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A conversation with Neal Harmon and Chris Wall - S10.E12

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WORLD Radio - A conversation with Neal Harmon and Chris Wall - S10.E12

Meet two men who are shaking up the Christian entertainment market


Neal Harmon and Chris Wall Handouts

I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on two conversations I had recently with men who are shaking up the Christian entertainment market. First up is Neal Harmon, the co-founder of VidAngel and Angel Studios. Later in the program we hear from Chris Wall, who is the showrunner for one of Angel Studio’s most anticipated projects, the animated adaptation of Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga.

CHRIS WALL, GUEST: We are a fantasy series told by Christians, and I think it's really been important. So as we found our way forward, over the last six years, it's been very difficult and frankly lonely. Because we see a lot of, in the Christian marketplace, a certain way that that can get done, that we're not a part of, and we don't, frankly want to be. And then to the secular marketplace, the same thing.

That was Chris Wall, who we will hear from later in the program, but we begin today with Neal Harmon.

Neal Harmon was raised in a Mormon family in a town in Idaho that he says is straight out of the movie Napoleon Dynamite. He grew up on a farm, learning the value of hard work, though—initially at least—he didn’t see much use for school. His relationship with books took off, though, when his mother gave him a copy of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. From that moment on, storytelling has been a big part of his life.

The company he founded, VidAngel, started out by providing edited versions of mainstream movies, edited to take out the sex, violence, and profanity. The company now has a production arm, Angel Studios, and they have pioneered the use of crowdsourcing the funding of such projects as The Chosen, and—one of the projects we’ll discuss later in the program—Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga.

I had this conversation with Neal Harmon at the annual meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters, held in Nashville earlier this year.

WS: Neal, welcome to the program. It's great to have you on. And I gotta tell you, you guys have like, come out of nowhere - like zero to 60 and 0.0 seconds say in the last couple of years. Has it been kind of a wild ride?

NEAL HARMON, GUEST: Well everyone calls it an overnight success, but it usually is preceded by 10 years of pain.

WS: Right, right.

NH: But thank you for having me on, Warren.

WS: Yeah. So tell me about the pain, man. Everybody's got a success story. Tell me about the pain.

NH: Well, the pain story, lots of hurt. And we're glad it's behind us. But we started this company in 2013. And we were sued by Disney in 2016. And in 2020, we settled that lawsuit. We don't know of another company that's ever survived a lawsuit with Disney. So we're very grateful that we survived. Yeah. And in that process, we started our own studio. And

WS: Well, let me back up just a little bit, because they sued you because you were taking movies, and you were essentially cleaning them up.

NH: That's right, right. Yep.

WS: And they basically said that you were, what copyright violation? Infringement of?

NH: They said we were breaking their copyright. Okay. So we stopped filtering their movies and moved on and decided to make movies that better than they do. Right. And so far, we've, with the help of all the people who have backed The Chosen, who have backed Dry Bar, Wingfeather Saga, Tuttle Twins, Dave, King David, all these shows that we're now doing. We're really, it's happening. And it's, it's very exciting.

WS: Yeah. Well, it's amazing. I'm a big fan of Andrew Peterson and the Wingfeather Saga. And I've already had, you know, Chris and Andrew on the program in the, in the past, so kind of know that piece of the story from their side. How did you guys get connected with Wingfeather, in particular? We'll talk about some of the other stuff too. But I'm a little, I've got a particular passion for Wingfeather. Can you say how y'all got connected there?

NH: I do, too. I've read it with my children and love that series. And so excited that it's coming out this later this year. I honestly have a hard time remembering how we were first introduced to them. But I remember when they came out to visit, because it had such an impact on me. They came out and visited us at the studio. And we gave them a tour of a set in Goshen, Utah, where season two of The Chosen was filmed. We were grateful to have this set, which was provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints during COVID. And it wasn't possible to film anywhere else. So we filmed there. And Andrew Chris Wall came out and visited us with their wives. And we, we had the most wonderful time, and we ate dinner together, and talked about all kinds of things beyond faith. But they have a real passion for creating something that's not overtly in your face preaching. That is more like traditional, compelling storytelling fantasy, but that has a faith. undertone that feels familiar to us. Yeah. And, and during that time, Andrew gave me a book. It's called Adoring the Dark.

WS: Oh, man, I'm a fan of that book.

NH: Adorning the Dark. And I read that book and it took me to another place and moved me so deeply. That I know, I feel like I know those guys' hearts and what they're trying to do. And at Angel, we are so thrilled to amplify what they're doing.

