs, Norton and Crames have chosen their own business adventure. The two are turning their Harvard Business School project into an interactive DVD version of the book series, mixing elements of video games, paperback narrative and Saturday morning cartoons.
With a distribution deal set to become final today with a distributor of family DVDs, Norton, 31, and Crames, 30, are hoping to persuade a new generation to test the adventuresome waters, using a remote control in place of a bookmark. First up is “The Abominable Snowman,” a film aimed at children ages 6 to 11 that allows users to guide what happens by registering their choices on their DVD player.
Like the books, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” DVDs start with a set introduction. In “The Abominable Snowman” three siblings set out to find their uncle trekking in the Himalayas. But when their plane sputters out of gas, the screen prompts a choice, asking the viewer to choose whether to crash land in the plane or parachute into the unknown. Each choice begins a different adventure. Can’t decide? The DVD will do it for you.
“Kids have no sense of choice and control, and with ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ we are trying to give a 5- or 6-year-old a choice in their life,” said Norton, who added that test marketing showed that children responded to the technology. “They wanted to exhaust the content, to watch every branch and permutation to see what happens to their characters.”
Norton and Crames founded their business, Lean Forward Media, in spring 2003 while taking a management class at Harvard. The two friends aspired to work in entertainment, holding down jobs as Hollywood interns during school breaks.
Working on a class project, Norton and Crames cooked up the idea of making the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series into a line of family-friendly DVDs. Both crazy about the books in their youth, the two researched and wrote a business plan.
They found that younger children who had yet to embrace video games repeatedly watched movies they liked. There was a perfect opportunity, thought the two entrepreneurs, to offer a movie with a different story each time it was viewed.
“It’s not a video game, it’s not about thumb twitching and killing things,” said Crames. “It’s a movie that makes children engage and decide. It lets kids see what happens based on making decisions. You are really controlling how the story unfolds.”
They also capitalized on the nostalgia of their contemporaries. About 75% of parents ages 25 to 35 whom they surveyed knew the “Choose Your Own Adventure” brand. And 48.7% listed the series as one of their childhood favorites -- even outranking books by popular adolescent-book author Judy Blume.
But they needed the rights to produce the stories, which has 180 titles in print and has sold more than 250 million copies. Norton and Crames set out to track down the mysterious name they had seen emblazoned on their paperbacks -- R.A. Montgomery.
“We were in Vermont. It was late March, 5:30 in the evening, and the phone rings,” recalled Ray Montgomery, who answered to find Norton and Crames on the other line.
They described their business plan. Taken by their youthful enthusiasm, Montgomery, who had been approached numerous times over the years, had one question.
“I asked if they had any experience in the field -- they said no and I said, ‘Great, that’s what we are looking for,” he said.
Norton and Crames hopped into a car and drove three hours to dine with Montgomery and his wife, Shannon Gilligan, who penned 14 of the books. By dinner’s end they had worked out a partnership plan, giving the Harvard students the home entertainment rights to all the books in exchange for a minority stake in the nascent business.
Norton and Crames graduated from Harvard in June 2003, packed up their plans and diplomas and set out for Hollywood.
By the end of that year, Lean Forward Media had raised about $200,000 to put together a beta version of the film to see whether the technology worked as hoped. Through a friend of a friend, said Norton, they were able to secure voice work from “Party of Five” actress Lacey Chabert and actor William H. Macy.
With their sample product in hand, Lean Forward Media set out to get the money needed to make a full-length animation film. In spring 2004, the pair’s proposal won $500,000 at the Venture Bowl, a nationwide business plan competition sponsored by Carrot Capital Venture Funds, a Manhattan-based venture capital firm.
A year after graduation, the partners had raised more than $2 million to fund their project. Production started that fall in an animation studio in Woodland Hills, which outsourced the hand-drawn animation to India.
The two also secured recognizable stars -- including “Malcolm in the Middle” star Frankie Muniz and “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman -- to voice the main characters. Muniz and Macy took executive producer credits on the film in exchange for their work.
After wrapping production of the “Abominable Snowman,” Norton and Crames negotiated their distribution pact with Gold Hil Entertainment, an independent company that supplies the “Little House on the Prairie” series to retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Blockbuster Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. The DVD is set to be released in late July, in tandem with a promotion that will put images from the film on Life cereal boxes.
“It helps us establish a big new exciting type of product on the DVD shelf, which is the interactive products,” said Gold Hil Chief Executive Mark Curcio, a former co-CEO of Artisan Entertainment. “Instead of sitting on a software shelf, it sits with the DVDs. This product is perfectly suited to interactivity -- the book was manual, and this is digital.”