A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation at a symposium, which was well attended (the symposium, I mean, not my presentation). Most of the presentations at the symposium were of the scholarly sort, featuring something called “research” (sp?). How mine got in there, I don’t know. Here’s what I covered, more or less.
Sometimes, when I tell people what I do, I see a faint glimmer of recognition, followed by something along the lines of, “Oh, you mean those kids movies.” Which for a long time I would follow up with something along the lines of, “Actually, I like to think of them as family movies.” But after all these years of denying it, I think it’s time for me to finally come out and say it.
We make kids’ movies.
There. I said it. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, since it seems like many people today associate the family movie classification with bland titles that don’t offend parent or child, but don’t really entertain them either.
But I remember a time when “family movie” meant something special.I spent many of my early years in Hawaii, where my parents would pile their kids into the station wagon to go to the next town over to a large, barn-like shack that served as our movie theater. For a mere 75 cents, we not only got to watch a movie; we got to watch cat-sized rodents traveling the exposed pipes overhead. I learned to watch movies with my feet up and my mouth closed.
Despite these less-than-luxurious surroundings, for two magical hours I was whisked away on fantastic adventures. There I saw such movies as “Sound of Music,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Dr. Doolittle” “Oliver,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and perhaps my favorite of all, “Mary Poppins” (I don’t exactly know how movies shape us, but some would say that I went on to marry my own “practically perfect in every way” Mary Poppinsesque English beauty, but that’s a story for another time).When I looked over at my parents, they were laughing as hard as we were. Or when it came time for Mary Poppins to fly away, leaving the Banks family flying their kite (sniff), they were wiping away a tear just like we were. These weren’t kids movies. These weren’t grown-up movies. These were just “us” movies. And we were a family. Sitting in the dark. Making a memory. Rats and all.
A fair share of those movies were created by Walt Disney. I came across a quote by Walt recently that I think speaks nicely to this issue of kids vs. grown-up movies.
“When planning a new picture, we don’t think of grown-ups, and we don’t think of children. But just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in everyone of us, that maybe the world has made us forget and that maybe our pictures can help recall.” (Steven Watts, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American way of life, First University of Missouri Press, p. 160.)I like the concept of the “unspoiled spot.” You might have a different name for it, but for purposes of this presentation I’ll abbreviate it as U.S., or “US.” I like the concept of US because I think it speaks to that thing that is universal in all of us, regardless of age, regardless of politics, regardless of what country you were born in.
US is present in both grown-ups and children, although grownups usually have to work harder to remember it. I suspect that’s because life tends to throw on us experiences that can bury our US. It takes work to keep our US from getting buried under layers of world-weary cynicism. I believe this applies even more to those who are in the media business. We try to live in a story-telling world, but most of the time we are battling the business side, which is important, but which also tends to throw a lot of dirt on our US.
Maybe that’s why, when it was my turn to be a dad, I scoured the newspaper ads looking for opportunities to go to movies as a family. Walt’s company was still making some. But it just seemed like there weren’t many options out there. There were kids’ movies, and there were grown-up movies, but they were different movies.
Where were the “us” movies?It was against this backdrop that I found myself sitting around a table at Ruby’s Diner in Pasadena with my partners, little brother Ken Agle and Aaron Edson, a budding music producer who had moved into our ward. Over a series of lunches in 2002, we brainstormed the concept that would eventually become Liken. Our hope was to create something that whole families could enjoy together. Parents, little kids and – I even occasionally allowed myself to dream – maybe even teenagers.
Over time, we pieced together the elements that we thought might work – placing them in a child’s imagination (stylized imagination sets and costumes are so much more practical/affordable than realistic sets and costumes)… making them musicals (music can communicate in ways that words alone can’t)… making it a series (so each title could build on the audience of the previous titles)… and shooting it in Utah (where there was a talent pool on both sides of the camera and lower shooting costs)… the more we fleshed out the concept, the more excited I got. Losing-sleep excited.
A Series is BornOperating from our homebase in Pasadena, and through a series of miracles, we produced our first Liken, “Nephi and Laban.” We shot most of it at the former KJZZ studios near the airport in Salt Lake City in an insanely quick four and a half days. It had a running time of less than an hour. We released it on DVD in November 2003. We designed the cover with a “1” on its spine, optimistically implying that there would be a “2” someday.
Through another series of miracles, “someday” came about 10 months later, when we released our second title, “Ammon and King Lamoni.” About the same time we decided to relocate our company (not to mention our families) from Pasadena to Provo so we could focus more on Liken.