WS: Yeah. Well, I know they're thrilled to be working with you. And, you know, I've kind of heard their, their side of this story. I do, I don't want to gloss over one thing, Neal and I don't think you would want me to either because I know you're you're committed to your faith as a as an LDS guy, a member of the church, and they're deeply committed to their faith. And there's, there, let's just say there are theological differences. And you know, without putting too fine a point on it, or, or processing that. How do y'all resolve those? How do you all think about those with each other? Because I know you had to deal with this with The Chosen as well, that there was a certain, the Chosen audience, which is primarily an evangelical audience, there was some reticence about, you know, whether Dallas should work with you guys and so on. How does that hit you? How do you deal with it? How do you think about it?

NH: That's a good really good question, Warren. I, the way I think about it is, there's, we have way, way, way more in common than we have different. There are theological differences. And they are there that you can't just gloss over them when it comes to someone's belief. But when it comes to actually living your life, or remembering the stories of Jesus, or appreciating the good story of faith or good story of a hero's journey, we're pretty much the same.

WS: Pretty aligned. Yeah, I get that.

NH: And then what, the way it can work for us is that, first off, our studio's philosophy is one of creative control, where the artist only answers to the audience, they don't answer to us as a studio. So Dallas answers to The Chosen audience and, and Wingfeather will answer the Wingfeather audience. And if they burn that audience, that's on them. And it's and, and so we feel like that, that the creators, when they're answering to their audience do a lot better job. And, we don't have to worry about telling them what to do. Because they really sense what they need to do for those people and they want to serve them.

WS: Neal, I want to pivot in our conversation a little bit, but I'm a journalist. I ask obnoxious questions for a living. You can feel free not to answer any of the questions that I ask. But I'm interested in the money just a little bit. I know you're you guys are a privately held company. Yep. So you know, and I realize that one of the virtues, or one of the benefits of being a privately held company is you don't have to release a lot of financial information to the public. But if you're willing, The Chosen and now Wingfeather, both took advantage of a relatively new law, the Jobs Act, that allowed you to do crowdfunding, not like GoFundMe crowdfunding donations, but crowdfunding investments. And I reported on that law several years ago, whenever it was passed. So I knew about the law. I hadn't seen a whole lot of people taking advantage of the law until The Chosen came along. You guys have been sort of pioneers in that. Can you talk to me about how you all came to that thought process? You went through that thought process, so that you decided, hey, wait a minute, this could really work for us?

NH: You bet. So in 2016, I learned about the Jobs Act. And I couldn't stop reading about it, just felt compelled to learn about it. And, then we went and asked our our customers, the customers of Vid Angel at the time, whether they would want to invest in our company. And two weeks later, Disney sued us, trying to prevent us from getting that investment. And we went and before they sued us, our customers said they wanted to invest up to $62 million into helping the company grow.

WS: And when you say they said that, you, part of the process that you guys have gone through, because I know, I was an investor in Wingfeather. So I've kind of you know, saw it from the other side is that you ask before you ask, that's right, so to speak.

NH: It's called testing the water. Yeah. So you, we did the testing the waters campaign, and then Disney sued us. And then we went back to them and said, forget about that investment round, we're, we can't survive unless we have $5 million to fight this lawsuit. And our customers invested $10 million in five days. And we used 5 to fight the lawsuit and 5 to start Dry Bar. Our original content, right, right, studio. And, and then when we funded that $10 million, my co founder, one of my co founders, Daniel, he, we were talking and he said, can you imagine if you applied this crowdfunding model to media? And it's just a click, like in our head. Like that, yeah, that makes so much sense, if the, if the audience decides whether something should be funded. And so we thought we're going to try this, and The Chosen was the first one we did that with.

WS: Well and The Chosen was wildly successful. What did you get the first season? You raise $10 million? Am I remembering that right?

NH: Almost $11 million. Yeah. First season. 19,000 people. And then season two was completely funded by the sales of season one.

WS: Yeah. And Wingfeather, I think around $5 million. Is that what you? Yeah, just for season, just for season one?

NH: Just for season one.

WS: Yeah. So I mean, clearly, you guys have cracked a code here.

NH: And Wingfeather raised the money faster than The Chosen did.

WS: That's amazing. That's amazing. So are you gonna keep doing this? Is this gonna be the kind of wave of the future? Or do you? Are you concerned, though, that you can go back to the well too many times? Or do you think it's going to be such a different audience with each individual? Like, I'm interested in Wingfeather, not so much interested in The Chosen and somebody else might be vice versa?

NH: Yeah, that's correct. And there's there's overlap between these audiences. So we see people who are investing in every single round. And we see people who only invest in one project just because they're interested in that project. And they're not mutually exclusive. There's no such thing as the well drying out because people are investing in these projects because they want to see the made, regardless of whether they get a return. That's how badly they care about changing the culture, right. But when some of these projects start paying off these investors, it's just going to accelerate. It's going to accelerate the process of people jumping in and funding these projects, because now they'll say, this is real. The, The chosen investors are getting a return. And now this is real.

