Q+A With Albie Hecht

In the 13 years he spent as an entertainment executive at Viacom, Albie Hecht created some of the most successful and enduring programs for kids and young adults. At Nickelodeon, where he was president of film and television entertainment, he developed such hits as SpongeBob SquarePants and the Dora the Explorer franchise. In 2003, he launched MTV Networks’ male-targeted Spike TV.

After leaving Viacom in 2005, Hecht formed Worldwide Biggies, an independent production company devoted to creating multiplatform content for families and young adults. Among his new projects are a feature documentary and a live-action series for Nick. War/Dance, which follows refugee children in war-torn Uganda as they compete in a national music and dance contest, screened at last week’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the award for documentary direction. The Naked Brothers Band, a mockumentary series about two (real-life) tween-age brothers and their pop band, premieres Feb. 3.

B&C’s Joel Topcik spoke with Hecht last week about producing “hand-crafted and personal” entertainment, the benefits of being an indie outfit and programming for the digital family.

You’ve been screening War/Dance at Sundance. How has it been received?

Very well. It was really a very, very moving experience to see it screened; it got a standing ovation. That was really remarkable. Everybody involved with the film was just really touched by the audience reception.

Does the film have a distributor and a release date?

ThinkFilm bought it pre-Sundance for distribution. They’re such a smart and thoughtful partner in the marketing of a film like this. It’s really great to have them. I don’t have an exact release date, but it’ll be in the fall of ‘07.

How does War/Dance fit into the kids entertainment you’ve done?

After I left Viacom, I really wanted to focus on things that were hand-crafted and personal for me, having gone through 14 years of corporate life. I’d always been involved in the helping/pro-social field. At Nickelodeon, I helped create the Big Help, the big pro-social campaign aimed at getting kids to participate in community service. I was on the board of the Children’s Museum of L.A. and helped to raise money to build the museum there. And even when I moved to Spike, I created “Check Up or Check Out,” a campaign that inspired men to get annual check ups. It’s always been part of my life, so I wanted to formalize it in some way.

My wife, Susan, is a professor of health education [at Kean University in New Jersey] and on the board of AMREF, which is the African Medical Research Foundation. When we learned of the situation about these kids in northern Uganda [who are abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army and forced to be child soldiers], Susan’s reaction was, maybe Montclair [where we leave in N.J.] can adopt a town in this war zone and help these kids. And I said, “I don’t know how to do that, but I know how to make movies, and it sounds like a story that should be told. And if we could get these kids’ stories out, that would be incredibly impactful.”

So we decided to make the movie together, and we also decided that the way we would make it would be to form a nonprofit called Shine Global, because we wanted to tell stories about how to end the exploitation or abuse of kids around the world through the making of documentary films that had political impact—that’s sort of our mission statement. But we weren’t looking to make money off it. We wanted to try to find a way to make an impact and also to bring all of our profits to the kids that were affected. So all the profits that we receive from War/Dance will go back to the kids and to the organizations like AMREF that are working to change these situations.

We also decided when we make these documentaries that we definitely want to make ones that showed both the hope and the horror. There’s so many docs that focus on just this dreadful situation. But we thought if we could make them with a little different point of view, one that really shows that, given the chance, kids and families can be empowered to change things themselves and to show that kind of hope, that it would be a film that had a different kind of impact.

What audience are you trying to reach with the film? An all-ages audience?

It’s a good question. We’ve really been thinking about War/Dance that way. I guess you’d have to say these docs are primarily for adults, and in the kids arena, it would probably be more—in the case of War/Dance—parental guidance. There’s no visual violence in it, but it does talk about some tough things. But I think in showing the hope and finding a story that has music and dance, and does bring you along in an entertaining way as well as an educational way, we do have a potential for this to reach a family audience.

Kids really want to help, and they really want to see what is happening to other kids. And this is a story that people are not that familiar with, so I think it’ll have quite an impact on other kids seeing it and what other kids are going through and how they can get through those scenarios, and I’m hopeful that there’s some really great lessons there.

The subject matter is pretty different from stuff you’ve done previously. I mean, it isn’t SpongeBob.

Well, I’ve always tried to educate as I entertained or to make people learn and laugh. At Nickelodeon, we did that through my oversight of Nick News, and at Spike I started a documentary division.

But it’s certainly my first feature doc. It’s certainly my first indie project—quite a different experience than the studio model!

Talk about “hand-crafted.”

Yeah, “hand-crafted and personal,” including reaching into your pocket a lot. I told my wife, ‘Sue, I loved working with you, this has been a great collaboration. But in 20 years, I’ve always subscribed to the producer’s first credo of [using] other people’s money. And the first production I’ve made with you, we violated that.’ But it was well worth it.

Moving on to your other current project through Biggies, tell me how you got involved in The Naked Brothers Band.

Well that’s just moving from documentary to mockumentary! The Naked Brothers Band was an indie film—again my attraction to the indie field in terms of how personal things are. It was an audience favorite at Hamptons Film Festival. And I was totally blown away, not only by the filmmaking and how funny and smart it was.