In March 2005, we released “David and Goliath.” The morning after its premiere, we met in a hotel in downtown Salt Lake City with a Las Vegas developer, Craig Brooksby and his wife, Sonja. The Brooksbys, parents of 10, had become so disenchanted with most modern media that they kept their television under lock and key. Literally.
But they saw something they liked in Liken. They told us that they had been blessed with an abundance and felt impressed to help us make more Liken movies. The Brooksbys helped made it possible for the company to grow to such a point that over the next 20 months, we released five more Liken movies.So, in the same year we released “David,” we released “Alma and King Noah’s Court” and “The First Christmas.” Three more titles followed in 2006, “Esther and the King,” “Daniel and the Lions,” and “Samuel the Lamanite.” In all, that made a total of eight Liken DVDs. And that’s when production for Lightstone hit the pause button.
That’s because in 2006, the Las Vegas real estate market led the nation in a downturn. We no longer had means to produce titles. This led to an interesting time in our company’s history, and by interesting I mean a time that piled a whole bunch of dirt on our Unspoiled Spot. For one thing, we had to go through the painful process of downsizing. Good people who had been with us for so much of this journey. We went from a fledgling studio with various production departments to a tiny production company.
It was losing-sleep wrenching, but even so, we weren’t inclined to throw in the towel just yet. We realized we had been fairly consumed with production and less with marketing. It seemed like it would be a good time to more earnestly explore whether our four Bible titles could play in a larger market.We became members of a sizable, religious retailers association and placed full-page ads in its membership magazine. We submitted our Bible titles to the Dove organization and all four were approved and received favorable reviews, with two titles earning four doves and two receiving five doves, the highest award the organization can give.
We signed an agreement with the largest religious broadcasting network in the United States to air our four Bible titles over the next five years. We approached religious television stations, and for two seasons Liken Bible titles aired on more than 100 stations on a barter basis, where we retained half of the commercial time, which we used to promote other Liken Bible titles. Our Bible titles were licensed in foreign countries from the Philippines to Romania.Despite the increased exposure, there remains among some gatekeepers in the larger Christian community resistance to religious content, even of the ecumenical variety, with apparent ties to this community. We view our Bible series as a celebration of what many faiths share in common, little cellophane-wrapped bundles of love, if you will. But others see them differently, although their issues aren’t with the content or quality of the movies themselves, but of the faith of those involved in producing them. We continue to press forward, but progress is measured in inches. We aren’t necessarily expecting miles, but feet would be nice.
The external struggle took its toll internally as well. A constant battle to keep the cynicism level from rising and overtaking our US. Internal debates in our own heads about whether what we’re doing matters. Whether it’s good enough. Whether it’s meant to continue.
At times, my US was up to its neck in dirt and gasping for air.
Then, in 2009, something happened that threw our US a much-needed lifeline.
A Welcomed Boost
A large, home-entertainment distribution company saw something they liked in Liken. We signed a 5-year-deal with them to hopefully take our Bible titles where we’ve been unable to go. Thus far, not a lot of success on that front, but we did receive an advance that largely enabled us to produce our ninth title, “Jonah and the Great Fish,” which is slated for release in 2011.
Our approach to producing “Jonah” was new to us. Our previous modus operandi was to write it, rehearse it a time or two, shoot it and pray what we had worked in the editing room.
This time was a little different. While we were working out the details of the deal with the distribution company, a process that took months, we tried to make the delay our friend by holding a staged reading of “Jonah” with a talented cast and a good-sized audience, got feedback, then rewrote what wasn’t working. We repeated the staged reading process again the next month. Processing all the feedback was a bit brutal, but oh so helpful in the end. I was surprised by how much we revised.
But the changes didn’t stop there. We prepared Jonah as a full-fledged stage production, with five weeks of rehearsal, and a nine-night run at the SCERA. This approach allowed our actors to really get to know their characters and for more extensive choreography than we had ever been able to do in a Liken. At the end of the rehearsal period, our actors were putting on a stage production at night. But during the days, we shot various scenes of the musical portion of the production for release as a DVD. It made for some long days.
A pleasant surprise to us was how well attended the stage version of Jonah was, especially as it was a never-before-heard-of production and ran in the middle of February, not exactly the prime time of year, especially in wintry Utah, for a production aimed at a family audience. Despite that, six of the nine nights were standing room only, with people being turned away, and the other three nights, mid-week performances, were more than 90 percent sold out.
