Washington software company parlays original characters into TV deal

The stars of the children’s CD-ROMs created by Humongous Entertainment might seem nonthreatening — an animated car, a sleuthing fish and a boy who fights a fear of the dark, for example — but the success of Humongous itself is making the multimedia industry take notice.

Founded in 1992 as a bootstrap operation by Shelley Day and Ron Gilbert, the Woodinville, Wash.-based interactive company has earned a shelf of international awards for titles featuring characters like “Putt-Putt,” “Freddi Fish” and “Pajama Sam,” and last year commanded $76 million to become a subsidiary of GT Interactive Software. With sales topping 3 million units, Humongous successfully competes with giants Broderbund, Living Books and Microsoft, and its characters now are poised to do something only Broderbund’s “Carmen Sandiego” franchise has done before — make the leap from an interactive CD-ROM medium to the television screen.

Through a recently signed agreement with Lancit Media Entertainment, the Emmy-winning producer of “Reading Rainbow” and “Puzzle Place,” Humongous characters soon will star in an anthology-style series in the “Looney Tunes” tradition. Supporting this extension of the Humongous brand, Lancit subsidiary Strategy Licensing will handle related books, clothing, toys and other products. And yes, “Pajama Sam” pajamas soon will be available.

Having CD-ROM characters “graduate” to television is still a rare event, but Lancit chairman and CEO Susan Solomon notes, “The Humongous characters are beloved, and with the added exposure of television behind them, they’re set to become some of the most popular children’s characters ever.”

Planning ahead

While that remains to be seen, it has been the goal of Humongous Entertainment since day one, according to the company’s founders. Noting that Humongous always anticipated expanding into mass media, co-founder Ron Gilbert says all you have to do is “look at the name of the company. It’s not Humongous Software, it’s Humongous Entertainment. When we started, we knew we wanted it to be more than a software company — not in the sense that we wanted to make television shows or produce movies, but we wanted people’s perception of what we gave them to be not a software program, but a broad entertainment experience.”

While Humongous welcomes the wide exposure that TV will bring its characters, company animators are hardly letting the opportunity go to their heads. Even though the animation on Humongous CD-ROMs compares favorably with TV toons, the company has no plans to enlarge its 200-member staff to animate the show itself, preferring instead to co-develop ideas with Lancit and let TV animation specialists produce it.

“I’m a game designer,” asserts Gilbert, who also serves as the company’s creative director. “Look at all the movie studios that tried to start software companies and failed because it was not a world they understood. It was foolish for them to do that, and it would be just as foolish for us to decide we could do the show just because we know these characters. We don’t know the right people or the business, so we’ll leave that to people who do.”

Indeed, moving its characters to Hollywood was a decision that was a long time coming, according to Gilbert. He recalls, “Everyone in the world has wanted to license ‘Putt-Putt’ to make movies and we turned them all down. They were looking at it as a shot to make a quick buck, which wasn’t what we wanted to do. We just held off and didn’t do any of that stuff until we felt that the company and our group of characters were big enough, and then we spent a lot of time looking for the right partner.”

Central to that effort was Ralph Giuffre, Humongous VP of marketing & licensing and a former Disney and Time Warner exec. “We’re going slowly,” Giuffre says. “We’re building a brand that we want to be around 25 years from now. I’ve worked for companies that have done that and I know you have to be eternally vigilant and pick partners very carefully.”

Consequently, the deals Giuffre has negotiated give Humongous the degree of creative control it deems necessary. “That’s why the deal with Lancit is a co-production and co-development deal,” he explains. “I didn’t want to just license our property and say, ‘Go off and make TV shows and send us the money.’ That’s not the idea here.”

Giuffre happily admits that because of Humongous’ global following — its Web site gets more than a million hits a month, for example — “these characters are a marketing and licensing person’s dream come true. The networks and toy companies and other potential licensees understand that these are pre-sold characters. An interactive bond with them already has been created.”

Humongous’ success has proved, he adds, that “creating that interactive bond with a child first really works. Our core business will remain creation of characters and their worlds on CD-ROM first, because this is where these properties grow. It’s a long journey, so we’re pacing ourselves.” Besides, Giuffre says, going slow has its advantages: “You only get a chance to be new once,” he points out.

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