WS: Yeah, yeah. So I'm just thinking down the road, you've got you got The Chosen. You've got Wingfeather now that you've used this particular funding mechanism for. You've got lots of other projects, you mentioned Dry Bar, and so on and so forth. What's next?

NH: Tuttle Twins is is currently releasing season one. It's, it's an animated series that teaches about freedom and economics. And it's super funny, super entertaining, for kids and for their parents. Yeah. And boy, do we need it right now? Yeah. We just released a show called Freelancers, which is a comedy show. We're currently doing the, testing the waters for a major theatrical release called David. It's about the story of King David. It's an animated series that will combine the epic quality of Prince of Egypt with the rewatch ability and just delightfulness of of Tangled or Moana. And we're very, very excited about this film.

WS: So I know The Chosen is live action, but Wingfeather's animated. Tuttle Twins, animated. David animated. Am I detecting a trend here?

NH: It seems like a trend is starting to form.

WS: Why? Why? Why are you moving in that direction? Because animation is not necessarily…it's hard. It's a specific skill set.

NH: Yes it is. And it's a highly competitive market. And Disney has traditionally owned that market. Yeah, we wouldn't mind after everything that they put us through.

WS: Ah ha! The plot thickens here a little bit. Okay.

NH: To be honest, it's not it's not that we made these decisions. Our audience made it. Yeah. Like we named Angel after the audience. They're the ones who are the angel investors who back these shows. And we have new torches every day that get submitted. These are pilots or short films that the audiences review to decide whether or not they should get greenlit as productions. And 19 out of 20 are getting rejected. And it just so happens that the the ones that people want are the shows that are getting through.

You’ve been listening in on my conversation with Neal Harmon, and—next up—I’d like to bring into the program Chris Wall.

Chris Wall was a producer for the wildly popular Veggie Tales series before leaving Disney in 2015 to begin working with Andrew Peterson on the Wingfeather project. Chris and Andrew formed a company to produce Wingfeather that would allow them to retain an unusual amount of control over the final product, which is something that both of them felt was vital to the ultimate success of the project.

Working with Angel Studios, they have raised $5 million to begin production of an animated Wingfeather series. Season one is currently scheduled to release in early 2023.

I had this conversation with Chris Wall also at the annual meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters in Nashville.

WS: Well, Chris, welcome to the program. You know, I first learned about you through Andrew Peterson. You and Andrew have formed a company together to produce the Wingfeather Saga series. Let's go, kind of, I don't want to say back to the beginning. But back to the beginning of your relationship with Andrew and Rabbit Room. How did that come about?

CW: Oh, man, that's a fun story. So, Andrew, I don't know if you know, had written a kid's CD called Slugs and Bugs and Lullabies that he and his buddy Randall had made one year. And my friend

WS: Randall Goodgame. Yeah, yeah.

CW: And my friend, Kurt Heinecke, who does our music for VeggieTales, brought it to me after Andrews Christmas show at the Ryman Auditorium one year and said, hey, here's this, here's this kids CD, you should listen to it. I, Warren, do not like kids music. And so I handed it to my wife. I was like, Oh, this is gonna be awful. And I knew Andrew's name, but wasn't all that familiar with him. She listened to it. Calls in the next day from the car. Did you listen to this at all? I said, no. She said, It's great. You gotta, you gotta check it out. So I did. And it was delightful. I was like, Oh, my gosh, this guy. And at that same time, we are in the middle of making our Pirates Who Don't Do Anything feature film. And Mike Nawrocki, who writes all of our Silly Songs, was directing and busy. And he's like, I don't have any room for Silly Songs. So I reached out to Andrew and I said, I know you're a great songwriter. Do you want to write some silly songs for Larry for VeggieTales? And he said, yes. And so in 2006, we got together and made our first VeggieTales with Andrew writing a silly song. Wow. Him and Randall. 2008, we'd gotten to know each other pretty well. He comes to me and says, Hey, I wrote a book and hands me the first book in the Wingfeather Saga. And for a lot of folks, as you can imagine, who shift gears, like when Steve Martin stopped doing comedy and doing banjo and you're like, like real banjo or you're telling jokes, right? Right. I didn't. I was like, Oh, I'm sure it's nice. You wrote a book. And so, took it home. Obligatorily read it, because I didn't want to see him and tell him I hadn't read it with my kids. And we loved it. Like, wow, this is like, no, it's a real fantasy book. Wow. So we followed along the whole journey. And when it completed in 2014, with Warden and the Wolf King, we just were so moved by it. It was awesome. It was, we cried. We laughed. All the things. Yep. So 2015, I came to the end of my decade of producing VeggieTales and was like, what's next God? And met with Andrew and said, hey, what if we partner together? I don't want to option the material. I want to partner with you to see if we could bring Wingfeather Saga to life on screen. And so we formed our company, Shining Isle Productions to begin to chase that. And over the next six years had a journey together, including a Kickstarter where we got to raise money to do a short film pilot. That pilot became instrumental in in landing this partnership with Angel Studios as a distributor to go raise money for season one last year. Yeah. And kind of set records for what happened there. And now we're in production on season one.

