Nickelodeon's Pint-Size Profit Machine


By Ronald Grover Half of Hollywood, it seems, is drafting Oscar acceptance speeches these days. We've already had the Golden Globe Awards, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Directors' Guild ceremonies. And on Mar. 24 comes the granddaddy of them all: the Academy Awards.

One place you wouldn't expect people to be sending their tuxes to the cleaner is Nickelodeon, best known for its lineup of cartoons like Hey Arnold! and Rugrats. But the kids' channel is up for an Oscar in the new category of Best Animated Feature for its Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Never mind that the film has only a slightly better chance of winning than The Fast & the Furious hunkster Vin Diesel. At least it was nominated. And that's enough to get the folks at Nickelodeon, a unit of Viacom, smiling like a bunch of 7-year-olds with new cans of Silly String.

"When we heard, we opened up champagne and got pretty rowdy," says Pam Kaufman, Nickelodeon's senior vice-president for marketing. "For us, it was just the icing on the cake."

LOW-BUDGET BOY. The biggest prize for Nickelodeon is that it's knocking heads with Dreamworks, which made the Oscar-nominated Shrek, and Pixar and Walt Disney, which are behind the other nominated film, Monsters, Inc. With Jimmy Neutron, Nickelodeon has proved it can create a major animated film from scratch -- something pretenders like Fox, Warner Bros., MGM, and even Nickelodeon's sister company, Paramount Pictures, have tried and largely failed to accomplish in recent years.

Nickelodeon did it for a pittance compared with what Disney and Dreamworks are spending these days. Monsters, Inc., produced by Pixar's army of animators, cost more than $110 million to produce. Nickelodeon, whose team worked with off-the-shelf software in rented space in Dallas, turned out little Jimmy and his robot dog, Goddard, for around $28 million.

That may well make Jimmy Neutron one of the most profitable animated films ever made, at least in percentage terms, even though it isn't doing anywhere near the $250 million-plus that both Shrek and Monsters, Inc. generated this year. Jimmy Neutron, the story of a boy Albert Einstein with a pompadour hairstyle straight out of a Dairy Queen, has passed $80 million at the U.S. box office.

A FRANCHISE. Even more important: Jimmy is on Centrum vitamins, gift-wrapping paper, and Band-Aids. There are Jimmy Neutron action figures, a video game, books, and T-shirts. In September, Nickelodeon will premiere a weekly series that already has $100 million worth of promotional tie-ins from Quaker Oats, Embassy Suites, and Burger King.

This, as they say in Hollywood, is a franchise. Lest we get too carried away with this little-guy-vs.-behemoth tale of Nick taking on Disney et. al., it must be remembered that Jimmy Neutron came to life with the kind of marketing kick that only a major media player like Nickelodeon's parent, Viacom, could provide. The movie project came to Nickelodeon the good old-fashioned way: It was pitched in 1998 by director Steve Oedekerk, who was a hot property after directing the Jim Carrey comedy Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.

The movie concept was tweaked by the film folks at Nickelodeon, who changed the character's name from Johnny Quasar, and Viacom's media machine took over after the film was made. The result: long promos on Nick, Jimmy as a presenter on the Kids' Choice Awards show, and even shots of Jimmy and Goddard romping through some of Nick's other TV shows. There's more: a Jimmy Neutron magazine sent to Nickelodeon Magazine readers, videos of the soundtrack (with Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys) on MTV, and a two-minute commercial after Nick's big brother, CBS, aired The Rugrats Movie a month before the Jimmy Neutron release.

"KIND OF A KICK." Little wonder, then, that the film, released in late December to avoid clashing with Harry Potter and Monsters, Inc., by then had a monster profile. Still, this was the first time Nickelodeon had done more than simply take a cartoon character from its TV stable and make a movie. Nick has been making films since 1993, but, for the most part, they've been family films like the Rosie O'Donnell vehicle Harriet The Spy.

Nickelodeon did have some success with animated films, such as 1998's The Rugrats Movie that became the first non-Disney animated film to go over $100 million at the box office. Jimmy Neutron was the first animated film Nickelodeon created from scratch. "The idea was to start our own franchise," says Albie Hecht, president of film and TV entertainment for Nickelodeon. "It's kind of a kick to be there alongside Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg."

This may be as close as Nickelodeon will get. The betting among Hollywood insiders is that, of the three animated films nominated for the inaugural animated Oscar, Jimmy Neutron is a distant third. Most figure the gold statue will go to Dreamworks' Shrek, which already has won eight of the animated industry's Annie Awards, including the top prize, along with a British Academy Award for best screenplay. Shrek also has grossed more than $267 million at the box office, second only to The Lion King among animated films. And if the Big Green Guy doesn't win, others figure the Oscar will go to Monsters, Inc., which has done a none-too-shabby $252.4 million at the U.S. box office.

Of course, stranger things have happened. Remember three years back, when Shakespeare in Love won the 1998 Oscar after the two presumed front-runners, Saving Private Ryan and Life is Beautiful, split the Academy's votes? Could something similar take place this year? Maybe. But if you ask Albie Hecht and his Nickelodeon team, they've already walked off this stage with their prize. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online


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