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Dan Colman Creative MD Dan Colman discusses the key to crafting live experiences for curious minds.
Dan, thanks for joining us today. First up, can you tell us a little about your career path into live events?
I started my career taking our student production of Oh! What A Lovely War to the Edinburgh Fringe and was fortunate that this led directly to work as a Production Assistant in a busy West End Theatre production office.
The opportunity allowed me to set up as an Independent Producer, producing shows such as the original Slava’s SnowShow – which I took to the Edinburgh Fringe and then onto the Old Vic, London and eventually North America.
When did licensed productions enter the picture?
Well, seven years later, my first ever licensed family show was the wonderful Rosie & Jim with Ragdoll Productions. At the start of the 2000s, I moved into large scale family shows producing several UK and international arena shows including Tweenies Live, Thomas the Tank Engine, Noddy and Bob the Builder.
Later we launched the theatre versions of shows such as Noddy – Live My First Concert, Milkshake Live, Guinness World Records – Science Live, Shaun the Sheep in the Middle East, Cartoon Network, Science Museum Live on Tour and Aardman Animate it! Live. Most recently I helped the newly-formed Histrionic Productions with Percy the Parkkeeper as an outdoor immersive show.
Although the last two years have had their obvious challenges, it’s re-enforced the need and demand for shared live experiences.
Absolutely. Now, when assessing an IP for development and licensing, what are some of the key criteria you look at?
There are several different criteria that I look for and it’s not a one-fit model. Rather, it’s about understanding the brand owner’s expectations, aspirations and interest in partnering, rather than just straight licensing.
I’m interested in understanding the DNA of an IP, what makes it work for its audience and whether we can come up with a live show format that will work both creatively and commercially. Then it’s about understanding and being realistic about revenue potential.
“Although the last two years have had their obvious challenges, it’s re-enforced the need and demand for shared live experiences.”
I tend to look at how we can differentiate a brand in the live experience market, so the flexibility to create a live show format that can adapt to different live distribution opportunities is key. It may be that we want to create a family show that can be made to work equally well on a West End stage, or an outdoor festival or with immersive formats.
Finally – and probably the most important thing these days in assessing an IP – is working with people who want to work with you. At the end of the day, I value relationships above all else as it’s the people that I work with and an entertaining an audience that makes it all worthwhile.
Live events and experiences seem to be more on the radar of rights owners now. What advice can you give them to be market-ready?
I think be adaptable and flexible about what you want to achieve as there’s currently a lot of uncertainty in the live events space and how it’s going to operate in the future.
While the appetite for live brand experiences is very strong, it’s going to take some time to work out how the traditional touring circuits are going to operate and what new opportunities will look like.
It’s always helpful to know and to be able to share where you see the live experience fitting into your wider brands plans and the time scale that you are looking at. One of the key challenges at the moment is navigating timelines.
We’re seeing some traditional venues booked out years in advance as there’s a pipeline of product that’s been delayed two years… At the same time, we’re also seeing a lot of very short notice opportunities opening up.
We’re seeing lots of activations with adult-focused brands at the moment. What do you think of some of new developments around IP like Peaky Blinders and Doctor Who?
It’s always good to see the live entertainment space innovate and change, creating new audiences. The idea of offering a wider immersive ecosystem that offers a live show, themed F&B, merchandise and pre-show digital engagement offers a great night out. I think the new formats are here to stay.
I also think some of the fundamentals haven’t changed… Being super-clear who the target audience is, making sure that you offer real value for money – whether it’s a £20 or £100 ticket – and making sure that the creative offering really delivers.
Having worked on some of these larger scale shows, I also think that understanding the operational and business model is key. It’s still a relatively emerging market and it will take some time to see what’s really working.
Do you think it is easier to be more creative these days with advances in technology and special effects?
Advances in technology and special effects offer new tools in the creative toolkit but I’m not sure that they make the creative process easier, rather they offer alternative solutions.