WS: That's amazing. Well, in a spirit of full disclosure, I should say here that y'all raised money via a new, kind of a new law called the Jobs Act, where people it was sort of crowdfunding but for smaller investors. And, and you have 1000s and 1000s of people raise in the millions of dollars for this particular project. And the disclosure part here is that I'm one of the investors.

CW: So, I work for you like, okay, yes, sir. What do you need? Yes sir.

WS: Yeah, well, whatever. And, but, but it's really a remarkable thing. Because you know, what Andrew has done over the years, I think, contributed pretty mightily to the success of that crowdfunding. I mean, he just had tons of fans and readers out there. And then partnering with somebody like you, who had a proven track record for actually, you know, bringing to reality this vision and this dream was a pretty neat thing. So let me sort of fast forward to today. You say you're in production. I know a lot of my listeners, we've had Andrew on the program a few times before. So I know a lot of my listeners, our listeners today, are big Andrew Peterson fans and they want to know. They want an update. When are we going to see it? When's it going to start streaming?

CW: Man as soon as we can get it to you. We are...

WS: That sounds like the answer that you've come up with because you've had that question way too many times.

CW: That's right. Production for animation is volatile. It's, I don't know why people do it. It's such a complicated craft. We spend hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and so many great artists to make one frame of animation, you know? Yeah. I will tell you last night, we saw our first final shots from episode one. And got to share that with the team. Amounted to about 10 seconds. But it was a, we all cried. It was a beautiful moment. And we're excited to get to share with the public tomorrow, our first teaser trailer that has, you know, a handful of seconds. But seriously, season one we're, is out winter of this year. So we're hoping for just after Christmas, in that window, and then going into January of next year.

WS: So winter 20, December 22. January 23. Correct. Yeah, kind of And you'll be streaming it on the, on

CW: With Angel studios. So Angel CEOs has, they're working on a couple of ways to get that out, that are not just locked on the phones, right. So they've been doing that with Chosen and then their own app on phones. They're trying to find a way to get into TVs directly. And we've seen some really stuff there. And it's very exciting. So we will have some new stuff for people to get to us coming up later this year. And we hope to do, we're going to do week by week. We love chapter readings, right, as families. And so we love it when episodes are kind of, here's an episode and we can talk about it for a little bit. And then here's another episode. And so we'll roll that out through January of next year. And then we hope to come back with season two right on the heels.

WS: So break it down for me just a little bit. So season one includes, there's four books in the Wingfeather Saga. So season one is what? Book one?

CW: Basically book one. Absolutely. Yeah. And for those that have read the series, and Andrew will tell you that book one is is the starter. It's kind of setting the world, setting the characters, and kind of getting us up and running. Book two, the plot really kicks in. Now we're on the way, right? And book three, even more book four. Then if you have them side by side on a shelf, you can see they actually get bigger, right? In the telling. We've mapped out seven seasons to tell all four books. And this platform of Angel Studios is really hooked in to serialized storytelling. And Andrew even wrote the books that way, where a chapter finishes and you just got to read that next chapter. Yeah, right? A little cliffhangers, that kind of thing. In the book, I hate that. That's frustrating to the parent, right? Like how many more hours? He acquiesces and says, yeah, but the chapters are short. I'm like, yeah, but, I mean. So we want to have the same experience at home that when you watch episode one, you can't wait for episode two. And when season one finishes, you really want to get to season two, and so forth, and help to kind of pull the audience to go along that journey with us, I think is really critical to just the overall things successfully working. So the episodes are gonna be free, right? Much like The Chosen, we want to be out there for free for everybody to get to see it. And then how do we make money? How are we gonna pay for this thing? Right? How are we gonna get your investor money back? Well, we want to do that through

WS: By the way, it's okay.

CW: Well, I want you to know, we're working on it.

WS: That's okay, I was just so honored to be a part of it.

