Following the success of Sesame Street’s “Big Bird Looks at the World” television show in China, their exclusive live-stage show producer, VEE Corporation, is sending Elmo and his friends on a six-week tour.
The move is part of a bigger trend in 2011 that sees major growth overseas for family shows and other touring properties. While the potential to tap into over 1 billion consumers has remained constant over the last decade, the opening of new arenas and renewed television partnerships finally make it possible for tours to tap into the massive market.
‘GREEN’ WITH ENVY
For VEE Corp., named for Vincent E. Egan, the stage show, “Elmo’s Green Thumb,” pairs well with its television counterpart produced by Sesame Workshop, which consists of 52 eleven-minute episodes in Chinese Mandarin, and is designed to foster children’s natural curiosity about nature and science, said Dayna Deutsch, senior VP of sales and marketing for VEE Corp.
“We have been — for a couple of decades — trying to get our live stage tours in China,” Deutsch said. “Ultimately, it needs to follow where the brand is.”
Sesame Workshop had a television show running in China in the 1990s, but had been out of the market for more than a decade.
“In 2010, they went back on the air, and it’s doing just great in Shanghai,” Deutsch said.
The show is out-performing all other key children’s television in Shanghai, reaching over 400,000 preschoolers and nearly 1 million moms with children under the age of nine, according to Eurodata TV Worldwide/CSM Media Research.
“They have long-term plans to syndicate to other markets, and we were able to partner with a production partner in China to get into the country,” she said.
“Elmo’s Green Thumb” will remain unchanged from the U.S. tour, Deutsch said, except for the translation into Mandarin Chinese.
When the show tours in English, the characters speak in the taped television voices of Elmo, Big Bird and the other characters, she said.
“When you see the television episodes, they are all in Chinese Mandarin, so you have to stretch to hear Big Bird or Elmo,” Deutsch said. “But the last time Sesame Street was on the air in China, Elmo had not received such star status yet, so he is brand new to all those children.”
World Wrestling Entertainment is another TV property that has made new gains in China. WWE held the first live sporting event at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai (then called Expo Cultural Center) in August for an audience of about 8,000. The event featured WWE Superstars John Cena, Rey Mysterio and Chris Jericho and was held during the World Expo.
WWE now has an office in Shanghai and is planning to develop a pan-Asian tour for its performers. VEE has yet to open a Shanghai office, and the cast and crew for Elmo were hired in the United States, but will be joined by four Chinese nationals — two interpreters and two crew members — once they open in China.
The logistics of getting a tour with 28 cast and crew, and 40,000 pounds of equipment to China has not been much different than planning VEE Corp.’s tours in Europe, said Jay Humphry, VP of VEE International.
“Everything has gone as planned, except one minor snag when an employee dropped out at the last moment, which jammed up the visas,” Humphry said. “The only difference is that [the show] is traveling in three sea containers. Normally, it travels in trailers.”
Sets, costumes and equipment traveled by rail from the show’s last U.S. stop in Pennsylvania to Seattle, where it began its trek to Hong Kong. It will be off-loaded and shipped to the first stop, in Shenzhen, which is in mainland China, but is a suburb of Hong Kong. It will take five weeks for the containers to arrive.
“The equipment travels without duties or taxes, identical to touring in Europe,” Humphry said.
The cast and crew will fly over to begin the tour, and will travel by air or tour bus, from city to city, Humphry said, as they do in the United States.
An interpreter worked with the Chinese government to arrange the visas, and all other government interactions have been handled through the promoter, Deutsch said.
“Wherever we go internationally, we find the expertise locally to help us,” she said.
“Getting the cast, crew and staff to China required a submission to the promoter, who made the submission to the government,” Humphry said. “He got a temporary okay from the government, which allowed us to send our visa requests. They are in the process of checking each person and will send those approvals to a Chinese embassy in the United States.”
The show manager will take the passports and documents to the embassy, where each will be matched with a letter of approval from the Chinese government, he said.
Local crews of about 20 people, who also speak Mandarin, will be hired at each venue to work with the road crews. Some may travel between closely spaced venues, Humphry said.
“We won’t know that until we get there, but there are a couple of cities very close to each other, and we would hope to have the same crew in both places,” he said.
Marketing the show in China has also been straightforward, Deutsch said.
“We provide the marketing assets and collateral, and the venues do the layouts and return them to us for review, to make sure they are compliant,” she said.
VEE Corp. has a Minnesota-based employee, Kathy Chen, who speaks Mandarin, so she has been reviewing the language.
Chinese venues are opting for more promotions involving the life-sized characters than their U.S. counterparts.
“Like in the U.S., the venues are very promotions driven,” Deutsch said. “They are using the walk-around characters more aggressively, since the brand is building, and we want to bridge the television show to Sesame Street Live.
In addition to Shanghai, the tour will travel to Dongguan, Beijing, Chongqing, and Shenzhen, among others, in advance of Sesame Street hitting the airwaves, Deutsch said.
THE MEXICAN CONNECTION
Feld Entertainment is focusing its attention on Mexico and striking an exclusive promotion deal with promoter Zignia to bring 18 weeks of entertainment to Arena Monterrey and a new arena being planned for Mexico City, the world’s largest metropolis.
“We’ve learned a lot about Mexico in recent years and we’re crafting a policy that puts us in state-of-the-art facilities with people who are risk takers and partners who bring the best of the best in marketing,” said Jeff Meyer, Feld Sr. VP of Event Marketing & Sales.
The deal locks Feld in as a preferred promoter at Arena Cuidad de Mexico, a $300-million arena in the suburbs of Azcapotzalco. Feld Entertainment will have the option of bringing its entire entertainment portfolio to the region, from the circus and Disney on Ice, to Monster Jam and Nuclear Cowboyz.
Zignia Live is the promoter wing of Mexican conglomerate Avalanz, which manages Arena Monterrey and the new Mexico City facility, and owns Super Boleta, the largest Mexican-owned ticketing firm in the country.
In 2011, Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 3 will play Monterrey and Guadalajara dates, and in the summer of 2012, Disney On Ice will debut as the first Feld show to play Arena Ciudad de Mexico, followed by Mickey’s Magic Show. And after a 10-year wait, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus will return in May 2012.
“It’s an exclusive agreement for Mexico,” Meyer said. “We’re going from eight or nine weeks a year of content to a minimum of 18 weeks. The amount of product we’re bringing into Mexico is doubling, and then some.”
The ice shows, the Disney Live Shows and the dialogue during the circus will all be presented in Spanish.
“In the case of Disney Live productions in the past, we’ve used local on-air talent to help us co-host and present,” Meyer said.
Despite security issues in Mexico, the circus will continue to travel by train when it’s south of the border.
“We always take precautions for the safety of our animal and human performers, no matter where we go,” Meyer said. “That’s always priority number one. We’ll take whatever measures we need.”
Interviewed for this story: Dayna Deutsch and Jay Humphry, (612) 852-2369; Jeff Meyer, (703) 448-4105