Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Things that happened to me

1. Blades and Guns

While I was working as director on the final season of the animated TV series Street Sharks, an odd thing happened. One day Management came in and announced that the legendary Sharks were going to be booted out of their own series and replaced by an entirely new cast of alien dinosaurs.

Like all toy-driven series, Street Sharks was owned (and run) by the toy company. Publicly both studio and manufacturer belched a lot of gas about how toy shows were independently-produced entertainment, not manufacturer-dictated commercials. Everyone inside (indeed, anyone with half a brain) knew otherwise. In this case the toy company had run the latest Street Shark numbers and determined that the finheads were at the end of their long, lucrative career. The company wanted to get busy on what they hoped would be the Next Big Thing. Plugging the dinos into Street Sharks would introduce remaining Shark viewers to the new toy line, giving the rollout an extra boost it wouldn't have were the dinos simply launched cold in their own series.

The last several Street Sharks scripts were ditched and new ones quickly written. The Sharks would meet the team of good-guy alien dinosaurs (and their bad-guy alien dinosaur antagonists), then work with them for an episode or two. After that the Sharks would disappear and the dinos--as I recall their name back then was the Dino-Vengers--would have the remaining shows all to themselves. Once the change was decided upon, there was no time to mourn the Street Sharks' passing. If anything the toy company was annoyed by the transition episodes. They'd rather have dumped the Sharks immediately and got on with it.

We needed to rush out new model sheets because we had no development time. The toy company arranged for us to see their character prototypes. Our studio brass and several of us creative types drove to toy headquarters, a shiny high-rise south of Santa Monica. In a generic conference room we met with their management and chief designers. The designers, pleasant if rather intense fanboy types, proudly displayed their maquettes. These were highly-detailed resin statuettes the same size as the finished toy. The maquettes were modeled in pieces and came with removable accessories. Eventually they'd be the basis of moulds for the actual toys. The maquettes were amazing pieces, bristling with teeth, blades, spikes, guns, and every other mayhem-producing device imaginable.

After the meeting I found myself chatting with one of the toy executives, a tall youngish man who bore an uncanny resemblance to self-improvement guru Anthony Robbins. Our conversation turned to how the studio would tone down the dinos' blades and guns to meet network guidelines limiting violence in cartoons. Clearly the exec chafed at the rules. After all, the blades and guns were the toys' selling points. Then in a moment of remarkable honesty the executive said something that really creeped me out.

You know,” he said, “we advertise these things as being for 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds, but they're not our real audience. You gotta learn to like these things, and if you're 8 or 9 and aren't already playing with them you never will. But four- and five-year olds, they love this stuff [the blades and guns]. If we hook 'em when they're four, we've got them for years. They'll keep buying 'til they're practically teenagers. We can't say it directly, of course, but four- and five-year-olds, that's who we're really designing these things for.” I remember thinking the guy would make a great tobacco company executive.

Anyway, the Sharks went bye-bye and the Dino-Vengers took their place. The following season the dinos, now rechristened Extreme Dinosaurs, spun off into their own series. Alas, they were not the Next Big Thing. Many, many more maquettes have marched across the conference table since then. Some have hit the mark; most haven't. I wonder how many four-year-olds we hooked with our show. And whether their present-day incarnations--they'd be in their early twenties now--are training their own four-year-olds to love blades and guns.

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