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What's the Big Idea with Jonah?

  • Debra Akins Contributing Writer
  • 2002 24 Oct
What's the Big Idea with <i>Jonah</i>?

Three weeks into the theatrical release of Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie, which made its big screen debut on Friday, October 4, Big Idea Productions is keeping a close watch on early box office results.  The company’s first animated feature film ranked sixth on the box office chart in its first weekend, even though it opened on just 940 screens, less than half of any of the top five movies that week.  By the third weekend, Jonah expanded to 1,581 screens nationwide and tied for eighth place, earning an estimated $4.1 million.  The film has reportedly taken in a total of $16.2 million in four weeks.

The numbers are decent so far, but Big Idea founder and CEO Phil Vischer is cautiously optimistic.  “It was very exciting to see it launch and to see our fans come out on opening weekend,” he says, “but now we just need them to keep on coming.  That will be key to the movie’s continued success, because we don’t have the money of a Nickelodeon or a Disney to keep pouring more into TV spots.  Now it’s time to let word-of-mouth work.”

Big Idea and its distribution partner, Artisan Entertainment, advertised heavily on cable networks like Nickelodeon and The Cartoon Network prior to Jonah’s launch, and even ran commercial spots during some episodes of “Touched by an Angel” on CBS.  But Vischer’s television marketing budget has reached its limit, so he is relying heavily on the support of Veggie Tales fans and the Christian family audience.

“Last weekend’s box office report was strong enough that it’s pretty certain we will pass $20 million now, which is what we needed,” Vischer says.  “We won’t go into any more theaters than we are in right now.  In two weeks The Santa Clause 2 comes out, and then Harry Potter [and the Chamber of Secrets], so it’s just a matter of seeing how many of our screens we can hang onto against those films.  It would be great if we could hang on and make it through Thanksgiving, when kids are out of school.”

Changes in the Company

Vischer confirmed earlier reports that Big Idea was forced to lay off nearly 40 employees just prior to Jonah’s theatrical release, citing a “weakened retail environment” and a break in movie production schedules as reasons.

“Almost all of the major animation studios staff up and then staff down on a project-by-project basis,” Vischer says.  “I didn’t really want to do it that way because it’s not very emotionally appealing to me.  It had been my goal that all of our half-hour video sales and the other projects we sell in Christian bookstores and at mass-market retailers would be our foundation and cover our costs.  If we had a successful feature film, I thought that money would be additional funds that would just help us grow faster.  But unfortunately, the retail market has gone in the toilet, and that’s affecting everyone—even Christian bookstores.”

Mass-market retailers, according to Vischer, are changing to meet consumer demand for more feature-film DVD titles like Monsters, Inc., Lord of the Rings, Shrek and Harry Potter, leaving less shelf space for half-hour home video titles featuring characters like Barney, Elmo and the Veggie Tales.

“Business is changing,” Vischer adds.  “Our foundation was really built on these retail videos, with the films as extra gravy.  But instead, we’re having to put much more weight on Jonah—not just to be the gravy, but to be the meat and potatoes, too.”

Vischer says Big Idea “staffed up” as production on Jonah kicked into high gear.  The company had approximately 100 people working on nothing but that movie.  The original plan was to keep those staffers in place during the gap between production on Jonah and the next movie, but the lagging retail market left the company with little options.

“We realized about a month ago that it was just going to be impossible to hold that whole team together across that six-month gap, and it was really depressing,” Vischer shares.  “There was no way to keep an entire feature animation crew permanently, so we had to change our model a little bit and focus down to a core team of around 70 or so.”

Employees in other parts of the company were also affected by the staff cuts, Vischer confirmed.  “There were other areas of the company in which we realized we were going to need to be a little bit smaller going forward.  We had to do this as a result of wanting to be around long enough to accomplish our mission.”

A Mission to Accomplish

That Big Idea “mission,” according to Vischer, is to “return a biblical world view into pop culture and the mainstream America discussion of values.”  It’s a mission the company hopes to accomplish through a continued presence in the animated home video market, but also with an increasing presence in the Hollywood-driven feature film industry.

“Ultimately, the goal for us with Jonah is for there to be another one, and then another after that,” says Vischer.  “We don’t want to just make a movie and then sit around for the rest of our lives congratulating ourselves for making a movie.  We’re actually building a film business that can continually produce and release movies with biblical values and a biblical world view.  We feel like we’re serving parents who are trying to pass on biblical values to their kids, and if we can use our grassroots communication techniques—the Internet, Christian radio, Christian bookstores and churches—then we think we can make successful films.  The role of the Christian audience here is huge.  You can’t underestimate it.  Without the following of our core fans and their enthusiasm, we couldn’t even attempt to make major motion pictures.”

While Big Idea is already in pre-production for its next feature film, The Bob and Larry Movie, that movie’s future may in fact be dictated by the success of Jonah.  Vischer would like to put together a film fund that would ensure the company’s ability to produce several movies over a five- or six-year period.  But investors, he says, want to look at your track record.

“It’s going to be a matter of what kind of ceiling we can show with our fan base, or an audience who’s really looking for these values,” Vischer stresses.  “Because the higher we can set that bar, the more we can justify doing with our next films, and the more other people can say, ‘Hey, we want to make films like that, too.’  And Hollywood can’t ignore it.  That’s pretty exciting.”