Dane Boedigheimer created the web comedy series The Annoying Orange in 2009, and it immediately lived up to its name. To know Orange--a talking fruit who sits on a kitchen counter and crudely taunts the other fruit--is to be annoyed by him.
But what could have been yet another shrill Internet one-off has turned into a true, ongoing sensation. There is an Annoying Orange videogame, T-shirts sold in JCPenney, and now a Cartoon Network series, debuting Monday, June 11. The original Annoying Orange web series is still going strong, with more than 1.4 billion YouTube views, 2.4 million subscribers, and a whopping 153 episodes so far.
As to how The Annoying Orange grew online and then expanded to other platforms, much credit goes to the Collective, a Los Angeles-based entertainment management and production company that teamed up with Boedigheimer more than two years ago. Co.Create spoke with Gary Binkow, a partner in the Collective, Dan Weinstein, a partner in the company’s digital studio, and Boedigheimer himself, to see how they juiced The Annoying Orange for all it’s worth.
"Part of it was hard work, and part of it was luck," says Boedigheimer. "When Annoying Orange took off on YouTube, so did the social media pages [on] Twitter and Facebook." From there it was all about being consistent--not just with videos, but with the social media message. "I made it a rule for myself that I had to have a video released every Friday, and a new post on the social media pages every day. I just made sure to keep up with that schedule, as well as interact with the audience by having contests, talking to them, and really keep them involved in the brand. I firmly believe that had I not stuck to that strict schedule, I would not be where I am today."
Even though Boedigheimer is from North Dakota, Weinstein and Binkow recognized early on that he was no bumpkin; he had his own operation already, and was already working to build something long-term. "Dane is not just a genius creator, he’s also very tech-savvy and understands the notion of telling stories and building character," says Binkow. "He has done a fantastic job of keeping [the YouTube series] alive and growing and introducing new characters."
Binkow is quick to point out that the early success of Annoying Orange was no fluke. "This is not a cat throwing up fur balls. This is a real narrative story that goes on every week and he’s diligent about preaching content in a certain frequency and making sure that gets pushed out every week and keeping all of the social media platforms alive and engaged with unique content."
When the Collective started representing The Annoying Orange--after there had been about four or five videos online--the team there started developing the long-term strategy. "It wasn’t about just jumping into ‘Let’s move off of YouTube. Let’s do a TV show. Let’s do this or let’s do that,'" explains Weinstein. "It was still early on. We really didn’t know the extent of what the audience could be and so the idea was to spend some time nurturing and building the audience and then figure out the business model behind it."
The Collective offered Boedigheimer an infrastructure and a support base from which to expand. "We have capital that we give him to help him expand and to create more content, hiring more people to help him produce content," says Weinstein. "[We also give] creative input on the stuff he’s doing and help him manage his social media platforms, offering some of the tools and insights that we’ve gleaned from our other clients along the way." [The Collective also works with such online successes as iJustine, FreddieW, and Megan & Liz.]
"We’re not looking to just exploit [the show with] random products," says Weinstein. "We’re being very specific about what’s being produced and we have passed on a lot of ideas."
In other words, no Happy Meals. Yet. They’ve been testing the market with talking figurines at Toys 'R Us, a small test of items like plush toys at Walmart, and T-shirts exclusive to JCPenny. But unlike many properties they were aggressive in launching merchandise ahead of the TV show’s debut. Says Weinstein, "I think the success of Angry Birds [merchandise]sort of switched the way the buyers think about the marketplace and that enabled us to go into retail and to be successful independent of the television show."
As Weinstein explains it, Boedigheimer has been able to respond quickly to audience reaction and adjust the show accordingly. "He introduced Marshmallow in one episode and all of a sudden everybody was like, 'Oh my god, I love Marshmallow! Bring back Marshmallow!" And Marshmallow slowly became integrated into the regular cast, much in the way guest stars like Passion Fruit, Grapefruit, and Midget Apple weaseled their way in as well.
About a year ago the team ran a contest asking viewers to submit their own photo of an orange in an interesting situation to compete for a prize. 50,000 photos later, they had catapulted The Annoying Orange's Facebook numbers, all in the name of fan engagement. They’re still showing new photos from that online.
The TV show will go after the same audience, while bringing in an older demo. "Obviously the core audience for Annoying Orange is boys," says Binkow. "And that’s Cartoon Network’s core audience, which is why they’re such a great partner for this show. But they also have an older audience, and we’re hoping that adult audiences and female audience members find this show. There are fantastic adult references in it."
"From day one we had talked about building other opportunities for merchandising, licensing, television shows," says Binkow, who was clear that it should be done in a way that gives Boedigheimer more control, not less, and ownership of his content, rather than follow the traditional TV model, which often leaves creators lost in the process.
"'Who’s going to play the Annoying Orange, and Can we make him less annoying? How about we make him the Endearing Orange?'" That’s Binkow’s impersonation of the traditional TV development process. To avoid that altogether, the Collective financed the pilot and is now financing the series. "Cartoon Network is a pretty unique partner and a traditional media company that actually has a ton of respect and appreciation for us nurturing our audience with them."
Many networks would have insisted that the TV show take over the web series, essentially replacing it. But that was not an option. The Annoying Orange web series is staying as low-budget and crude as ever, even as the relatively fancy TV show takes root.
"We don’t want to do is turn our back on that audience," says Binkow. "For the TV show we’re incorporating a lot of the same strategies: We want fans to be engaged in the TV show, have input over character, have input over participation with the theme song, being able to have guest voices on the show."
A lot of that process has already happened with the fans online. YouTube has vetted the successes out," says Binkow. "In that year-and-a-half development process that we’ve been working on the TV show, Dane has been building out ideas that we want to introduce and seeing what works and what doesn’t work and he can kind of pivot really quickly there. That’s where we sort of wound up with these scripts that we have, and I think you’ll see in the TV show a lot of these characters have a lot more appeal." (A peel? See what happened there?)
The Cartoon Network series will have characters and story lines that differ from the web series. And bigger adventures. "The world’s totally different," says Weinstein. "The characters are going out of the kitchen and into a bigger environment. They’re based in a grocery store and have this human character that works the night shift. When the lights go out at night the characters come alive." And then they can time travel on their magical fruit cart. "One episode might find them in prehistoric times dealing with dinosaurs and then next one will take them on a space adventure where they land on the planet of Marshmallia, where Marshmallow is from." Voice talent online has included James Caan, Weezer, and John Leguizamo. The TV series will feature Tim Curry, Tony Hawk, Malcolm McDowell, Billy Dee Williams and Felicia Day.
Boedigheimer is thrilled with where the partnership with the Collective has taken him. "I laid the groundwork with the things that I did and they’ve helped me build on that in the biggest way possible, by turning Orange into a truly multimedia brand. With them, we’ve created shirts, toys, costumes, posters, an iPhone game, and a TV show, for starters. It truly has been an additive relationship. They saw something big in Orange, and were willing to take a chance on it to make it even bigger."