Running Out of Miracles
It was early 1992, and Phil and Lisa Vischer were down to their last $10. Phil had quit his job to work on his "big idea"a video series for kids starring computer-animated vegetables that loved Jesus. But all he had to show for his efforts was a stack of unpaid bills. There was no food in the pantry for their large and hungry dog. The cost of a large bag of dog food: $10.
While Lisa went out to buy dog food, Phil sorted through the bills and pondered what do next. Then he found an envelope containing a cashier's check for $400. An anonymous note inside read, "God laid it on my heart that you might need this."
The next year, a couple in their Bible study lent Phil $60,000, saying, "Go make your movie."
By Christmas 1993, Vischer and two friends completed the first VeggieTales episode, Where's God When I'm S-Scared? Over the next 10 years, VeggieTales sold more than 25 million videos. The Abbot and Costello-like Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, stars of the series, gained millions of adoring fans. And Big Idea Productionswhich Phil started in a spare bedroomgrew to a 210-employee animation studio and entertainment company that he hoped would one day rival the Walt Disney Company.
Whenever there was a need, especially in the early years, something extraordinary happened.
"There were many times Big Idea was dangling on the edge," Lisa Vischer says. "It seemed that every time we were in need of a miracle, we prayed for and got a 'dog food story.' "
Big Idea ran out of miracles last fall. After a series of financial crises, the company filed for bankruptcy, and in December it was sold to New York-based Classic Media.
The low point for Vischer came in April 2003 in a federal courthouse in Dallas. Lyrick Studios, a former distributor, was suing Big Idea for breach of contract. In an attempt to increase revenue, Big Idea had switched to a new distributor, Warner Home Video, in January 2003. Lyrick responded with a lawsuit.
Big Idea offered $400,000 to settle the case, Vischer says. Lyrick refused, he says, and a jury found for Lyrick, awarding the plaintiffs more than $11 million. After hearing the verdict, Vischer knew: "It was over."
Wanna Be Like Walt
It's early December 2003, and Phil Vischer is remarkably happy for a man who has lost everything. The sale to Classic Media will close in just a few days. He's been busy packing up his office at Big Idea Productions' offices at the Yorktown Mall in the west Chicago suburb of Lombard. The remaining 45 or so Big Idea employees will be packing soon as well. This summer the company will move to Nashville. Vischer, 37, will stay behind. He hopes to still work for Classic Media as a part-time writer and director, but that's not been settled yet.
Big Idea already feels like a ghost town. The studio is empty and dark, lit only by a few computer screens. While new Veggie-Tales episodes are still in production, all the animation has been outsourced.
"It was about six years of going up very quickly," Vischer says, "then about three to four years that I have described to people as falling down a flight of stairs in slow motion."
The business side is pretty straightforward. Where's God When I'm S-Scared? had an initial sales order of 400 copies and took off from there. Big Idea sold 50,000 videos in 1994. By 1999, sales peaked at 7 million videos, or about $40 million in revenue.
This was heady territory for Vischer and Mike Nawrocki (co-creator of VeggieTales, writer, and the voice of Larry the Cucumber), who years earlier were asked to leave St. Paul Bible College (now Crown College) for skipping too many chapels.