Veggies Tell a Cautionary Tale of Success, Failure, and God’s Leading in Hollywood
PHIL VISCHER IS THE GENIUS behind what amazon.com calls “the goofiest animated ensemble since the glory days of Looney
Tunes.” A computer animator by trade, Vischer created the popular series VeggieTales and provides the voices for about half its cartoon cast. The wholesome books and videos for kids feature what is arguably the most adventurous gang of produce on the planet.
But as their creator shared with Seattle Pacific University students in a Chapel presentation
in May 2005, the sweet-talking vegetables
very nearly were his undoing.
Today he openly talks about the death of a dream that began in a spare bedroom in 1993 under the name Big Idea Productions Inc. The strategy was to create entertainment that Vischer could show his own kids. Instead of railing against Hollywood, he decided that he would combat a culture of violence and sex with gentle lessons on forgiveness, trust, and self-esteem. And it had to be of a quality that could go toe-to-toe with other media products vying for the attention of kids and their parents.
The public embraced the idea and within just a few years, mass-market stores such as Target and Wal-Mart were moving stories of Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber by the bushel. To date, tens of millions of Veggie-Tales videos have sold; DVDs are doing well; and the full-length animated VeggieTales feature “Jonah” became one of the most successful independent
films of 2002.
Despite Big Idea’s success, however, the company was inward-ly struggling. Filled with grand ideas to become the next Walt Disney, Vischer’s talent as an animator overshadowed his ability to keep the business afloat. Sales dropped, and a bloated staff of 200 soon received pink slips. A lawsuit by a former distribution company led the company to bankruptcy before it was sold to Classic Media, owners of other beloved characters such as Lassie and Mr. Magoo.
Some might call it a failure, but Vischer says the company’s sale was an act of providence. He was forced to reassess what was most important in his life. “God used a business disaster to whisper, ‘I don’t want you to be Walt Disney. I want you to be Phil,’” says Vischer. “My good work had become an idol. I learned that he who has God alone has everything.”
Thankfully, VeggieTales lives on. “Phil has the vision of Disney and the heart of Billy Graham,”
says Darren Sumner ’98, who turned his own Internet fan site birthed at SPU — UltimateVeggie.
com — into a job as manager of Internet communications for Big Idea. Today he is responsible for Web creative development and production for the company. His wife, Christy Griffin Sumner ’99, is Big Idea’s production
“VeggieTales is good for kids and a great tool for parents,” says Sumner.
And Vischer’s creativity? Though he and his wife, Lisa (voice of the scene-stealing Jr. Asparagus), lost control of their original plan, they have reformed under a new creative entity named Jellyfish. They now operate smaller, leaner, and more flexibly so that their projects can go wherever God leads. Phil continues to write one VeggieTales episode a year, sketch out two others for production, and supply the voices for his “little troupe of veggies.” There’s talk of another major film release, and he’s writing and publishing books filled with imaginative,
“Once I shifted my focus from my impact to obeying God, all the stress and anxiety vanished,
almost overnight,” Vischer recalls. “When my day starts with a half hour in God’s word, rather than a half hour plotting that day’s ambition, my life gets calibrated to God’s will.”
And that, he tells up-and-coming Christian artists, should be the motivator to make something
good that gets noticed. “Lots of kids are showing up at art school or film school with very little to show. Why? Because they were playing video games, surfing the Web, or watching Cartoon Network. They were living as consumers, not as producers.”
Sumner is a producer. When Bob and Larry were still in their infancy, he introduced them to the students of SPU with screening parties in Marston Hall. With a degree in religious studies, a minor in journalism, and a belief in the company mission to improve people’s lives through storytelling, Sumner was on his way.
Vischer, meanwhile, is as busy and self-deprecating
as his vegetables. Mindful of painful lessons learned, he vows to name any of his new ventures “Little Idea.”
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