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Thanks to the success of small-budget indies like God’s Not Dead, big-budget TV miniseries like The Bible, and the return of Old Testament movie epics like Noah and Exodus, much has been reported in the last couple of years about the growing power of the Christian purse in Hollywood. Yet the starkest example of the entertainment industry’s newfound interest in building bridges to churchgoers may be a property that’s been around for decades: VeggieTales.
Now owned by DreamWorks, the faith-inspired anthropomorphic vegetables have gone through multiple incarnations since their debut in direct-to-consumer videos in 1993, including leaps to the big screen and broadcast television. Nov. 26 marks yet another milestone as the characters premiered in a 22-minute, Looney Tunes–style cartoon series on Netflix titled VeggieTales in the House.
The online streaming media provider’s approach to the Veggies says volumes about how technology is changing the nature of entertainment and creating broad opportunities for Christian screenwriters and artists.
In 2006, NBC entered into a deal with VeggieTales’ production company, Big Idea Entertainment, to adapt the films into a show for its Saturday morning animated block. However, the network faced considerable backlash for first scrubbing the films of their characteristic biblical themes.
“Unfortunately, I think when NBC made the commitment to airing VeggieTales they hadn’t actually watched any,” VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer told me. “It was not pleasant. I had been told up front they were fine with the content, then about a month later they came back and said, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t say God loves you on network television!’ So the editing had to commence, which I was not a part of and was not happy with.”
‘We’re still telling kids’ stories with the worldview that there’s a God who made us, loves us, and wants a relationship with us.’—Mike Nawrocki
Vischer’s founding partner, Mike Nawrocki, recalls that NBC at first tried to place the blame on FCC regulations but later backed off from that explanation, admitting they didn’t want to be seen as advocating a religion. In contrast, Vischer and Nawrocki say VeggieTales’ Christian content wasn’t a stumbling block for Netflix. In fact, it was a selling feature.
Both DreamWorks and Netflix were explicit with Vischer and Nawrocki about their interest in pursuing a Christian audience, pointing out that one of the advantages of online providers is that they can go after specific viewers and don’t have to be all things to all people.
“When we were acquired by DreamWorks a couple of years ago, Netflix requested a handful of properties to do exclusive series,” says Nawrocki. “VeggieTales was one of those specifically because of the audience we bring and the message and the lessons that we incorporate into the show. Netflix was not interested in changing those and neither are we, so it worked out great.”
Throughout the transition to a shorter, faster-paced product, Nawrocki says Netflix has been respectful of the Big Idea brand, including hiring well-known Christian graphic novelist and animator, Doug TenNapel (best known for the video game series Earthworm Jim) to helm the project. “They don’t want us to mimic them, they just want us to be us,” says Nawrocki. “The core of our brand is still biblical storytelling. We’re still telling kids’ stories with the worldview that there’s a God who made us, loves us, and wants a relationship with us.”
Given their experience with NBC, Nawrocki acknowledges that such a mutually satisfactory relationship with a mainstream commercial outlet might not have been possible not that long ago. “People have asked me if we find it difficult as Christians to get our stories out there, and I have to say that it was more difficult when we started 20 years ago. Today there’s a realization [in the entertainment industry] that, yes, there’s a market. So if you can bring entertaining and engaging stories to that faith market, then you’re going to have an audience. ”
Vischer believes innovative platforms for viewing movies and TV are also opening up new opportunities for Christian artists. “The cool thing,” he says, “is that if Christian audiences show up to watch VeggieTales on Netflix, Netflix will fund other Christian storytellers. It has much more optimistic possibilities than trying to get our content on NBC, CBS, or Fox.”