CW: And that's so sweet. And this whole Reg CF, like you said, the crowdfunding thing is such a sweet thing, because we get to have investors like yourself, who partner with us and are committed to helping us succeed. And Kickstarter is kind of a just a transaction. It's like, it's like, here's the 20 bucks, and maybe I get something. Yeah. In this, you're actually joining with us, and, and you own as a share in our company. And as we go forward and find success, you get to share in that. And that is wonderful. Right? So all those folks who were in the ground floor last year, that just believed what we're doing, they're gonna get to reap that benefit as we go forward. And we're excited to find that. But the show will be free. So that means we can have just so many more eyeballs, and they get to be a part of watching that and enjoying it as families all around the world. And some will participate in either pay it forward, Oh, I love this. It's kind of like a tip jar. Some will go buy, you know, some of our merch and and be able to support with being a part of that journey. And we're excited about all that we're going to unveil over the spring and summer as we get ready for…

WS: Well, I'm curious, so your company, Shining Isle Productions, was formed just to do Wingfeather? Or was it formed to do? Well, so for example, I know that there was a Wingfeather Tales book that has come out that 's kind of a collection of novellas, short stories. Doug McKelvey, and Andrew, and others have contributed to. I mean, do you see this as having a long tail? Or are you just trying to get through these four books, these seven seasons, and put a bow around it and say, we're going to declare victory and go home at that point?

CW: That's great. That's a great question. I have to tell you a footnote because you mentioned his name. But Doug McKelvey, who is a dear friend of mine, and he's actually our story editor on the Wingfeather Saga series. So, I don't know if you know. He's a screenwriter, as well as author of Every Moment Holy and those things.

WS: Right, well, in fact, I was going to interrupt. You've already kind of said what I was gonna say, though. Doug has been on the program before and yeah, a lot of our listeners are gonna know him because of the Every Moment Holy books, which I guess they now have a second volume out right now. But I have found those books to be enormously nourishing. And I knew he was a songwriter early in his career, and had some real success with song writing. I did not know he was a screenwriter.

CW: He is so multi-talented. And so he's written a number of television series scripts and screenplays. And he and I actually partnered as well, he was my story editor and lead writer for the Slugs and Bugs show. I produced two seasons of that.

WS: Well I did know. Okay, so I did know that he had done Slugs and Bugs.

CW: So when we got to Wingfeather, I was like, hey. And he, of course, had written a beautiful story in Wingfeather Tales. And I was like, hey, would you come into one of our writers in our writers room? And he said, alright.

WS: So, and I know I'm bouncing all around here, Chris. And I apologize for that. But Doug's your head writer and story editor. Is that is that accurate? Is there a writers room? Is it like a conventional TV series where there'd be a writers room? And, you know, they talk about the stories and then somebody goes away and comes up with the first draft and brings it back? And…

CW: That's exactly right. All of that. Yeah. And we just shared if people want to follow us on social media, on our Wingfeather Saga official fan club, we just shared a video walking people into our writers room and introducing them to the writers. In our case, we did a week long summit at North Wind Manor at the Rabbit Room's North Wind Manor, which was wonderful. And had all the writers in, and then we all kind of spread out and go do our work. And so you know that that process takes so many months at the front of the production, and then, and then we just go to work. And, and so they're not around for the entire production. But, yes, that was exactly how that went down.

WS: So then, I mean, to use kind of language that I'm used to, you're, though, the showrunner for this thing, right? Yeah. And so on a day to day and Doug is, you know, sort of running the writers room as the head writer. On a day to day basis, what would Andrew's role be in this process? Do you all consult with him from time to time? Or is he in the writers room or not?

