“Watch for us- we’re on the move.”
That is the mantra spoken by Jim Henson Prods, president and chief operating officer Charles Rivkin. Partners with JHP president, CEO and chairman Brian Henson, Rivkin has helped turn the company’s fortunes around since Jim Henson’s death in 1990, consolidating its position as one of the entertainment industry’s most sought-after entities.
“We’ve been through a lot together over the last five years, building this company,” Rivkin says of his relationship with Brian Henson. “We are partners, we’re co-presidents and we’re good friends.”
It’s been something of a whirlwind ride for Rivkin, who was hired by Jim Henson in 1988 as the company’s first director of strategic planning.
“I was brought in to look at how the company operated, and to suggest ways of making it more efficient,” he says. “It was something that the company had never had the luxury of time to focus on before.”
Rivkin recalls Jim Henson as “an incredible businessman. He saw the need to make the company work more efficiently.”
Henson’s sudden death in the middle of the complicated Walt Disney merger negotiations was a trial by fire. “When Brian took over as CEO, the two of us faced some enormous challenges,” he says. “We were facing a double-digit, million-dollar legal debt from our dealings with the Walt Disney Co.”
The company emerged from the failed merger as a tougher, more focused entity, one that still works creative magic while keeping an eye firmly on business. “By necessity, we have become a more professionally run company,” Rivkin says.
Almost immediately after settling with Disney, JHP set out on what Rivkin calls a two-phase plan. “Phase One was to strengthen our ancillary businesses by keeping the Muppet brand awareness alive,” he says, adding that the company achieved their goal by entering into five-year distribution agreements with market leaders such as Buena Vista Home Video, Nickelodeon and the BMG Kidz record division.
“We then used that money and time to strengthen our internal businesses, which allowed us to regroup while using other companies’ capital and distribution,” he continues.
Phase Two involved forming alliances for what JHP feels are its core businesses, television and film, most recently with Capital Cities/ABC and Sony’s Columbia TriStar division, where Jim Henson Pictures is hanging out a shingle.
“The reason those two deals allow us to grow is not only in the financing, but most importantly for the development funding,” he adds. “They give us access to the money necessary to expand our staff and bring more people into our creative community.”
The company chooses its strategic partners carefully. “We look not only at the distribution and capital, but also at the partner’s direct access to people, which is very important,” he says. “So we wanted to be involved with a network, not just a distributor, and we wanted a film distributor, not just a production company.”
The deals also put JHP firmly in control of its ancillary businesses. “We are consciously not in the distribution business, yet we are in control of our licenses – we really have the best of both worlds.”
The Disney wounds have healed as well. “We get along at every level,” Rivkin says of their current relationship. “They distribute our foreign TV and homevideo, they’re releasing our next movie (‘Muppet Treasure Island’) and now they own ABC. The troubles are really behind us all.”
Meanwhile, the future looks bright indeed. “We are in a very enviable position. Family programming is increasingly in demand not only in the U.S. but abroad.”
JHP also expects a tremendous growth in interactive businesses, and plans to increase its commitment to its online presence, as well as its music and theme park businesses.
Despite the company’s ongoing challenges, Rivkin remains as upbeat as any Henson character. “It has been just so much fun, all the opportunities that are available to us. The one problem is time,” he says with a laugh. “There just isn’t enough of it.”