As for the movie version of Jonah, it is currently in post-production. It is a little more involved than our previous titles. For one thing, it will be our first feature-length Liken, with a running time of 1 hour 25 minutes. Also a fair amount of the movie takes place under the sea, so our special effects work is more demanding than anything we’ve ever done. And our special effects work has crept into the above sea scenes as well. We’ve poured everything we have into Jonah and have sought to raise some additional finishing funds through a fairly new means called crowd-source funding.
We launched a campaign on a website called Kickstarter. In some 40 days, more than 400 people collectively pledged thousands of dollars to back our special effects work on Jonah. As helpful as the funds were, even more meaningful to us was the support of so many. It did our US a lot of good.
We expect to complete Jonah by the end of the year. Because we missed the Christmas release window, when the bulk of our business is typically done, we’re trying once again to make time our friend by doing something else that is new to us. We’re entering it into family film, children film, and religious film festivals. How it will do, we have no idea. And what it would do for the movie if it got accepted or did well in one or more of these festivals, we don’t know that either. But for Liken to secure its future, we need to find ways to broaden its audience.
Otherwise, it’s hard to say what will become of the Liken series going forward. I wish I could say we will be regularly producing titles as long as there are scripture stories left to tell. But, like many worthwhile things, it has been a struggle every step of the way. Nothing is given easily. We’re taking each step one at a time.
At times, it can get discouraging. However, it can also be especially rewarding. Among the greatest rewards are the almost daily emails we receive from grateful parents and children. They come in still. And from all over the world.
Here’s one from a young mother:
“They help you picture so much more easily that the characters of the scriptures were real people, not just good stories. And I love that my children are able to watch something uplifting that sticks in their heads. My husband even loves them, I have seen him cry, too (but don’t tell him I told anyone).”
A teenager wrote:
“Our family of two parents and eight children has really enjoyed the Liken movies. They provide us a bonding experience. I like how you make scripture stories understandable to the younger children, and in a way that they enjoy.”
These challenging times have served as a tough schoolmaster who reminds me about things that help keep that spot as unspoiled as possible:
- Recentering my soul daily. The steps for doing so have been hammered into me since I was a Primary boy, but have never seemed more important than they are these days.
- Having a thick skin but a soft heart. Anytime you put something out there, it’s bound to attract the mean-spirited types, and we get our share, which is why a thick skin is needed. But it’s also bound to attract input you need to hear, which is where the soft heart comes in handy.
- Having a good producer. A good one is equal parts creative soul (to nurture a project and to understand how to deal with artists, delicate matters both), business wizard (to help you cut through the million US-crushing obstacles facing any project), and fearless visionary (to take a project from something that you dream about to something that actually happens). We’ve been blessed with a good producer in little bro Ken.
- Seeking out good media. There is plenty of media out there that would spoil our spots, and yes, we must seek to avoid them. But (and I recognized this might sound a little self-serving, but I do believe it) maybe what doesn’t get mentioned enough is how powerful immersing ourselves in good media can be in keeping that spot not only unspoiled, but inspired. Isn’t one of our faith’s credos seeking out that which is virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy? Perhaps a topic for another time.
Two little anecdotes I think frame up the opposing ends of the “kids’ movie” discussion for me.
The first occurred on the set of one of our shoots. We were taking a lunch break, and a crew member, a seasoned professional who had worked on many movies over the years, told me he was impressed with our script, to the point of actually being surprised. After complimenting me, he asked if I were working on anything more… and here he struggled to find the right word. He backed up to acknowledge that he appreciated what we were doing, but clearly they were kids’ movies, and he wanted to know if I would be turning my talents to anything “more weighty.”
The second incident occurred a short time later, when I was at a public screening of one of our movies. An elderly lady approached me. She said that her children had long since left home, and that she had stocked up her home movie library with all the Liken movies for her grandchildren’s visits. But then she leaned in to me and whispered that even though she knew that these were kids’ movies, she secretly watched them all the time, even when the grandchildren weren’t there.
“I guess I’m a kid at heart,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.And that’s when it clicked for me. Yes, these are kids movies. But there are a lot of kids out there. Recently I read that an author described his books as being suitable for children under the age of 102. I like that.
It doesn’t have so much to do with the age of the body. Kids, whatever their age, can somehow manage to access their unspoiled spot. Some kids are actual kid-sized, but some are parents, and some are grandparents. Some are even teenagers.
And some are trying to make more Liken movies. As one of those kids, when I think about my own kids and what they’re up against in the world today, I have to wonder if there’s anything in the entertainment business more weighty than kids’ movies.
Come to think of it, I’m honored to say it.
We make kids’ movies.