And it was a true family audience. You had adults who love the Beatles references and Uma Thurman’s in it and the smartness of it. And you had kids who just love the slapstick nature of it and the relationship of these brothers, who are real. And then I saw them in the Q&A afterwards and just totally fell in love with them. I’ve seen a lot of stars, and I’ve helped make a lot of stars, and these kids definitely have that.

And then I took it to Nickelodeon, and they fell in love with it as a series. We’re going to premiere it as a TV movie special and then a 13-episode series.

And it’ll follow the same mockumentary format?

Yeah, same format. Cameras follow around this world famous band, the Naked Brothers Band. Real kids, real brothers—not really naked. It’s kind of a controversial title on some level. It really is the name of their band.

Was there really any controversy over the name?

Not really. There was just a beat there when we presented it to Nickelodeon. Everybody laughed, and that’s what you’re supposed to do. Then at some point, somebody says, “Naked Brothers Band? Naked?” Overall, I think people understand it’s all good clean fun.

You’re working on multiplatform stuff at Worldwide Biggies. I know you have two children—do you get ideas from them in terms of the way they consume media?

They were really the inspiration. If you look at my son, who’s 19, he’s sitting on the computer, he’s surfing the Net, he’s got his IM open, he’s on iTunes and he’s got his iPod plugged into his ear, he’s watching TV. And I’m looking at this behavior and I’m thinking: How do I capture that? If that’s the degree of the engagement they now have with all these different media, wouldn’t it be great if I could provide them with an experience that would capture that? That was an inspiration for me to search for a new way to develop entertainment experiences for kids and young adults and the digital family.

Certainly that’s the sort of consumer that MTV Networks is looking to reach. How will you do it differently?

I think you actually have an advantage. I have the ability to develop prototype and get things to market much faster. I think that’s what a small, indie studio allows you to do. That’s what Biggies will be doing. You’re able to really seize the moment in a way that the corporations aren’t able to do because of their size, their way of doing things, their approval processes, their fiefdoms and different ways that companies are set up right now. You don’t have that—and why do you need it?

Look, the broadband world changes everything—it’s a game-changer. I can get something on the Net and get a reaction from users, respond to it in a way that I can change and craft it again—and they can change it and craft it again. I don’t need somebody else’s pipe or somebody else’s channel or somebody else’s structure. I just need the idea and the way to execute it.

So what is Biggies Broadband working on?

We’ve been raising money for the studio. We’ve been prototyping and developing properties over the last year and a half. And we’ve been working and developing with [multimedia gaming developers] like Build-a-Bear and Cranium on products we call Gametoons, which are broadband downloadable games. We’re building community game Websites, which are games and contests that we put in the middle of a passionate community so that people can not only play the game, but also experience the community around it. We’re about to launch our first Website next month.

We’re also doing Web shorts for The Naked Brothers Band—13 Webisodes and 13 podcasts that allow you to go deeper into the experience. And when I did the Video Game Awards [on Spike], I also did five viral videos that we put out there. One of them got over 100,000 hits, and we’re going to spin that off into a Web series called MoCap Men [about motion-capture artists]. It’s kind of like The Office in a low-rent videogame company. We’re just setting a distribution deal.

We’ve conceived of these properties always from this standpoint that they have in their DNA the ability to be multiplatform. They have the elements in them that are needed for that configuration of my son’s engagement pattern. So you can have someone who’s watching and learning and playing and connecting and collecting and creating. And these products all have that possibility embedded in them.

What’s your take on the state of family entertainment these days?

Well, American Idol’s a great show; it’s competition. But I just think there’s much more to be done in this arena than what’s out there. You haven’t seen a really big hit come along in the animation space in a while, so there’s certainly room for invention.

And I think that there really is this need for an experience that will engage people in a different way, a much deeper, more immersive engagement that I think people are waiting for. I think that experience is going to come from the broadband space—that’s where the next SpongeBob’s going to come from.

Do you imagine this digital experience as something the whole family?

I think it can be, yeah. Whether it’s the current behavior of the lap games—where the very young kids sit on their parents’ laps and play games together—or the experience of the distant learning that’s happening now, where dad or mom are on a trip away from their kids, but they can spend 15, 20 minutes via computer playing a game with them or having an experience with them, which is what I hope our Gametoons will be for them.

Look at the explosion of casual games among women. If you can cross that over to the explosion in time spent by kids on [online gaming] sites like Club Penguin, Runescape or even [Viacom’s] NeoPets, I think you can have a very, very successful and new experience for families.

So you don’t miss being at the big corporation now?

I don’t think anybody does right now. I really am enjoying the freedom to explore things on a passion and personal level, and the speed with which I’m able to develop and produce it.

I was really “the man who came to dinner” at Viacom; I stayed there 13 years as a producer and entrepreneur, and fortunately they let me interprenuer there. That was a good way to handle me, and I was successful for them that way.

But I think these are good roots for me right now to go back and really pursue these personal and passionate projects and work in this space, which I believe will give me something new and special. I believe in that space so much that I’m moving to dedicate myself to it. Coming from a guy who grew up in movies, TV and music, I think that’s a pretty big statement. I hope it’s the right bet! Seems that way. At least it’s exciting me.