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The Story Hat: Shaking up the rules of property development

The traditional property development model--in which the primary media category is developed first, and everything else tackled later--is fast becoming antiquated in the face of a slower economy, more volatile markets and stiffer competition. But a new breed of creative shop is adapting to the industry shifts and cultivating processes for harvesting multi-expression intellectual properties that have rich and fully-formed applications in film, TV, publishing, gaming, toys and consumer products right from the outset. The Story Hat is one such company.

Fronted by CEO and co-founder Kevin Mowrer (ex-head of Hasbro's in-house IP arm The Fantasy Factory) and partner Rob Travalino (a writer/producer/director who helped develop brands such as G.I. Joe, Transformers, Batman, Star Wars and Tonka), Story Hat's system consists of four main tenets:

1. Know your audience.

2. Develop the master story for that audience without honing in on any one single medium of expression.

3. Find the audience space by figuring out which modes of delivery your target prefers and making the property easily accessible in these streams.

4. Every category is primary.

"It's all about expanding the fantasy," says Mowrer. If kids are watching a TV show, they want to know they can do something with the property once they've turned the tube off. Once Story Hat has figured out where and how kids want to have these experiences, a core content checklist comes into play. For the property to work as a TV show, for example, it must have heroes and episodic danger revolving around visuals. The film medium requires an epic story that reaches the whole family; toys necessitate a central, kid-centric hero; publishing needs longer story lines and vivid artwork; and video games must involve the player in the story.

Finster the Monster Truck illustrates how some of these streams can be served by the same central content. The gist of the property's story is that a 12-year-old boy named Philo Bean finds a garage full of very unique monster trucks. Their creator uses a strange, oil-like substance that has been oozing out of the ground near his house instead of the traditional lubricant, and it's charged with some kind of mystic power that brings his monster trucks to life. The creator and the trucks swear Philo to secrecy and draw him into a series of clandestine adventures.

In one ep, for example, a traveling salesman with anger issues is cursed by a gypsy to turn into a werewolf every night unless he wears a pair of magic underwear on his head. The maid at the local hotel where he's staying puts the undies in with the town laundry and loses them. Now the town has a crazed werewolf ransacking homes and putting random underwear on his head in search of the enchanted briefs. Finster recruits Philo to help teach the werewolf more practical anger management skills, and at the same time, Philo learns how to control his own temper, which has been getting him into arguments with his parents of late.

Finster fulfills The Story Hat's checklist in a number of ways, explains Travalino. For TV, it's a spooky, comedic action series with strong episodic elements. For film, Finster is action-based, and the main character is a monster truck--elements that should work well on the big screen. L.A.-based SD Entertainment has already signed on to develop the concept both as a feature film and a 2-D animated series for boys five to 10.

For video games, Finster's driving and racing elements alone make for good gameplay, but the key is to develop a story- and character-driven experience that can't happen unless the player is involved. Story Hat is working with Universal Interactive on a game concept that lets the player control the monster truck while in the driver's seat. This means Finster needs the player in order to win the game.

A publishing deal is still in the negotiation stages, but Mowrer says books for Finster's target demo need to have internal character journeys and motivations. The concept's stories are about kid issues that show up in monster form. "Philo and Finster are both 10 to 12 years old and taking their first steps down the road of independence," says Mowrer. "And books can tell what's in a character's head in a way that TV and movies can't."

As for toys, the property has built-in elements to drive several categories. Finster is a shape-shifter (a truck that becomes other types of vehicles when he daydreams), so he can be a vehicle/action figure that is sellable in many different versions. "Collectibility is the mainstay of big toy lines," says Mowrer, "and we have it in spades since there are many other cool monster truck characters in Finster's family."

Questioning what kids want and assessing what they're getting out of existing properties is also key to the Story Hat development process--and no property illustrates this method at work better than Dragon Booster.

Mowrer set up a focus group to watch kids play with toys based on Jurassic Park, a film franchise that has done incredibly well at the box office. During this play session, kids seemed to have trouble relating to the human hero action figures because, as Mowrer puts it, "they're not really heroes in the films; they're lunch." Instead of using the humans to hunt dinos--or vice versa--the kids slapped the human figures on top of the dinos, inventing a new mode of transportation. This demonstrated play pattern spawned the Dragon Booster concept, in which an Earth-like futuristic world has run out of gasoline, and dragons are used as state-of-the-art, high-speed vehicles.

The story stars 17-year-old Artha, whose father is a renowned dragon designer in a world obsessed with dragon racing. Boosters (dragon thieves) attempt to steal his dad's dragons one evening, but their plan goes awry when Artha inadvertently stumbles onto the scene of the crime. Artha's father is killed when the boosters accidentally set the barn on fire, but Artha is saved by his dad's masterpiece--an extremely intelligent and high-tech dragon called Beau. Artha and Beau hit the racing circuit in search of the boosters, but in between wins, they discover a larger plot to genetically engineer an army of stolen dragons for world domination.

Story Hat is co-developing the Dragon Booster concept with New Jersey-based animation company Digital Assets Group, which has brought art resources to the table in exchange for some equity. Travolino had almost completed a live-action film script at press time, and Toronto, Canada's AAC Kids is on board as a co-pro partner for a CGI TV series that's in development for boys six to 11. Ken Faier, VP of production, distribution and licensing at AAC Kids, says it was refreshing to hear a pitch in which the promises of broad appeal and merchandise potential were not "just words." In addition to getting involved with Dragon Booster, Faier has contracted Mowrer and Story Hat to help inject multiple expressions into another property AAC Kids is developing.

Digital Assets Group has also signed on to help work up Growing Up Creepy, but unlike Dragon Booster or Finster, this property didn't start with play value high in mind. Mowrer sees Creepy targeting girls eight to 12 in the following forms: a live-action TV series with CGI bugs; a line of tongue-in-cheek personal electronics hinged around quips like "Your phone is bugged;" apparel based on the protagonist's oddball-yet-cool fashion choices; and a series of young adult novels.

Growing Up Creepy dabbles in little-known elements of the insect world, such as the fact that bugs are real-estate whizzes (send in termites, reduce property value, buy property, send in carpenter ants, build it up and sell at a huge mark-up). One day, a bug couple (the Bizznizzes) find a baby on the doorstep of their fixer-upper and raise her as their own. For 10 years, the home-schooled Creepie Bizznizz assumes she's a bug, but eventually the truth comes out and she decides to explore her true culture. Public school is the logical next step, but Creepie has no idea how to act or dress, and has difficulty explaining her property-driven financial savvy. Story Hat is in discussions with a large East coast studio on the TV part of this project, which will likely be budgeted at around US$500,000 per half hour.