Thursday 22 August 2019

Content is king in a world of imagination

John Rice tells Sean Gallagher how JAM Media managed to turn a childhood love of cartoons into an award-winning global company

Sean Gallagher at Jam Media's Dublin office with CEO John Rice. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Sean Gallagher at Jam Media's Dublin office with CEO John Rice. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

In recent years, Ireland has developed quite a reputation as a hot spot for developing animation and children's entertainment. And as many parents of young children will testify, such entertainment - whether it be TV shows, books, toys or games - can be a valuable tool in occupying children in the early morning as they try to get them to eat their breakfast or to help them wind down in the evenings before bed. Parents often find that such entertainment helps children learn new concepts, stimulates their imagination and supports the expansion of their vocabulary.

I met up with John Rice, CEO and co-founder of JAM Media, one of the country's leading creators of animated and live action content for children and pre-school audiences. Set up in 2001 and with offices in Dublin and Belfast, the company now employs 90 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €9m.

"In simple terms, we create, develop, finance and distribute children's TV and digital entertainment," explains John as he welcomes me to the company's studio and design centre on Dublin's Kevin Street.

Having just returned from filming Little Roy - their new children's TV series - John is excited about the future of his company and the prospects for the children's entertainment industry in Ireland.

"Our focus in JAM Media is on delivering high-quality, innovative, story-driven brands over multiple platforms with humour at its heart," he says. Aimed primarily at children between the ages of 3-11 years, the company have already licensed or distributed their content to broadcasters in over 120 territories around the world.

Among their many customers are names such as RTE, BBC, Nickelodeon, France TV and ABC Australia. As he takes me around to meet some of his team, John lists of some of the company's best known programmes and the characters around which these have been developed.

"Our work involves creating immersive storytelling content based around engaging characters," he explains pointing to a large cardboard cut-out of one of his best known characters - Roy.

The show is filmed as a fly-on-the wall type 'mockumentary' about an 11-year-old cartoon boy called Roy who lives in Ballyfermot with a real family and real friends - a mix of real actors and animations all in one.

"We made this originally through the Irish Film Board, and it has already enjoyed four series on CBBC, as well as being distributed to over 30 other countries," explains John. "We have also produced another spin-off series featuring Roy as a five-year-old. Called Little Roy, we have already pre-sold the show to 18 territories on the back of the success of the original show," he adds.

Other successful series the company has produced along with Darrall Macqueen include Baby Jake (for preschoolers, it's based on the story of a nine-month-old baby boy and his five-year-old brother). And there's Tilly and Friends (based on a five-year-old girl and her gang of imaginary friends).

Such has been the response to their work, that the company has a cabinet full of awards including IFTAs, BAFTAs and the Royal Television Society Award. What's the secret to creating such award-winning content?

"It all starts with a light-bulb moment. And that can happen anywhere, so you have to be prepared to write it down - whether that's on a napkin, beer mat or your mobile phone," explains John. "From there the idea gets developed with an initial script and then a short animation trailer which details the relationship between the various characters in the show.

"Next it's on to art direction and the development of distinct imagery for each character and the overall set," he adds.

For each new production, John and his team must first develop what those in the industry refer to as 'the bible'. This is the comprehensive proposal that will be presented to potential broadcasters of the show. It has to be able to provide them with an overview of the series, so that when they sit around their meeting table to make their decision on whether to commission it or not, they can get a good understanding of how the entire programme hangs together.

Once ready, John and his team then take this bible and the trailer to film and TV festivals and conferences all over the world in the hope of getting a commission. Among these festivals is the annual MIPCOM conference (Marche Internationale de Programmes Communications) in Cannes. Attended by representatives from television studios and broadcasters across the globe, this acts as a marketplace for those involved in the buying and selling of new programmes and formats for international distribution.

Being based in Ireland and the UK has also been a big help to the company in this regard.

"We have great advantage in being an Irish/UK-based content producer, in that with combined government subsidies and IFB and NI Screen support we can go out to the market with up to 40pc of the funding already in place.

"This is something that can really help provide comfort to potential broadcasters that the show is likely to come to fruition, because almost half of the required funding is already in place," insists John.

But getting a series produced is not a short process. Once commissioned, it can take between 18 months to two years to complete.

So how did he end up in the industry?

"I grew up in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry, and like most children I was captivated by the world of cartoons and the whole artistic nature of the creative process," he explains.

His interest in business was also evident in his teenage years, when he sold digital watches to his secondary school teachers and set up a sweet stall at community events.

"I was always looking at innovative ways to supplement my pocket money," he says laughing

After school he studied animation at Ballyfermot Senior College before heading to the US to work with 20th Century Fox. He spent four years there, mostly in feature movies, before moving to MTV in New York where he worked more on the TV side of things.

In 2000, he returned to Ireland to do a masters degree in multimedia studies at Trinity College. There, he teamed up with classmates Alan Shannon and Mark Cumberton to set up their own media company - and used the first letter of each of their names to create JAM Media.

"We realised that technology was changing the industry and that with software such as Flash 1.0, we could create broadcast quality content for about 60pc of what it would have cost to make in traditional ways," explains John.

Like most new start-ups, cash was tight so the trio drew on their savings to survive.

"The first few years were very tough and we were weren't making much money," recalls John.

Then, while preparing for his daughter's second birthday party, he came up with the idea of doing a small animation to send out as an invitation to her friends. Cutting out an image of Rebecca's head, he then inserted this as the head of one of the characters in the animation.

The response from other parents was positive and many asked him to do the same for their children. They hired a head of technology to develop software that would allow broadcasters invite children from among the viewing public to submit pictures of themselves which could then be integrated into programmes, thereby helping to personalise TV content.

Based on the positive feedback, they decided to take a single episode to MIP in Cannes later that year - and the reaction was so great that by the end of the week they had agreed a deal for the US. From there, their content eventually ended up being distributed to over 120 territories and translated into 45 different languages. More importantly, it firmly established their reputation.

The big challenge for companies like John's is staying relevant to their audience. The ways children consume content is continually changing. More digitally literate than ever before, many are now turning away from traditional cable and subscription channels to online with the arrival of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
"We need to constantly be where our children's eyeballs are. And while it is a challenge to keep pace with such changes, it also represents a marvellous opportunity for us as well," insists John.

He sees digital content playing a much larger role in the future with potential to develop a range of games and apps. He also sees huge potential to develop a life off-screen for their content, through licensing various characters to book publishers or toy companies.

After all these years, does he still have a love the industry?

"How could you not? Every day is different and I get to develop great content for children," he says with a big smile.

Positive and upbeat, John Rice has combined his love of children's entertainment with his aptitude for business. And with the firm's turnover projected to grow to over €20m over the next three years, he has still much to look forward to.

For further information:

John's advice for other businesses

1 Belief and optimism   

"In business, as in life, you cannot afford to let negativity set in. By setting up your own business, you are already taking a road less travelled and you have to have full belief in yourself and your product - even if it sometimes looks like blind optimism to others."

2 Setbacks are normal

"Be prepared for setbacks and disappointments. They are a standard part of running any business. What is critical is that you learn from each setback or mistake and resolve to keep moving forward. See these as obstacles and roadblocks rather than the end of the road."

3 Find your network

"Find, or build, a strong network. Business is about relationships and that means continuously focusing on expanding and deepening your reach. Your reputation is built on perception. Winning repeat business or referrals depends on you managing these relationships."

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