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On the Kiddie-Go-Round

16 Feb, 2003 By: Dan Bennett

Not long ago, nontheatrical children's videos helped prop up VHS while DVD roared in other genres.

While sellthrough VHS in the kidvid market is still a vital force, DVD has raised its voice. Nielsen VideoScan data shows that kidvid DVD sales increased 77 percent during the first three quarters of 2002, compared to the same period in 2001. And that was before holiday sales numbers kicked in.

With DVD player penetration in high gear, kidvid suppliers are turning to DVD en masse. Attractive prices and lots of added-value programming have meant that DVD has at last found its way in the mighty kidvid marketplace.

Direct-to-video product is strong enough. Add the powerhouse theatrical titles and 2003 may see kidvid rock the playhouse as never before.

“Spring is always a real good time for children's product,” said Lori Macpherson, VP of marketing for Buena Vista Home Entertainment. “We're all in a strong position, with Easter falling in there, and retail making the most out of seasonal displays.”

As always, Buena Vista is jumping in with full force.

“We have everything from the Baby Einstein product, with Baby Neptune, all the way to the new Spy Kids,” Macpherson said.

Disney takes advantage of its TV awareness and releases titles with familiar brand names at opportune times, such as upcoming animated releases involving the X-Men and the Incredible Hulk, featuring the voice of Lou Ferrigno.

Along with a steady stream of direct-to-video releases, with such titles as 101 Dalmatians II: Patch's London Adventure and the Feb. 25 release of Beauty and the Beast: Belle's Magical World, Disney also regularly brings out its Sing-Along titles, such as the April 1 release of Sing-Along: With Pooh and Piglet Too!

“The Sing-Alongs have been around for a long time,” Macpherson said. “We've sold more than 30 million units on VHS, and this is the first time to DVD. It takes something already interactive and learning-based to a whole new level.”

Learning has also been part of the “Thomas the Tank Engine” series, another success story in direct-to-video DVD. The newest release, Percy's Chocolate Crunch & Other Thomas Adventures, arrives Feb. 25.

“We've had four consecutive years of double-digit growth with ‘Thomas,’ said Julie Campion, brand manager for Anchor Bay Entertainment. “DVD specifically is up 91 percent from a year ago. We do think DVD is helping us tremendously in this market.

“The brand overall enjoys strong sales from books and toys, and we put a focus on retailer-specific promotions, with multiple SKUs at one time. We've tried to help retailers create a destination with Thomas.”

That idea is supplemented with a limited-edition VHS version of Percy's Chocolate Crunch at $14.98, packaged with a Terence the Tractor toy from Learning Curve International.

“It's a great value for retailers because it comes with a train, which would be priced at $12.98 when sold alone,” Campion said.

Anchor Bay is releasing three more “Thomas” DVDs this year, with two to three expected every year in a contract that runs through 2008.

DVD also allows innovation, such as that practiced by DreamWorks Home Entertainment, first in its “revoice” features on Shrek, then with the Make-A-Movie feature on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

“It's especially relevant in the world of animation, where kids are so focused on how things work,” said Kelly Sooter, head of domestic home video for DreamWorks Home Entertainment. “It's sort of jumping off from the revoice studio concept, allowing interaction on a more personal level, playing and experimenting.

“We're looking to extend the movie experience as opposed to just adding a novelty.”

Theatrical ambitions bode well for future video sales.

“We have a very strong slate of animated movies anticipated, with two or three animated movies a year beginning in 2004,” Sooter said. “That gives us tremendous opportunity to keep exploring interactive avenues and pushing ourselves.”

Learning is at the core of yet another program, Warner Home Video's Bright Kids Initiative. Launched last year, the initiative promises four waves in 2003, including leading toddler and preschool brands such as PBS Kids' “Caillou” and “Sagwa: The Chinese Siamese Cat,” and Scholastic's “Magic School Bus.”

The studio is supporting the initiative with a yearlong national print campaign in such publications as Baby Talk and Parenting, with more than 10 million consumer impressions per month.

“It's a very assertive campaign,” said Ewa Martinoff, Warner Home Video's VP of family entertainment marketing. “These titles reach an age that goes broader than preschool and are helped tremendously by their PBS Kids presence.”

On Feb. 4, Warner will release two all-new titles in its “Baby Genius” lines: Underwater Adventures and Favorite Nursery Rhymes. The titles are produced by Genius Products Inc.

“It's part of our long-term strategy to expand to other categories within the children's video market,” Martinoff said. “These are titles that make it easier for mom to teach and explain certain subjects. We're working with numerous retailers on how to best make the titles easy for mom to find.”

Indeed, babies are a vital part of the market. For some parents, it's never too early to seek learning opportunities for their children.

Small Fry Productions, with its award-winning “Baby's First Impressions” line, has expanded the collection to DVD, available now and showcased this week at the Toy Fair in New York. The titles use cognitive learning to increase attention span, heighten curiosity and strengthen the desire to learn. Titles include Shapes, Colors, Letters, Numbers, Opposites, Animals and several others.

“The baby category was the last to be affected by DVD,” said Dennis Fedoruk, executive producer of Small Fry Productions. “But our category makes DVD extras beneficial to the diaper set. They aren't too interested in outtakes, but they find storybooks and other materials very beneficial.”

With sister company Brainy Baby also producing titles such as Left Brain/Right Brain, Small Fry is constantly developing new ideas.

“This is definitely a category that's here to stay,” said Fedoruk, a cinematographer and the father of two young children. “It's way beyond a trend. It's a category that's changing the social fabric. I'm beginning to wonder what kind of social influence this kind of education will have on children, if they will become more confident in certain subjects at an early age, allowing them to better understand some of these ideas when they enter school. What kind of character are we grooming at an early age? These are exciting concepts.”

Establishing character in kids is part of the Big Idea Productions motif, as evidenced by the longstanding success of the “VeggieTales” franchise.

“There aren't a lot of titles out there trying to teach spiritual values,” said Dan Merrell, SVP of sales and marketing for Big Idea. “Retailers know those titles sell, on the book rack and the video shelf. For successful direct-to-video [programs], you need to have good prices and configure features to satisfy the age group you seek. We're all competing for space now, so you must stay strategically competitive.”

Moving with theatrical releases also helps direct-to-video product, Merrell said.“We sold much more of our product in video stores while our movie was in theaters,” he said. “We're also looking more at longer-form product. Titles of different lengths all have their place; also, ancillary products to sell with the direct-to-video titles.

Give consumers something to latch on to, a familiar name and perhaps something extra, and they will respond.”

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