Shabnam Rezaei, president, Big Bad Boo
One of the advantages of starting a company without being from the industry is that you have no idea what you're getting yourself into. Back in 2006, my partner Aly Jetha and I decided to produce a direct to DVD cartoon named Babak & Friends - A First Norooz. Looking back, the only thing that led us there was our complete naïveté of the industry coupled with an enthusiasm to do something good for the Iranian community.
The story was adorable. An adventure of an eight- year-old boy stuck between two cultures. Being origi- nally from Iran and having grown up in Austria, I immediately related to it and wanted to see it come to life. At the time, I worked at a large financial software company in New York, with a fancy title, a big office and 50 reports.
We decided to produce Babak with our own money, even though the creator was in LA. We worked nights and weekends. We did everything that seemed logical to set up production. When we got tight on funds, we begged, borrowed and stole from friends and family to pay for incidentals, studio time and basics. We con- vinced a few very talented individuals, including Oscar-nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo, to participate in exchange for profit shares, should the film ever make money.
Finally, we raised a small amount of funding for animation, which was the only part being out- sourced, to a company in Korea.
For a year, I flew back and forth between LA and New York. We worked out of cars, airport lounges, kitchens and garages-turned-sound-studios. I paid for lunches, cab rides and dinners for a lot of people. And soon enough, we had the show ready.
For distribution, we used every unconventional channel you can think of. We partnered with a food company that distributes pickles to Persian stores to get the DVDs to thousands of stores in the US. We put it on Amazon. We partnered with strong Iranian web- sites like PersianMirror.com and worked with Apple Theatres in the Apple Stores and a slew of museums, big and small to screen and sell DVDs.
For marketing, we contacted hundreds of student and cultural organizations and held screenings at Persian New Year events. We bartered radio and TV ads in exchange for sponsorship. We did tons of free PR and appeared on CNN, ABC and some other key news channels in the Iranian community. We went from town to town and city to city and spoke to anyone who would listen.
I remember at our first Apple event, my audience consisted of a bum who was grateful for the warm seat and another guy who was definitely there for the free Wi-Fi. But word quickly got around. By our last screen- ing, the staff had to bring in extra chairs because their Apple Theatres were at capacity.
The project met with decent success. We sold just under 20,000 DVDs. We weren’t too happy with the numbers, mostly because it did not cover our costs and distribution proved to be a big challenge. In Europe for example, most Iranian grocery stores copied the DVD in their backrooms instead of buying it from us because that’s what they do and we had no way of stopping them.
We learned a lot from the experience: how to run a production, how to creatively finance a show and how to think about new delivery channels. That first DVD also helped define our business plan. We learned there was a market for teaching culture and language through cartoons and that immigrant families in the West especially, were hungry for this type of content.
Five years later, we have a full animation studio, two completed TV series and a brand new distribution channel in oznoz.com. Most importantly, we learned that the way to money isn't always what the industry tells you it is.
In this day of barely-there licensing fees, scarce independent outfits and big budget monopolies, it’s good to think outside the box. Find alternate sources for making your show. Partner with reliable people or attach yourself to good brands. Consider doing what- ever it takes. We moved our entire studio, just to tap into Canadian tax credits. It didn’t matter because we had to get the show done.