CW: So his his, we started into this production, I said, hey, Andrew, how do you how close? Do you want to be to this? Do you want to be an everyday grind? Or do you want to be way off in the corner, and we just show you the finished episodes? How far you want to go? And he said, well, Chris, I spent 10 years writing these books. I want to be the author in the corner with my pipe. And I'm just gonna give you a thumbs up and a thumbs down. It's not quite that. But he is at all these critical milestones. And so he spends a few days a week with us at milestones to check in and see. So in the writers room, we don't have him in there, kind of on the ground floor, where the sausage is being made. We come up and we pitch back. Hey, we think this goes this way. And he's able to just have to be that really important sounding board about how it's being developed. Now, I will tell you, for all of us who've read the book series, we see that as like Andrew's version of a story that exists in a real space. And he wrote it down. Kinda like the gospels, right? Yeah. But the story exists. Our telling of it is the same story from a different perspective. And so we want to make it a fresh experience for those that read the books. And then for those that haven't, introduce them to the story for the first time. We're not going to change the story. Like we know what the story is, but we're gonna bring certain details forward that maybe Andrew didn't mention in the book. And we might pull some things back that he described in detail. And those won't be a part of what we're doing. But we're visual storytellers. And so it's a different mechanism. And we hope it's a fresh experience that the audience loves and enjoys. And Andrew, as our collaborator, has been just so delightful in recognizing those new things and saying, Yeah, let's do that. Yeah, right. Yeah. And then preserving what we know works. Yeah, making sure it doesn't change. And I want to go back to, because you asked that question earlier. Shining Isle Productions really comes out of Andrew and I's love together that's, that's captured in the Rabbit Room of this, of telling stories that awaken that sense of deep longing, that is in this middle space, much like Andrew's own musical career, and even the books themselves; that, frankly, they're too messy. They're, too, they're full of magic and wonder and whimsy in a way that some of the Christian mainline industry isn't supportive of. It's like they forgot that Narnia existed. And yet on the secular side, it's way too Christian. Right? You search Andrew Peterson: Known for Resurrection Letters, Behold the Lamb of God, right? Oh, this is some religious thing. Yeah, well, we've been really intent on and Andrew and I, it's been a struggle, is to say this is a fantasy series that families can just get into. And it's told by a Christian author, and a Christian executive producer on my side, right, to inform the story and its Christian ethic inside of it. But it's a fantasy series that we hope is accessible by families of all kinds. That it's not just for Christian faith families, much like Narnia is accessible by lots of families, right? That some will pick out, ” Oh, I see the Christian kind of values that are placed inside of there.” The redemptive story is so clear for those of faith. But for others, it's just a great story. Yeah. And I think that's important. Sometimes it gets flipped and they'll call us a Christian fantasy. We're not, and we'll disappoint you because we don't follow the allegories or those things. We are a fantasy series told by Christians, and I think it's really been important. So as we found our way forward, over the last six years, it's been very difficult and frankly lonely. Because we see a lot of, in the Christian marketplace, a certain way that that can get done, that we're not a part of, and we don't, frankly want to be. And then to the secular marketplace, the same thing. And to have this partnership to develop with Angel, where they came along and said, we believe in the story you're telling, and we think we can help you find that audience that would support and make it happen. We just, it's been overwhelming for us. Because when we went out, we were afraid that nobody would show up, frankly. When we made that offer last May, it was like we're gonna open the doors, maybe nobody shows up. And to have that support, we raised over a million dollars in 48 hours, yeah. And then $5 million in 20 days. And people who were saying, we want this content to exist, and we're putting our money there to say, please make it exist, and make it go out into the world, has been wonderful. So we do see Wingfeather as our first animated series. And we're gonna run seven seasons of that, Lord willing, and all that works, and immediately want to come behind with something else. Yeah, that once we have an appetite for this, we want to find something. One of the most disappointing moments in my career, 2006, we got a report back at VeggieTales. So we're roughly a little over 10 years into VeggieTales' lifecycle. We got to report back, hey, guys, great news. We did market research. VeggieTales has over 95% of the kids faith and family audience. That was super sad. Ten years in why weren't there more offerings. Phil and Mike had worked so hard to get that beachhead. You know, we're told by Walmart, we're not touching this VeggieTales thing, it's too religious. Do you remember, that was the early part of their story? Yeah, a couple of years later, we don't care what you have in that we're putting it on our shelves, right? They earned that spot. By being just faithful to their craft, delivering really funny stories that were really compelling and just earning that audience. We wanted to do the same thing. But bring others along with us. Yeah, here's, here's the recipe. Here's how we're making this stuff. Please come tell stories of a similar style, in this space that are that are helping people to process through, develop wonder, awaken that sense of deep longing that homesickness that CS Lewis talked about, right? We want to do the same kind of craft in our stories. And if we can open a door and help others to come through, that's, that's what we want to do.

WS: Yeah, well, to me it was interesting that you said that, you know, it was lonely. That for a long time you opened up the doors and didn’t know if anybody would come through. And I just wanted to say thank you for that. Because, you know, maybe it felt lonely, and that makes me sad to hear you say that, because I know that there were probably some dark nights of the soul that you guys had to live through. But you have made a whole lot of folks feel less alone. And I just want to say thank you for that.

CW: Gosh, gosh, that means a ton, I'm telling you. I’m a little [inaudible] here. Yeah, December of 2020. I was resolved in my heart that I'd worked really hard with Andrew, trying to bring this thing to go. It wasn't going anywhere. We spent all this time. And I was ready in January to walk up to him and say, “Hey, man, you need to find somebody else. I tried my hardest and it's not going.” And my kids were like, hey, Dad, what's your job in January? I'd finished doing the Slugs and Bugs show, just felt so great there. But I, we just couldn't get Wingfeather off the ground. 2020 had disrupted the theatrical market and all of our hopes there had kind of fallen away. And I said, I think it's time to just hang it up and and see what else could happen. And then in the middle of January, right as Andrew was finishing his read alouds, we get a call from Angel saying, hey, we want to partner with you guys. We want, we want to blow this thing up with you. We want to help amplify. And it's amazing.

