A Heartwarming Tale of Shameless Promotion
BY Abram Brown
How Elf on the Shelf created—and convinced CBS to air—a "special" commercial for its product.
Elf on the Shelf gift set
Elf on the Shelf, Christa Pitts's Marietta, Georgia-based company, is one of the fastest-growing private corporations in the United States. It has landed on the Inc. 5000 list two years in a row, with 2010 revenue totalling $9.9 million. But she's also accomplished something even rarer than that distinction: She has created a new holiday tradition.
Perched alongside garlands of spruce hung on mantels across America, one might find a little elf doll, which—as the newly-minted tale has it—"keeps an eye on" children's behavior. There's also a storybook for those naughty or nice kids to read over the holidays. (Where exactly did the elf come from? Read the full story in the December issue of Inc. magazine.)
Pitts decided two years ago that elbowing Elf on the Shelf into the season of toys and giving wasn't enough. She wanted the little elf's tale elevated to Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed-Reindeer status. How better than to get it on TV? After years of work, the resulting movie, An Elf's Tale, airs Friday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS. Here's how she made it happen.
From Mantel Shelf to National Spotlight
Inspired by the 1960s claymation Christmas specials from her childhood, Pitts had long imagined a film as a natural brand extension. When movie studios and TV networks had been contacting her to see if they could option the rights to the elf and the storybook, she thought: If they are interested, then there must be something to this idea. But she feared turning over rights to use the elf, lest the networks prove to be corporate grinches. Worse yet, they might tarnish the brand. She decided to do things her own way.
Pitts had worked as a network anchor in Atlanta and for QVC, so she knew a little something about the TV business. But creating a whole production company without enlisting a major studio? That was foreign territory. Pitts says she started by keeping its structure simple. She strategically constructed a seven-member team comprised of several people who had once contacted her about the optioning rights. She found and hired a local Atlanta director, Chad Eikhoff, who had created several feature-length films. When it came to the animation, she stuck with the same artists responsible for the shorts on the website to ensure some brand continuity.
She found herself diverting any spare cash to the new venture. "It's not like we had some huge Hollywood backer. We didn't have all of this cash to pour in to make this happen. So it take us cobbling together every penny we could find," Pitts says.
The little team soon found itself overwhelmed by rights and contract issues. "In the studio system, they work out your musical licenses, your legal clearances. We really had to start researching things on nearly every level—even basic things," Pitts says. "They call it the Hollywood Machine for a reason." So she did what every smart business should do in this situation, she says: She hired a good lawyer.
In March 2010, Big Canoe Productions was born. Pitts and her team quickly decided that they would send the film straight to DVD if they couldn't find a network distributor. But one of Big Canoe's founders, Catherine Scorsese, daughter of Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, had a contact at the William Morris talent agency. Eventually Big Canoe secured meetings at a few networks, including one at CBS.
Pitching and Producing the Holiday Special
Last March, when Pitts and her team met with a CBS executive, they brought in a packet with information about Elf on the Shelf: company history, press clippings, a list of celebrities who had voiced their love. (For example, Mark Wahlberg once discussed his elf on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show.) They showed the executive conceptual animation stills as well as clips from the website. After about 30 minutes, the executive thanked Pitts for her time.
As Pitts remembers it now, she received a call less than two hours later, confirming the network wanted the movie. "It was one of those life moments were you just had to pinch yourself," she says.
Big Canoe now needed to create a film that could air before Christmas 2011. Everyone took a hand at writing the script and the songs. By everyone, that included Pitts, her mom, her sister, and the rest of Big Canoe. The script went through 12 rounds of rewrites then to storyboards. Eventually the story took shape: Santa assigns a young elf to restore a small child's faith in Christmas.
To find the 10 actors she ended up working with, Pitts again made use of local contacts, reaching out to an acquaintance who placed a casting call in Atlanta.
With voices and a script, the film was ready to take final form, and went to the animators. In July, Pitts and the team met again with CBS. The special was finished by then and ready to air.
After An Elf’s Tale airs tonight, Pitts intends to distribute it on DVD. Since her company already dealt with getting the elf dolls to stores, distribution wasn't challenging. The company merely needed to persuade her distribution partners to carry the DVD as well as the book. They were more than merry when she asked, she says. The DVD also goes on sale online Saturday.
Pitts is in New York this week for the premiere. She plans to spend Thanksgiving with family, but then she quickly need to get back to work. This is, after all, her busiest time of the year, and she must return to Atlanta immediately. To return to the workshop, as she put it.