In our current cultural climate, where the content of children's media is being ever more closely scrutinized, parents are seeking-and finding-quality entertainment in children's videos from independent producers. Recent studies show parents trust video more than any other form of entertainment. Stocking these independently produced titles in bookstores is a great way to reach book-buying parents, as well as an opportunity for cross-promotion. The trick is finding the right titles. PW recently spoke with two successful independent video distributors who work hard to ensure that booksellers and parents discover the diversity of independent children's video.

Video shelf space in bookstores, quite limited already, is often dominated by licensed product from Disney movies to Teletubbies to Blue's Clues. But independent children's video producers usually tackle special-interest subject matter not found in children's films or TV programming, such as live-action titles like Let's Go to the Farm or Garbage Day.

Tamara Carlisle, president of Big Kids Productions, a mail-order retail catalogue of independent children's videos, was one of those producers back in 1993 when she made the kids' video What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up: Heavy Equipment Operator.

Though she entered a children's video market flooded with new producers and titles from 1993 to 1997, Carlisle remembers, "I had a hard time finding other independent videos [for research, etc.]. And I was in the industry. So how would a parent or grandparent ever find them?" This realization inspired her to create Big Kids Productions. Her catalogue has grown from a flier containing nine titles to a 48-page publication listing 250 titles, 90% of them true independents. She now sells to wholesalers as well as individual consumers.

No longer a producer, Carlisle devotes all of her time to marketing and promoting titles in the Big Kids collection. She is dedicated to keeping independent titles alive, having watched many independent companies from the earlier video boom go bust. "It costs, on average, $40,000- $60,000 to make a 30-minute live-action video," Carlisle said. "You have to sell a lot of videos to make that back. Many of the smaller producers did not realize the marketing costs involved and went out of business after one or two titles." To keep titles going, Carlisle is intrepid about searching for special opportunities. "We're small and we have to create business from every angle." Among other things, she has pitched dairy farming titles to Vermont Life magazine and various dairy federations and a fire truck video to a catalogue that sells equipment to firefighters.

Carlisle credits librarians and teachers with keeping the independent video market going in lean times: "When the titles are shown in schools and circulated in libraries, we get so much exposure. It turns into sales." Carlisle has also worked closely with bookstores like Toad Hall in Austin, Tex., catering to their regional needs and helping them promote local artists like J Scruggs.

Another Company Blossoms

Marcela Davison Aviles, president and co-founder of Blackboard Entertainment in Oakland, Calif., followed a route similar to Carlisle's when she and her partners began concentrating on children's independent video back in 1994.

After her company lost corporate funding to sponsor festivals for young independent filmmakers, "serendipity" and the interests of her then two-year-old daughter led Aviles to reconsider her mission and business plan. She produced You Can Ride a Horse (1995), the first of seven successful video titles under the Blackboard Entertainment label. "We made the crucial decision to do our own marketing and distribution," said Aviles.

Blackboard currently carries close to 400 children's titles by independent producers in its mail-order catalogue and on its Web site (, and boasts exclusive arrangements with the Minnesota Orchestra for their Notes Alive! series, among others. "We've grown so significantly, we're like the little studio that could," Aviles said. "We have a reputation for being like a Miramax in the world of children's indies." And even more important, "We have the trust of our consumers," she added.

Aviles's continuing expansion plans include efforts to reach the underserved Latino and African-American markets through exclusive partnerships with Magic Johnson Entertainment and a Spanish-language television network. She is also adding audio to Blackboard's mix, with titles by Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, Dennis Hysom and others.

Strategic marketing campaigns have included radio promotion for Notes Alive! titles featured in a stand-alone kiosk at Target stores, and in-the-works deals with foreign licensers and the U.S. military. "Indie kids' video producers are coming into their own," she said. "And the product will definitely sell if it's supported in the right way."

Certainly, Carlisle's and Aviles's efforts have paid off thus far. Such innovative approaches will likely set independents apart-and keep them viable-in the future. Aviles feels confident that independent children's video will "remain attractive. Every year there's an indie title that breaks through," she said, like Babymugs, Barney, Road Construction Ahead and VeggieTales. "These producers succeeded against overwhelming odds. The bottom line is that parents will always want high-quality entertainment for their kids."