Company's new show based on book series
Retooled British media company Chorion may have found the ideal corporate mascot in Olivia the Pig.
Made popular in a series of children’s books, Olivia is set to become Chorion’s next major TV title when she launches in a computer-animated series on Nickelodeon and around the world early next year.
The unflappable pig’s confidence, assertiveness and willingness to reinvent herself speak to the company and its executive chairman, Waheed Alli. Well-known in the U.K. thanks to such assets as “Noddy” and the Agatha Christie estate, Chorion (whose name, pronounced corey-on, derives from a term for the membrane surrounding an embryo) is making inroads in the U.S.
Chorion turned heads with a splashy booth at Licensing Show in June and its staff of 40 in New York is upsizing from cramped, fluorescent-lit quarters on 42nd Street to the loft-style former headquarters of Tommy Hilfiger in Gotham’s Fashion District. Along with a 26-episode order of “Olivia,” it has “The Mr. Men Show” on Cartoon Network and plans for series based on books about Paddington Bear and Peter Rabbit and an original one called “Octonauts.”
Taken private in 2006 in a $250 million deal by private equity firm 3I, Chorion has grown thanks to children’s entertainment. That sector’s revenue leaped 55% in 2007, from $27 million to $42 million, and the company projects a 36% spike to $58 million in 2008.
Alli, a noted Agatha Christie acolyte (his prized possession long ago was a signed first edition of “4:50 From Paddington”), joined the board of the company in 2003. At that time, Chorion was worth about $40 million. With the value now at least 10 times that, execs are pledging to reach a $2 billion valuation by 2012.
“A bit like Olivia, no one ever told me I couldn’t,” says Alli, 43, who has blazed a unique trail across politics and media and often finds links between them. “We were able to achieve peace in Northern Ireland in the 1990s because we didn’t know any better. We were too young for the cynical bit to come through.”
A lifetime parliamentary lord and its first openly gay member (not to mention half-Hindu and half-Muslim), Alli helped steer Tony Blair’s triumphant 1997 campaign. He had also founded a TV production house at age 24, Planet 24, which created the format for “Survivor.”
A stint running content for ITV’s Carlton, which bought Planet 24, soon followed. Alli keeps a regular hand in the grown-up TV biz as an investor in Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Productions.
He got an early start learning the business world. At 16, his Guyanese father left his Trinidadian mother, forcing him into the workforce instead of college. He didn’t shrink from the task, making his way in London financial circles at an age when his peers were still stuck in the library.
“Poverty and necessity drive you into one of two places,” says Alli. “One is despair and the other is to fight and be self-sufficient. I was in a hurry. I didn’t want to be waiting in a queue.”
Compactly built and often casually dressed, Alli is the farthest thing from a beancounter. He displays wide-eyed ardor for everything from Barack Obama to “Teletubbies” creator Anne Wood to British reality show “Come Dine With Me,” which blends elements of “Trading Spaces” and “Iron Chef.”
He understands that the kid biz is a lucrative area, so Chorion has invested tens of millions of dollars in securing rights to under-exploited assets familiar to anyone who’s trolled a children’s bookstore: “The Snowman,” “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” Enid Blyton’s magic-themed stories. And Chorion still controls the estates of Christie, Raymond Chandler, George Simenon and others.
“It’s hard to know the mind of the child,” he says. “I want to go with something I like. It has to be ‘a desert island, a million dollars.’ I get that. And it isn’t easy.”
Mary Durkan, who was a managing director for Planet 24 and has the same role at Chorion, has experienced another challenge in her adjustment to a younger demo.
“When a network buys a primetime show, they pay the cost of production,” she says. “With a kids show, the license fee doesn’t come close to covering your costs so you have to make it up in other arenas.”
While “Olivia” is easily the most expensive show Chorion has done (execs peg the cost in the mid-seven-figures), some savings have come from using Irish animation outfit Brown Bag.
The key to giving the pig wings, Alli and Durkan say, is making sure she’s true to the book’s plucky character while also being likable. It’s a task that has involved Chorion’s curriculum expert Rita Weisskoff, who helped launch “Dragon Tales” while at Sesame Workshop.
“Olivia is all about ‘you can,’ ” Alli says. “You can have it all. It’s not about that slutty, Bratz-y things for girls. It’s about them being astronauts or opera singers or anything they want. This is the age when they start to have their ambitions.”