February 3, 2006

The Curious Saga of George’s Big-Screen Gig

By Gregg Kilday

LOS ANGELES -- Call him what you will, but Curious George is no Mickey Mouse.

Next Friday, George will make his first appearance on the big screen as the star of the animated movie "Curious George," featuring the voices of Will Ferrell and Drew Barrymore.

As part of the movie's launch, distributor Universal Pictures, which has licensed the scampering simian since 1997, has put his inquisitive mug on everything from Dole bananas to Kidz-Eeze Cold Medicine.

While George will be hard to miss, he has not been promoted to the ranks of such corporate mascots as the Walt Disney Co.'s Mickey or even Michigan J. Frogg, who served as a song-and-dance man for WB Network from 1995 until he was pinkslipped last year.

He almost got that gig, though.

In 2001, when Jean-Marie Messier served as CEO of what was then Vivendi Universal, he seized upon Curious George as a perfect embodiment of the sprawling conglomerate's various activities, which reached as far afield as the French mobile phone operator Cegetel. (Messier was an early proponent of entertainment downloads via mobile phones.) Waxing enthusiastic as he met with investors and the media, Messier couldn't resist talking up George.

Although never officially raised to the status of mascot, George did audition for the part in full-page ads that Vivendi Universal ran in the pages of such papers as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times during summer 2001.

"Wherever there's a curious mind to feed and imagination to inspire, you'll be seeing Vivendi Universal," the ads, featuring George's image, read.

But Messier's own reign proved shortlived. In 2000, Vivendi, the Paris-based utilities company, had merged with Seagram Co., which then owned Universal Studios, and CanalPlus to create Vivendi Universal. But by 2002, Messier resigned under pressure, and in 2004, Vivendi Universal Entertainment merged with NBC to form NBC Universal.

With Messier out of the picture, George's chance for corporate stardom evaporated. (The executive, who now runs Messier Partners, a merchant bank with offices in New York, could not be reached for comment.)

Curious George hardly lacked for fans, though, having endeared himself to several generations of kids through the seven books authored by H.A. Rey and Margret Rey beginning in 1941. (For the record, since George has no tail, he's actually a chimpanzee, but because his creators originally dubbed him a monkey, he's been referred to as one ever since.)

In 1997, Universal licensed rights to the character from publishing company Houghton Mifflin, and began an ongoing licensing program.

Meanwhile, the movie version of "Curious George" books was slowly making its way to the screen. Producer Jon Shapiro first acquired film rights in the early '90s, and went on to partner with producer David Kirschner and eventually Imagine Entertainment's Ron Howard, who also came on board as producer.

The project went through a long list of writers and directors -- and morphed from a live-action film to CGI (computer-generated imagery) to a combination of the two -- before arriving at its final 2-D version, directed by Matthew O'Callaghan.

Universal Home Entertainment Prods., Imagine and public broadcaster WGBH Boston also are producing 30 half-hour episodes of George's adventures aimed at preschoolers that will launch on PBS Kids in the fall. The series will use George's curiosity to introduce viewers to math and science.

George actually began popping up on movie screens last summer as part of a Dolby trailer used to promote Dolby-equipped theaters. Dolby shipped 7,000 copies of the trailer, said Tom Daily, marketing director for the professional division at Dolby, as the first of what it hopes will become a series of Dolby trailers that feature characters and themes from studio releases.

"Curious George went perfectly with the Dolby brand," he said of the Dolby partnership with Universal. "It worked on several levels -- he's known to people of all ages. There's a welcoming, fun aspect to him."

With the film's arrival and the TV series on the horizon, the Universal Consumer Products Group has added 60 licensees to the 20-30 that already existed. Universal Studios has also signed multiple promotional partnerships ranging from Wendy's to Quaker Oats Cereals.

While the existing licenses had concentrated on upscale and high-end products -- in effect, many of them were aimed at aunts and grandmas buying gifts -- the new wave, very toy-driven, is targeted more directly to kids.

"From a merchandising standpoint, we're aiming at 3- to 7-year-olds," said Beth Goss, executive VP at Universal Studios Consumer Products Group. "The brand essence of George is his curiosity. I think that's the story you'll see in the movie and it's the essence of the TV series, which is all about teaching early math and science. George is unique in that we haven't in a long time had a title with such a young focus."

Having escaped corporate duties, Curious George is once again free to play with the kids.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter