Aardman Animations, creators of Oscar winning animated films, have taken a first step into the theme park world with the Wallace & Gromit Thrill-O-Matic ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Sean Clarke, Head of Aardman Rights, talks to Blooloop about the challenges of developing a successful brand whilst protecting rights, and discusses Aardman’s decision to extend their IP into visitor attractions.
Related: The Future of Theme Park IP? Disney App Makes Splash in China/ Angry Birds Land at Särkänniemi Adventure Park: Interview with CEO Miikka Seppälä/ Gamepocalypse or Gametopia : What Can Gamification Offer Theme Parks And Attractions?/ ‘Live Park’, World’s First 4D Avatar Theme Park, Success In Korea
Clarke has over 17 years’ experience in branded character franchise development, first as Licensing Director of Walt Disney Consumer Products before moving to Aardman in 1999. In 2008 Aardman Rights was set up as a division of Aardman Animations, with Clarke given a mandate to develop and protect the company’s IP, which has an annual retail value of around $80 million.
Clearly the landscape of IP management has changed dramatically in that time. So what in Clarke’s view are the major challenges?
From a consumer’s standpoint Clarke points out that there are now so many more ways of enjoying content and also a ‘free to view’ expectation from the YouTube generation. This can be incredibly challenging for producers like Aardman when arranging financing for new projects. Traditionally producers would look to sell a film or series to a broadcaster with additional income from DVD and ancillary rights. However, the explosion in the number of channels and volume of content means that the price has been driven down. In addition DVD sales are declining rapidly and retailers are unwilling to take a risk on merchandise for a new brand.
“There are a lot more challenges and probably if you’re launching a new IP you have to be really committed and be in your fourth or fifth season before you start to see it get some traction.”
Games and apps are also becoming increasingly important as a source of content. Aardman have developed digital applications for both Shaun the Sheep and Wallace & Gromit, however, Clarke explains that these are used as marketing tools rather than revenue generators.
“The digital space is becoming more and more important with games and those games then themselves becoming series content. For example Annoying Orange started on YouTube and then became a TV series on Cartoon Network. So it’s a very different place and we just have to adapt accordingly.”
Developing worldwide brands necessarily entails a greater degree of protection of IP. Clarke says the challenge is to judge at what point to register trademarks, a process that can cost over £100, 000. “You have to really sit down and plan at what point you do it. You have to measure when you start to see a territory taking off and then register the trademark in those territories. If you leave it too late then somebody else will register and then you’ve got to battle to prove that you should have the trademark back.”
Aardman Rights have recently acquired third party representation for Walker Books’ ‘Tilly and Friends’ (TV rights) and ‘Small Potatoes’ for Little Airplane (Merchandise rights). Is this a change in direction for Aardman?
Clarke says, “What we’re very good at is building brands; we’ve done it with Shaun and with Wallace & Gromit, so when we have a gap in terms of our own slate we look to distribute on behalf of third parties. That might be distributing and managing all of the rights or it might be that we just sell the television rights.
“But I would say that we’re more boutique in that we’re specialised in a number of small portfolio projects rather than one of the big distributors.”
Any acquired IP has to be a good fit with Aardman. “There’s an expectation of Aardman in terms of quality, not that any of this third party content will be branded Aardman, but on a business to business level we want people to feel that it’s different and that it’s special.”
Wallace & Gromit
Wallace & Gromit, the story of a cheese loving inventor and his debonair dog, was created by Aardman Director Nick Park. The Oscar nominated ‘A Grand Day Out’, was Park’s graduation project from the National Film and Television School. Wallace & Gromit have since appeared in another four films and Park has won four Oscars. Although Aardman have produced Wallace & Gromit live events such as a touring science exhibition and a live musical show, theThrill-O-Matic ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach is their first venture into theme parks.
Clarke explains, “We don’t make that many films so when we do it’s a big event. They’re quite expensive to make and Nick [Park] spends a lot of time making sure that they exceed everybody’s expectations. On average we do a half hour [animated feature film] unbelievably only every four or five years, so we’re always looking for a new ways of extending the brand and keeping it relevant and alive.”
Making the transition to theme park rides and in particular to Blackpool Pleasure Beach has turned out to be relatively painless and a natural fit. Clarke explains that, “to be honest it just felt right. If Wallace & Gromit were going to go anywhere with an attraction it would be Blackpool. It fits really well, and if you have keen eyes at the beginning of the ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ movie they pan over one of the walls in the house and there’s various pictures depicting things that they’ve done over the years and one of them is them on a roller coaster with Blackpool Tower behind them!”
The decision to place northerner Wallace in Blackpool is something that creator Nick Park is particularly pleased with. “The great thing about it is that Nick was born in Preston and he has a lot of roots and friends and family and contacts in that part of the world so he’s really excited about the whole thing.”
Clarke says that Blackpool have been “a brilliant partner”, allowing Aardman freedom to develop the brand for the ride. “Clearly when we enter into this type of arrangement as we do with a lot of other partnerships we want to find that middle ground – they know what makes a ride and we know what is enjoyed about Wallace & Gromit and that’s worked very well.”
Thrill-O-Matic is to replace the Pleasure Beach’s Gold Mine ride. The £5.25 million ride will take visitors on a whirlwind journey through many of the best known scenes from ‘A Grand Day Out’, ‘The Wrong Trousers’, ‘A Close Shave’ and ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’.
A major challenge for the project has been to translate the unique humour and much loved characters from the films into an attraction.
“It’s the first time we’ve taken the characters to a much bigger scale, ” says Clarke. “We’ve worked through every scene even down to approving the music and the look and feel, trying to make sure that there’s plenty of those second and third look gags that you always see in the films and enjoy. Hopefully there’ll be a lot of fun and laughter on the way.
“A lot in the ride is done with sound; we’ve done a lot of recording with bespoke phrases and because it’s inside and a lot darker there are some more subtle gags. Also we’re having a lot of fun in the queue line in terms of different posters and things that we’re looking to create.”
Creating a theme park ride has also allowed Aardman to expand their merchandise range. The shop will stock a full range of Aardman branded products, the only place aside from their website to do so. Clarke is keen to incorporate the traditional “kiss me quick” image of Blackpool and some trademark Aardman humour into the new ranges. “I think that a lot of people who are visiting will want that expressed in the products that they’re buying and were having a lot of fun with it.”
An advantage of developing an established IP is the ready-made fan base. Aardman already actively engage with the fans of their most popular brands via social media; Shaun the Sheep and Wallace & Gromit have three million Facebook fans. Blackpool will be looking to talk to that fan base as well as ride enthusiasts ahead of the official launch on April 24th.
Future Theme Park Projects
The Thrill-O-Matic experience has encouraged Aardman to consider further collaborations with theme parks. Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep brand has been even more successful globally than Wallace & Gromit, with the television series in 170 countries and various touring stage shows. Both Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep are ideally suited for adaptation to family orientated rides, and Clarke has been looking at these options as well as looking at concepts for simulator rides.
Clarke says, “I am exploring, particularly in Asia, doing some theme parks projects with Shaun the Sheep.
“We put a toe in the water with Blackpool and found it really interesting. There’s no reason why we can’t take all our creative expertise and marry it with the right people all over the world.
“We’re always keen to explore different ways of people engaging with the brand. It doesn’t always have to be the animation, although the animation will always be hopefully be the purest way that you can enjoy it.”
Images: Courtesy Aardman Animations and Blackpool Pleasure Beach