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A Boy and His Franchise

Turning the usual process on its head, the makers of 'Jimmy Neutron' have found a way to hook kids on the toon before the movie or show appears.

November 11, 2001|MICHAEL MALLORY | Michael Mallory is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Amid all the hoopla this year over the commercially cuddly boogeymen of Disney-Pixar's "Monsters, Inc." and DreamWorks-PDI's "Shrek," there's been a cute little guy flying under the radar. His name? Jimmy Neutron. If you don't know who he is, just ask any kid, because he's probably no stranger to them.

The computer-generated star of Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies' upcoming animated feature film "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" might be unfamiliar to many adults. But the grade-school rocket scientist with the dipped-cone Tastee-Freez hairdo and robot dog seems to be everywhere kids are looking these days--on television, online, and in magazines and video games. What's more, even before the release of the feature, a spinoff television series is already in production.

The effectiveness of Paramount and Nickelodeon's marketing strategy (officially, it's called a "multi-platform franchise") was becoming clear in May, when a Q Score survey showed that Jimmy Neutron, a character with no pre-sold awareness in the traditional sense (in other words, no existing book, toy or movie character), placed within the top 25 cartoon shows on television--and there's not even a show yet. This Q poll, which is basically a twice-yearly popularity/familiarity survey conducted for marketing executives, came seven months before the Dec. 21 release date of the film, and a year and a half before the premiere of the television series.

In the Q survey, "Jimmy Neutron" even topped many shows long on the air, including the Cartoon Network's "Cow and Chicken," Disney's "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" and Fox Kids Network's "Digimon."

How has Jimmy Neutron already become so popular with kids? Very deliberately.

The creation of Texas animator John A. Davis, who created a seminal version of the character in the 1980s, Jimmy made his first appearance in 1995, under the moniker "Johnny Quasar," in a 40-second short made for a Lightwave competition at the computer graphics show SIGGRAPH. (Lightwave is software that was used to make the film.) The film took home two awards and prompted Davis and partner Ke ith Alcorn, owners of DNA Productions in Dallas, to spend time in between their commercial gigs creating a show bible for a prospective TV series.

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, performer-writer-director Steve Oedekerk, at that time hot off of "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" with Jim Carrey, and coincidentally a fan of 3-D animation, happened to see a one-frame image from the short in a computer magazine and was struck by the design. "These were the first [computer-animated] humans I'd seen that I thought were designed in a very fun, cartoony way, which at the time really wasn't being done," says Oedekerk, whose more recent writing credits include "The Nutty Professor" and "Patch Adams." "I cold-called them and started talking about what they were thinking [about a TV show], and we were very much on the same page regarding the tone."

"We didn't know who he was," Davis recalls with a chuckle, "but he kept calling and said, 'I'd love to partner with you,' and we went, 'Oh

With Oedekerk's participation and encouragement, the property was taken to Nickelodeon, where it spent the next three years moving through the network's review process. Finally, in 1998, a 13-minute pilot was commissioned. Davis and Alcorn were still thinking in terms of a series, but by then Nickelodeon had other ideas.

Nickelodeon executives "were really, really excited about it, and said, 'We definitely want to talk to you about a series, but what we really want to talk about is a feature film,"' Davis recalls. "And my jaw hit the floor, because I was trying to think of a way to introduce the notion of doing a theatrical short before the next 'Rugrats' movie."

Paramount, a sister company of Nickelodeon under the Viacom umbrella, had already scored with Nick Movies' "The Rugrats Movie" (1998) and "Rugrats in Paris--The Movie" (2000). It green-lit "Jimmy Neutron" in the fall of 1999, with Davis, Oedekerk and "Rugrats" veterans David N. Weiss and J. David Stem all contributing to the script. In February 2000, production not only began in earnest, but in a hurry. "Since we were fast-tracking this, everything had to happen really quickly," says Davis, who directed "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius." While the normal production period for animated films is about four years, "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" went from script to screen in half that time.

The film was made for less than $30 million at DNA's Dallas studio using off-the-shelf software Lightwave and Messiah. The story revolves around the efforts of the pint-sized genius, his robot dog, Goddard, and his schoolmates to save the parents of the world from a race of malignant, egg-like aliens called Yokians (Patrick Stewart and Martin Short voice the lead aliens).

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