“I am very much looking forward to having a boss”: After 20 years, Gregg Spiridellis finally has his big exit
Inside Netflix’s acquisition of Storybots and what it means for Disney
“I can’t believe I’m finally here.”
Gregg Spiridellis is talking about the six months of negotiating with Netflix over the acquisition of StoryBots, one of just a handful of deals in the gigantic company’s history. But he could have just as well have meant a lot of things by that statement.
He could have meant that he’s finally gotten his kids fed and to bed and can get on the call he promised me a few hours ago to talk about this deal.
He could have been referring to his two-year back-and-forth that recently led to the sale of the profitable but not-a-rocketship startup JibJab announced three months ago.
He could mean that for the first time in twenty years, he is not the boss.
A twenty year journey in which JibJab was consistently at the forefront of digital media, but never quite cashing in on it. Gregg Spiridellis and his brother, Evan Spiridellis, were producing short form viral comedy videos well before YouTube. (Remember “This land is your land”?) There were early on YouTube too. They were some of the first to be distributing video content on Facebook. When Apple opened up iChat to third parties, they jumped in there too.
And then when they saw the rise of subscription video on demand players, they jumped at the chance to get StoryBots-- then little more than short form videos on YouTube then-- onto a platform like Netflix.
But for someone who seems to have called every single shift in how people consume and share content, the Spiridellis brothers never seemed to be the household names cashing out big. They ran a thriving profitable company in JibJab and was clearly sitting on a potential rocket ship on StoryBots. But that came with a long grind.
“People always say, ‘Oh, it must be so nice to not have a boss,’ and I’m like, “No I want a boss to tell me what to do!’” Gregg Spiridellis says. “Six months ago I had two businesses and 100 employees. I am very much looking forward to having a boss, and then going back to the garage with my brother and just start creating again. So much of our time and mindshare has been sucked up with operating businesses and now we can just be focused on great shows and stories with these characters. We haven’t had that headspace in a long time. I think we are gonna go rent a garage somewhere... just because.”
“I can’t believe I’m finally here.”
I’m not going to pretend I’m dispassionate when it comes to the news of Netflix acquiring Story Bots.
First off, I’ve known Spiridellis since what feels like the Internet dark ages. As a journalist, I’ve covered, or edited piece after piece about the Spiridellis brothers latest leaps onto the forefront of digital content, while never quite creating the massive exit. As recently as 2016, I called JibJab “the original dot com cockroach.” I meant it as a compliment. Spiridellis brings it up a little too much for me to believe he took it that way.
“We were actually just entering our chrysalis when you wrote that,” he says in our call last night.
He’s referring of course to the StoryBots spin out from JibJab… the butterfly that emerged from the cockroach if you will. (Sorry.)
If you don’t know StoryBots, you don’t have young kids. Or maybe you do, but they haven’t watched StoryBots on Netflix yet. Go put it on for them. I’ll wait. Now get ready to hear Story Bots songs on planets and dinosaurs and the color green for the rest of your life. Something had to get ‘Baby Shark’ out of our heads, I guess.
There’s a loose formula to every episode where a kid asks those kinds of questions kids ask: “How do computers work?” “How do airplanes fly?” “Why do I have to brush my teeth?” And a bunch of floppy-headed cartoon (and sometimes puppet and sometimes clay) robots go on a journey to find the answer. Interspersed in the journey are songs about planets or songs or ABCs, and there’s always a song at the end bringing the answer together.
Music plays a huge role in it. Spiridellis was one of those GenX’ers who still remembers how a bill becomes a law because of SchoolHouse Rock.
There are also celebrity cameos: Snoop, David Cross, Christina Applegate… the kinds of stars hipster parents smile when they see in kids programming with that, “I guess we’re all doing this kid thing now…” kind of awareness.
My kids are obsessed with StoryBots. My six year old daughter, Evie, had a Story Bots themed birthday party last month, where she and her friends destroyed a talking pinata of Hap, the cranky boss who orders the Story Bots around. (Voiced by Evan Spiridellis.) We blare the Beyonce-like “MY NECK’S SO LONG… MY NECK’S SO STRONG…” song about the Apatosaurus out of our car at any given day. And on a recent trip to LA, we stopped by StoryBots Studios so my kids could see how it’s all made. (Both want to work there when they grow up.)
They knew the names “Gregg Spiridellis” and “Evan Spiridellis” before they met them, because they are basically every line in the credits, from some of the voices, to the writers, to directors, to the producers of the show. And true enough, Story Bots is produced out of that old JibJab building by a skeleton crew of animators and directors who also double as voice actors, and part-timers who rotate in and out of the LA talent world. My kids marveled at the slides you took to get from the top floor to the bottom, similar to the tubes the Story Bots go up into to find the answers to kids’ questions in the real world.