WS: That's amazing. What a great story. And you know, obviously COVID has been a terrible, terrible thing. And many people have suffered greatly because of it. But I wonder and, you know, and I hadn't thought about this until this very moment. But when you say January of 2020 COVID really hit in March of 2020. And I'm wondering if y'all would have been able to do this in other circumstances.

CW: No, I mean…

WS: Andrew would have been on the road and you would have...

CW: Well in March of 2020 was when the first two books in Wingfeather Saga through Penguin, this hardcover version, this new thing happened. And it probably would have gone on and been fine. But it, lockdown happened. Andrew's off the road. So he starts reading aloud. Yeah, on Facebook and YouTube. Hey, I'm gonna read these books. Something to do. We're on lockdown. Let's do something. That exploded. He had 50,000 people tuning in on that thing to watch this. It was an incredible - way bigger audience..

WS: I was there. I was one of them.

CW: Oh, I know. Same. My daughter who's 9. She was the voice of Leelee, in our short film, had not read the series herself. Because it was a little too scary for her when she was little. Yeah. And so she followed Andrew all the way, that whole year, and got to be a part of that, with Andrew reading to her, and it was the sweetest thing. And that, that that, you know, wonderful convergence of we're all locked down and we're wanting to read books, and here's Andrew reading to us, helped those books to explode. I mean, we saw a 600% increase year over year in those books. And Penguin was thrilled as I'm sure you can imagine.

WS: Well listen, let's not pretend like this is all sweetness and light. And of course, you've already alluded to some dark moments in this process. But, you know, I'm going to ask sort of the obnoxious journalist question now is, what hasn't gone right? You know, have there been moments where Andrew just said, uh-uh guys, y'all, you've missed it. You don't have it right here. Yep, we gotta go this way. And this is, this is a deal breaker for me.

CW: Sure, I'd love to give you some real grit of some hard fights. We haven't had those. Really. It's been the strangest thing. I think that God aligned us because my sensibilities of entertainment and Andrew's are just so aligned. We're different. We're, we have our own things for sure. But they they complement each other. And we've, we just marveled about this this last week. Like, I expected us to have a loggerhead moment by now. And we just haven't. That we'll both see something and react the same. Whoo, that ain't right. Wow, that is not how we want to talk about that. We did this even in marketing ourselves. So that was really strange. Normally, you start projects kind of quietly. And then you market later. We had to do this marketing round last year, April, May. And we had to put all these marketing materials out to help raise those funds. And getting aligned on what we were going to say about ourselves for that market, it was some hard stuff. Like how do you describe? Because you can run up a certain, you know, flag, if you will, that can attract people to your project, but it will alienate others. And I think that has been the hardest part of our journey, figuring out what we say about ourselves that we both agree on works, without getting us in a weird spot. Choosing carefully, who we align with, like and who we who we kind of bring into our circle. Because we don't want to alienate a portion of our audience. And we don't want to, you know, bring in a portion that we don't align with. That's been difficult. There were offers along that way, that were really enticing about how we could get our voice out into the world, but would have been conflictive for people. And we had to really choose carefully there. And I think those were the hardest things we've been through together. But frankly, we landed in a place where we, we aligned. And God's mercy has been on us because I've, working with Phil Vischer on VeggieTales, we certainly had some knockout, knockdown drag out moments of like disagreement about story and what we should do. And with Andrew, it's been really remarkably… and he's just such a collaborator. And he told me last night, he said, you know, Chris, because of all of his years in music, music is such a collaborative thing, that he's really positioned. I think if he was just an author, he'd been more precious about it. But because of that, he sees the value that other artists and voices bring.

WS: Well, I can see that about Andrew, and also, you know, and you and Andrew together because of your work with the Rabbit Room, I mean, that's all about community. That's all about building community and nurturing community. And, you know, the idea that, yes, you know, community nurtures art and art nurtures community. That there's a synergistic relationship there that kind of is wired into, I would say probably the DNA of, of both of you. I did though want to drill down, just punch gently on this question about collaborators. Clearly, you got to have the right collaborators. You mentioned Doug McKelvey, for example. And, you know, I know enough about Doug to know that that would be a very simpatico relationship with with you guys. But Angel is Mormon owned. Yeah. And talk to me about that relationship, how you all made the decision that this is going to be okay.