Video mapping can help transform locations and technology can help with some great illusions. For family shows, we sometimes mix digital content with more traditional techniques, but good storytelling, great presenters and creative ideas remain at the heart of what makes a show work and connect with its audience.
At the end of the day, the technology is only as good as the creative team.
Thinking about storytelling, how do you approach this with your licensed productions?
We use quite a simple set of parameters to approach our shows – we’ve distilled it to a character-driven narrative where the audience are taken on and share a journey, mission, or quest to solve a challenge.
Within this broad framework, we have a whole range of different creative approaches. It’s all about what fits with individual brands and the ideas from our creative team. Sometimes we find the brand owners are closely involved in collaborating on the development and other times it’s much more of an approvals process. It’s always a challenge but the joy is in finding the solutions!
How important is it for live events to have a good range of merchandise available to support the show?
Merchandise can be key to the commercial success of the show and important to drive revenue and profitability. We usually appoint a specialist live event merchandising company – such as IVS Group – who can work with us and the brand owner closely to develop, manufacture and merchandise a range of products.
At the same time, it’s equally important to understand the specific skills required to sell event merchandise, from realistic MOQs, dynamic pricing, logistics and supply.
Do you think there’s potential for venues such as museums and galleries to host live events and to use well known IP to help tell their story?
Yes, there’s definitely more opportunities in this area – and also for museums and galleries to look at the value of their IP in other markets.
It’s over 10 years since we first launched Science Museum Live on Tour and if you look at the exhibitions market, there is a huge range of product already in this space. Museums and galleries can offer the ready-made creative context and authenticity of storytelling that audiences are looking for – and of course already offer the infrastructure and know how on attracting audiences.
“We’re hoping to launch our own ‘curiosity’ edutainment festival format that can serve as an umbrella for popular IP that can both entertain and educate.”
The key is to fully understand the motivation of the venue to host or produce live events and to grasp their curational policies. It’s equally important to understand their internal decision-making structures and culture, which will be a mixture of commercial, curational, policy and good governance. From experience, these relationships work best when live events producer, venue and IP all understand how each other needs to operate.
Looking elsewhere, do you see IP opportunities emerging from sports and other sectors of brand licensing?
Yes, and sports in particular is an area I’m really interested in looking at. I think, for example, that an edutainment approach combining family entertainment, an IP, sporting challenges and an exploration into health and wellbeing could be a lot of fun… In fact, we’re exploring this with a view to launching a live experience next year!
We’ll call that a scoop! Speaking of future projects, what else have you currently got in the works?
2022 has been a very busy year for the business so far as we continue to recover at pace with the return of live audiences, both in the UK and internationally.
Much of our immediate focus has been growing ‘Brainiac Live Presents’, our family edutainment brand that we license from ITV Studios. We’ve been producing it in different live experience formats since 2008.
With multiple production units in existence and several different delivery teams already familiar with both the live shows and our new Immersive Academy formats, we were able to get back to business in October 2020 and we haven’t really stopped.
We’ve been very fortunate that our long-term strategy to diversify across so many live markets – theatres, holiday resorts, visitor attractions, shopping malls, festivals and so on – has allowed us to be up and running quickly; from Butlins to Camp Bestival, and last December we launched our newest show, Brainiac Live Remixed at Expo, Dubai.
I’m now keen to grow the family live edutainment side of the business and we’re looking at different IP that fits into our key message of ‘Live Experiences for Curious Minds’. We’re hoping to launch our own ‘Curiosity’ edutainment festival format that can serve as an umbrella for popular IP that can both entertain and educate.
Sounds exciting. Before I let you go, could you share with us three pieces of advice that you’ve picked up on your licensing journey so far?
People and individuals are the most important asset – so treat them as you would like to be treated.
Make more money than you lose, but understand that if you’re in it for the long term you will inevitably experience both. Just make sure you learn along the way.
Embrace change and innovation, enjoy your work and never take yourself too seriously. It’s a huge privilege to work in an industry where you can bring IP to life, entertain audiences and create shared memorable experiences.
Great stuff. Huge thanks again Dan; let’s tie in again soon.
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