And while this deal likely won’t change what my kids see on the screen, what they saw behind the screen will change dramatically.
Story Bots was created in 2012 by the Spiridellis brothers because they had young kids and the dads wanted to watch TV with them and didn’t love the Disney Channel/Nickelodeon options. JibJab was profitable, and so they used that cash to “do the thing you should never do which is fund your own television show,” as Spiridellis puts it.
The vision was a next generation Sesame Street. What would Sesame Street be if it were created in today’s media landscape? Meantime, they were bullish on the subscription video on demand company promise. “We had kids, and you could just see that Netflix had taken over their entire TV diet,” he says.
It wasn’t obvious the world needed a new Sesame Street, but Spiridellis observed that his kids were more sophisticated media consumers in Kindergarten than he was. “They were on another level than I was at their age,” he says. “They were watching Star Wars. I feel like Sesame Street has maintained its awesomeness over the years, but maybe it’s aged down. It didn’t stay as relevant in my home.
“Look at what Disney and Pixar and Dreamworks are doing in the theatres,” he continues. “They are telling stories and jokes that appeal to both parents and kids. We wanted to do that but let’s also see if we can tackle really complicated subjects. Our bar for every episode is, ‘Can we teach a five-year-old something that will blow a parent’s mind too? Can we teach them how ears hear and what air molecules are and how that starts a chain reaction that lets a human hear something?’”
After a few successful attempts doing short form StoryBots programming on YouTube, they set out to find the right online partner. “If we could produce a high quality series and we could find a licensing partner and if we could fund it ourselves, we’d have complete creative control and own the IP outright which was really important to us,” he says.
They already had a six-episode Season One done, and they struck a deal to release it as Netflix Original. They’re about to release Season Three in a matter of months.
So what changes with this deal, other than the garage? Resources, and not just cash. Netflix has already made Story Bots a global phenomenon, taking over all of the international production, including casting of voices, production and distribution in 22 languages around the world.
A global audience had been the Spiridellis brothers’ intention from the beginning. “The fact that they have flopping heads isn’t an accident,” Spiridellis says. “We wanted them to be able to speak any language and it would feel native.” It required a company with the scale and reach of Netflix to make that idea happen.
Consider that kind of ability to scale Story Bots, but beyond just global retrofitting. Spiridellis talked about the Netflix Animation Hub within the company that has quietly amassed a trove of some of the best animation talent all over the world. It’s beyond Netflix commissioning the next StoryBots, they are building an engine to scale animated production beyond a basic idea and distribute it globally.
So instead of the Spiridellis brothers disappearing for as much as 18 months to produce a new season, they will be able to come up with ideas, story lines and rough videos of episodes and then turn them over to Netflix to do the rest.
“Right now we produce every frame of every show in our four walls of our Los Angeles office,” he says. “There’s only so much we can do on our own.”
What does Netflix get? A toe-hold in children’s educational programming which is going to be a huge thrust for the company going forward, allowing it to compete on a new level with Leviathans like Disney, and the cable world. (Remember HBO’s purchase of Sesame Street? Netflix isn’t alone here.)
Netflix has the abilty to do to children’s television what it did to television writ large a decade ago: Spark a new binge-watching golden age. It’s TV that has been neglected, even by best-in-class creative companies like Disney, while they’ve pushed new boundaries in theatres, Spiridellis argues.
And as a parent who watches all this content, I agree. Soak in the timeless wonder, say, of “Lady and the Tramp” and then watch the direct to video/direct to Disney Channel “Lady and the Tramp 2.” It’s like Disney wasn’t even trying if it didn’t have a theatrical release. “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” isn’t a bad show, but it’s hardly Disney’s finest work.
Spiridellis won’t go too into Netflix’s vision here, and like he said, he’s relishing not being the boss so he may not even know the scope of it. But when a company this large does acquisitions this infrequently, a deal is a signal of strategy.
“Outside of this deal, I’m just fascinated by Netflix, as someone who has been in this business for so long,” Spiridellis says. “I don’t know if anyone has ever spent this much money this fast, especially globally, to build this kind of content library. They are going to be making a big push with merchandising too. This is still ground zero for them. I excited to observe it and be part of it but not be the CEO anymore, quite frankly.”
As a journalist who has covered this space for about as long as the Spiridellis brothers have been running JibJab and its spin out, it’s remarkable how many startups in kids programming have caught fire, unspooled a vision to be the “next Disney” and then crashed or at least struggled. (Moshi Monsters, anyone? Angry Birds?)
Is Netflix, with it’s trove of animators, a bottomless pit of money to pay for creative, and ubiquitous global distribution the company that finally has the scale to do it? It’s hard to see anyone else who could make that argument with a straight face right now.