Nickelodeon Tries Again to Move to the Big Screen
New York Times
July 4, 2010
The Nickelodeon brand is finally getting the red-carpet treatment from Paramount Pictures.
Viacom has long wanted its movie studio, Paramount, to tap into the brand equity and marketing muscle of its children’s television empire, Nickelodeon. But corporate squabbling, management upheaval and more immediate needs — like jump-starting Paramount’s primary movie pipeline — have stalled the Nickelodeon effort since Brad Grey took over as studio chairman in 2005. With those fires doused, Mr. Grey and his lieutenants say they are at long last turning their attention to Nickelodeon Movies.
“I think it’s a big growth opportunity for Paramount, and we are very serious about building this label,” Mr. Grey said.
Film projects for the label are lined up like parade floats. The reboot of Nickelodeon Movies came over the weekend with “The Last Airbender,” about a boy who can control air, fire, earth and water and embarks on a quest to save the world. Johnny Depp — the biggest family star around — is the headline name for the animated “Rango,” set for release on March 4. After that is a splashy new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” produced by Michael Bay, the director of the “Transformers” movies.
Other films in development include a vehicle for Miranda Cosgrove, the star of the Nickelodeon series “iCarly,” and a family adventure built around Mattel’s Magic 8-Ball toy. The creators of “SpongeBob SquarePants” have also been approached to do another film.
“The Last Airbender,” which cost $150 million to make, is meant to be the first in a trilogy. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan and presented in 3-D, the live-action movie is based on the first season of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a hit cartoon.
A wave of critical hatred greeted the release of “The Last Airbender.” Roger Ebert called it “an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.” But the movie has earned $70.6 million at the North American box office in its first five days, according to Paramount. The movie will be released overseas in the coming weeks, and pre-release surveys indicate global audience interest is strong.
“Now that we have something, let’s keep it going,” said Cyma Zarghami, the president of Nickelodeon who also heads up MTV Networks’ Kids and Family Group. “There’s no reason this can’t be the first of many successful movies built around our television properties.”
The model is Walt Disney Studios, which has successfully moved Disney Channel programming like “Hannah Montana” to the big screen. Adam Goodman, president of the Paramount Film Group, said he wanted to stretch the Nickelodeon brand to include racier content — just as Disney did with PG-13-rated movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”
“These are going to be broad, family movies,” Mr. Goodman said. “We’re not interested in properties that are confined to just little kids.” (One example of what Paramount is trying to avoid: “The Princess and the Frog,” the Disney animated movie that fizzled at the box office in part because of cool interest from older children and adults.)
Family movies, whether live action or animated, are hotter than ever across Hollywood. They come with ancillary merchandising businesses, rarely rely on stars (who are expensive) and can be pumped full of the kind of special effects that propel people off their sofas and into theaters. To date, the top five movies of 2010 are all in the family genre, from “Alice in Wonderland” to “Toy Story 3.”
Nickelodeon, which is experiencing a ratings boom on TV, has a tortured history at the multiplex. An early effort, “The Rugrats Movie,” was box office gold in 1998 and spawned sequels. But “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” in 2004 was commercially weak. Also that year, an expensive effort, “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” failed to spawn a franchise. Suddenly, the label was all but moribund.
Behind Paramount’s renewed push is Philippe P. Dauman, Viacom’s chief executive, who has been promising Wall Street for years that the movie studio will begin aggressively mining Nickelodeon Movies (and its corollary, MTV Films).
“We’re going to create that branded image, again tie it into our promotional machine on our networks, on the Internet and elsewhere,” Mr. Dauman said at an investor conference in 2007. “And that is our creative edge.” The interdepartmental bickering that stalled the effort — a previous regime at Nickelodeon strongly resisted Paramount’s involvement — appears to have evaporated. Rising internal confidence in Paramount has helped, in particular the studio’s successful reboot of “Star Trek” and strong marketing of DreamWorks Animation films like “Kung Fu Panda.”
Rob Moore, Paramount’s vice chairman, said Ms. Zarghami and her team had been “wildly supportive” with marketing for “The Last Airbender.” One of Ms. Zarghami’s networks, Nicktoons, has been running marathons of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and the movie was interwoven with promotions for Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards. Another promotional effort was tied to “Victorious,” a successful new Nick comedy.
“Everyone has an interest in making this work,” Mr. Moore said.