Madison Road Entertainment (MRE) is moving beyond branded integration by bankrolling and producing Holidaze: The Christmas That Almost Didn’t Happen. Madison Road will begin shopping the 60-minute animation special to the networks next week.
The studio is hoping big names from Disney Channel will help build a holiday franchise. Highlighting the show’s voicing cast are tween stars Dylan and Cole Sprouse of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, as well as that show’s Brenda Song and Hannah Montana’s Emily Osment. Also voicing characters are John O’Hurley (Dancing With the Stars), Fred Savage (The Wonder Years), comedian Paul Rodriguez and singer Gladys Knight. The script was written by MRE’s Jonathan Prince (American Dreams) and Peter Murietta (Hope & Faith), with music by David Lawrence and Faye Greenberg, who wrote for Disney Channel hit High School Musical.
The story focuses on Rusty the Reindeer (Savage), Rudolph’s brother, who is searching for the meaning of Christmas with characters from other holidays, such as the Easter Bunny (Knight) and Cupid (Rodriguez).
The project marks a break with MRE’s background. Managing Partner Jak Severson says there is very little product integration in Holidaze. "This represents our first foray into traditional, true studio financing," he says. "We are using this as a platform to say we are not just about branded entertainment. It’s a total departure for us."
The profitability of the project will not depend solely on the size of a potential network license fee. MRE has a DVD distribution deal with Wal-Mart, which will have the show on shelves in November, prior to any television window.
The studio, which is behind NBC alternative series Treasure Hunters, hopes to use a December network airing followed by a cable window to drive consumers to buy the DVD. With the Peanuts franchise as a model, MRE is looking to develop a cast of characters that can spawn specials for multiple holidays. "These are very expensive to produce," says Prince. "If it’s merely for Christmas, you better be able to sell a lot of toothpaste and toys."
MRE is covering the cost of the project, which stands to be around $2 million. The DVD is expected to retail for just under $10, with MRE keeping as much as $6 of that. Severson envisions a minor loss for the first year, which he hopes will be recouped by year two of DVD sales.
But a network deal would boost DVD sales and could put the project into profitability in year one. "Since we don’t need anything specific from anybody, everything we’re looking at from broadcast or cable is to help us sell more DVDs," Severson says. "I’m open to a license fee, barter or both."
Prince hopes a fully financed project that’s well into production will be an attractive package for a network. "They don’t have to go through the development process," he says, "but they do get to give notes on scripts and production."
The economics of building a franchise may make sense to the networks, which are backing off development of one-offs, such as TV movies. "They take a lot of resources to make and a lot of resources to market," NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said at the recent Television Critics Association press tour. "I don’t know that we’ll go out of the business altogether, but we will certainly be from here on in much more selective."