Nephi and the Brass Plates has just been remastered and released for its 25th anniversary. Will you tell us about how you came to create these animated films?
When talking about our animated films we have to mention our first ten years. The beginning of Living Scriptures started with selling audio dramatized cassettes. Two years prior to Orrin Hatch becoming senator, we licensed the rights from him for a series on the Old Testament, but I was never satisfied with their quality. As time went on with that dissatisfaction we finally decided to create a whole new library of dramatized productions. We worked on seven series for 10 years, and they are still products loved by people. Little did we know that the process of developing these dramatizations was preparing us for creating the animated movies.
In 1985, we realized people were turning toward buying videos, and it was difficult to figure out how to get into that because the production cost was over 70 times that of the dramatizations. The first films we did was a tour of Israel with the great Mormon scholar, W. Cleon Skousen, who passed away five years ago.
After we did the Visit Israel films, a man from Hanna-Barbera approached an individual in the Church’s audio/video department to sell the Hanna-Barbera bible stories they had recently animated. That individual said the Church couldn’t really help him, but that he should talk to the president of Living Scriptures. So he sent them to me. After we started working with them to sell the Hanna-Barbera products we found that the Latter-day Saints really liked them, but I felt the biblical accuracy was poor, just like before with the dramatized tapes we first licensed. I didn’t like how they combined fiction and time travel with the scriptures; they just didn’t have good accuracy. I remember telling Joe Barbera, the head of Hanna-Barbera, that it could be done better than this. They looked at me like, “We’re Hanna-Barbera! We know a little more about this than you do. We have a standard that works and there is no way we’d go outside of that.”
Anyway, that began the discussion with Joe Barbera, who must have been in his 80s, about creating the kind of stories we wanted to be told. When he put the numbers on the table, he wanted $600,000 per episode plus 20% of the sales and wanted to own the asset. We were deflated; there was no way we could make that work. I figured that they were the only company we could use, so we thought the idea was dead. But, my friend Lex de Azevedo, who we’d worked with on several music projects, mentioned to me that a friend of his, Richard Rich, had just left Disney after 14 years there. So I got a hold of Rick Rich and we set up a meeting. This was an afterthought because I figured a feature film animator couldn’t possibly meet the smaller budgets for creating the Animated Book of Mormon. But after meeting with Joe Barbera and hearing his proposal, it was worth a try.
The meeting with Rick left us with enormous questions about how a former Disney Producer with budgets in the tens of millions could meet our budgets in the hundreds of thousands. We couldn’t take such a tremendous gamble on someone who had never even worked with Han Ho, the animation studio in Korea. He couldn’t even guarantee that the budgets would be met. In the end a lucky thing happened on our way to the airport. I had made up my mind that we weren’t going to do the animations because the questions were too big. Our driver ended up driving past the Burbank studio of Han Ho. As we were going past the studio, Rick says, “By the way that’s the Han Ho studio.” I didn’t realize they had a presence in Burbank. I say, “Let’s turn around and go in for a tour.” Rick let me know that they wouldn’t let us in because they were working on a feature. I told him, “Let’s go back and see if they’ll let us in.” When we arrived I asked for the head of production, and lo and behold, he’s also LDS. So he let us in, and that’s when I realized that they had enough assets here that they could carry forth a contract and that we could make our dream happen. Later, I found out that our driver was totally lost. If we hadn’t passed the studio we would have probably got on the airplane and our animations never would have happened.
We made the decision to go forward — which was a huge decision — failure would have meant bankruptcy. As soon as we released the first title, Nephi and the Brass Plates, we thought the market would be much, much more receptive. We were delusional to think we could have sold as many videos as we thought we would. The average production cost was about $500,000 per video or $800–900K for each episode today.
We had also decided to start The Animated New Testament series starting with The King is Born for release at the same time. As a side note about The King is Born: This great classic has been played to millions and the number of languages it’s in is unbelievable. When the Iron Curtain fell, there were people on a Christian TV station, Dayspring, that worked with the 700 Club who took The King is Born and He is Risen into Russia. It was like the first Christian product that had been played there in 70 years and it exposed millions of people in Russia to the stories of Jesus in the New Testament.
So when we started doing the Animated New Testament and Animated Book of Mormon, we initially planned on doing six movies of each. As we started we expected sales to materialize at a fast enough rate to pay for the production costs. That didn’t happen. As we continued production we were getting more and more in debt—to the tune of about 5 million dollars. At that point no one would loan us more money, and they stopped believing that it was financially working — which it wasn’t. This was a real point of desperation about the end of 1987. I thought the whole thing was going to come apart and we’d be bankrupt.
I was pleading with heaven every day that we could keep things going, and the most amazing thing of my entire life happened: Someone wanted to buy our other company that we had started in 1976, known today as Convergys. Out of the clear blue Cincinnati Bell sought us out for purchase and within six weeks time we went from owing 5 million to having 27 million dollars in our hand. We didn’t even seek the sale; they sought us out. It was beyond amazing. Another thing that was a big factor was my partner from the beginning, Seldon Young, worked out the details and negotiated with them. That funding let us complete what we were creating but also allowed us to do more stories from the Book of Mormon and New Testament. It also allowed us to create a huge library of products including 12 Animated Old Testament and 20 Animated Hero Classics titles. It opened up a huge opportunity.