CW: Absolutely. That's a, that was a tough one for us. We flew out to meet with them. We'd been introduced in May of ‘20. Went out to meet with them in November of 2020. And it was on our hearts and mind, you know, how do we collaborate with people who come from a very different faith, you know, perspective? I will tell you, we had very similar questions meeting with the Jim Henson Company. They were one of the folks we were talking with about helping us to make Wingfeather Saga. We had the same questions going to meet with Lionsgate Entertainment, who makes a lot of things. We walked into their lobby and their posters for the kind of things they were championing were like, not, not exactly for our people, right? So I think any of those associations, you have to take very carefully. So when we went out to meet with them, we said, tell us who you are. We need to know you. So Neal and Jeffrey, who founded the company, devout Mormon, right? They had spent a lot of time with evangelical Christians to kind of know where we differ, right? But they also said, we found that all these spaces where we are aligned, and we agree about the value of our families, and what we want to say about faith in our lives. And, frankly, we found that we shared more space in what we wanted to do together than we had found differences, certainly compared to other mainstream distributors, right? And while those mainstream distributors, your Lionsgates, your Sony's, all these would would position that, “Oh, we're here for it,” it's a transaction. And there are definitely things that you are not going to align on. We have the same even doing VeggieTales with Universal, that there were things we aligned on and there were things that we did not align on, and and it was a fitful relationship. So I would say those are difficult. You can imagine being one of the shows at Netflix, okay? You're one of the tile, little show that pops up. You're gonna sit next to all these other shows that you may not agree with. And frankly, it could be really difficult. So there's associations everywhere for any of us that are in content creation. Plenty of people said, Well, can you just stick with the ‘peer flix’ - the Christian ones? Maybe. But they also struggled to get the size of audience that Angel has been able to do. Sure. And so we took a lot of comfort in Dallas, his perspective with what he's doing with Chosen. Dallas Jenkins, Jenkins, yeah, being able to say, hey, here's, here's what they're going to do. One of the things that we found, too, is that the company is a company. Angel Studios is a company. And yes, they're devout Mormon. But the company is not a Mormon company. And they were very clear on that. It's just a entertainment company. They said, frankly, we find ourselves kind of on the outs of the Mormon church sometimes, because of what they're trying to pursue, and why are they doing all these Christian stories for evangelicals? Why aren't they doing Mormon stories? And their argument has been, well, there's plenty of people doing Mormon stories, we don't need to be a part of that. Y'all got that working. And we want to come out here to this other place where we can bring a lot of voices in. And so it, you know, is it 100% the right path? You know, I think it is. Andrew and I prayed about it a lot and felt like it was the best fitment we found. The one thing we knew for sure is they're here to be distributors and marketers to amplify what we're doing. The content is ours. And they've been very clear. “You guys make your show. Like, we're happy to provide feedback for what we think works, you know, audience metrics and that sort of thing. But you know your people, you know your content, go make that.” And that's very freeing, because frankly, it is not the same at Netflix. It is not the same at Amazon. It is not the same with all these, they all have voices to tell you, here's what your content needs to hit. And here's what they're not going to allow. And when you have a family story, we were told this actually, this was kind of alarming. We were told they're not going to do Wingfeather Saga, they're not into it over at Netflix, because it's patriarchal in structure. And we're not going to do those kinds of stories. And we're like, whoa, because we have a grandfather and, and a mother and these kids that live together and like we're not into that. It has to be, you know, a single mom or a dad and any other kind of gender or sexual things you can put in there, they're into it. And we're like, that's not our story. That may be somebody else's story, it's not our story. And we're not gonna, we don't want to bend the story to fit what the market trends are right now. So you can imagine way more challenging, ironically, through those kinds of secular marketplaces than we find here with Angel Studios.

That brings to a close my conversation with Chris Wall, the producer for the Wingfeather Saga animated series, which is based on Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga novels. The series will release in early 2023.

By the way, regular listeners to the program know that I have had Andrew on the program several times over the years. In fact, I’ve had Andrew on the program more than any other guest, in large part because he has consistently done high quality and – to my way of thinking – important work. Though we didn’t get to hear Andrew today, I would invite you to search the archive for my past interviews with him, including discussions we’ve had about Wingfeather and the early days of this production.

To find those interviews, as well as my interview with Randall Goodgame, who we also mentioned on today’s program, head over to the World News Group website and use the search engine to explore what we have there. Again, that’s WNG.org.

Listening In comes to you from WORLD News Group, and this program is just one of the many benefits that comes with a WORLD subscription. To find out more visit WNG.org/subscribe.

Tune in next week to hear my conversation with Jefrey Breshears. Jefrey Breshears runs the Atlanta-based Areopagus Forum, a Christian apologetics and worldview ministry. He is also the author of a new book called American Crisis: Cultural Marxism and the Culture War: A Christian Response. We’ll discuss Jefrey’s book, and his interesting life as a college professor, newspaper publisher, and refugee from the religious left, on next week’s program.

The producer for today’s program is Leigh Jones. Johnny Franklin is the technical producer. And Paul Butler is executive producer for WORLD Radio. I’m your host, Warren Smith. And you’ve been Listening In….


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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