Fresh Veggies helping
Big Idea close in on Disney's turf
___By David Briggs
___Cleveland Plain Dealer
___ORLANDO, Fla. (RNS)-- Disney started with a mouse. So why not build the next family entertainment empire around a cucumber and a tomato?
___Tens of thousands of families across the country are expected to visit religious bookstores to buy "Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed," the much-anticipated latest title in the Veggie Tales video series.
___In conjunction with the video's July 24 release, Christian stores held screenings to satisfy the growing appetite for the talking produce that mix silly songs, biblically centered moral tales and state-of-the-art computer animation.
___While Disney struggles in the Christian marketplace over issues of gay rights and sexually explicit and violent movies and CDs, Veggie Tales has mushroomed in popularity since Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato made their debut in 1994. Last year, Big Idea Productions sold nearly 6 million Veggie Tale videos, and this year it anticipates selling 10 million.
___With Disney-like business acumen, the company has put out a host of Veggie Tales-related products, from stuffed toys to greeting cards to children's books. Its first feature film-- an animated version of the story of Jonah--is due out in 2001.
___At a no-alcohol coming-out party for the latest video in mid-July at the Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando, Fla., chief executive officer Phil Vischer told 600 Christian retailers from around the country that Big Idea's big idea is to replace Disney as the most trusted family media company in the world.
___"There is a God. He made us special. And he loves us very much. That is the hope we put in our stories," Vischer said from the Hard Rock stage. "The world doesn't need more magic. The world needs God."
___It was a mission to offer values-centered programming as an alternative to the major media entertainment companies that led Vischer, a computer animator and Bible college dropout, to found Big Idea in 1991.
___From the first release in 1994--"Where is God When I'm Scared?"--the Veggie Tales videos have featured short stories and silly songs that relate a biblical message with talking vegetables. The target audience is ages 3 to 10, but the campy humor and characters such as Jr. Asparagus and Larry the Cucumber also appeal to adults.
___Growing at first by word-of-mouth through outlets in religious bookstores, Big Idea has begun to reach Rugrats and Teletubbies numbers through mass-market retailing in major department stores and drugstore chains. However, the company still gives religious bookstores first crack at selling the latest video.
___Veggie Tales has often taken all the top 10 spots in Christian video sales.
___At the recent Orlando meeting of CBA, formerly known as the Christian Booksellers Association, a giant cucumber and tomato hovered over the football-field-sized exhibition space, while several companies promoted the videos and tie-in products such as puzzles, toys and games featuring the popular characters.
___What makes the premiere of "Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed" such a big event is that between repeated home showings and their use in vacation Bible schools and church youth groups, many fans said they are starving for fresh veggies.
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