Special Report: Interactive Production: Disney interacting with Victoria

Since Disney Interactive acquired the Sanctuary Woods multimedia studio in downtown Victoria, b.c. in May, life around the office has become a lot more animated, says facility director Francois Robillard.

‘The security is tangible,’ he says, referring to Disney Interactive’s significantly deep pockets, its topnotch content for kids and its well-oiled distribution network. ‘There is no urgency brought about by being in survival mode.’

Cash-strapped Sanctuary Woods of San Mateo, Calif. divested its entertainment divisions in a restructuring earlier this year, Robillard explains.

As part of the Disney family, the Victoria studio is working with classic and new Disney characters and is designing multimedia projects for all platforms, including Windows, Mac and sgi systems. For example, the West Coast facility worked on a Hunchback ‘Print Studio’ – software featuring the Hunchback character that enables the user to create printed materials – which is about to be launched in the French market in time for Christmas.

The 12,600-square-foot studio on Government Street is currently working on a Winnie the Pooh ‘Print Studio,’ a Pooh early learning title and an ‘Animated Storybook’ of next year’s big summer release from Disney, Hercules.

Animated storybooks are cd-rom products that tell users the tale of, for instance, Hercules, and include activities, games and interactivity with the characters. The key market for these products is kids aged three to six, says Robillard, a father of three young children.

Disney Interactive was founded in December 1994 to develop and market a broad range of multimedia and interactive entertainment and education products. Since its formation, the company has released nearly 30 titles.

In 1995, the company was responsible for five of the top-selling children’s cd-roms and has produced a top-five-selling video game in each of the past three years. Disney Interactive was the number one educational software publisher during the first six months of 1996 and currently holds four of the top five positions on the children’s software charts with its Toy Story, Pocahontas and Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree animated storybooks and The Lion King Activity Center.

Distribution is handled by the veteran Disney division Buena Vista and there are marketing offices in North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia Pacific.

In 1996, Disney Interactive expects to release 15 new titles and expand its presence on the Internet. Future releases include live-action and virtual reality-based entertainment products for the home.

Prior to the Disney acquisition, the Victoria studio – which was founded in 1992 – concentrated on one to three titles per year. ‘Now we work on smaller parts of a wider range of titles,’ says Robillard.

The 35 jobs in Victoria form only a fraction of Disney Interactive’s 600 employees. Half the local staff are programmers, while the rest fall into positions such as sound and graphic designers and artists. The animation and creative are handled by the staff in Disney Interactive’s Burbank head office.

Steve Fields, senior vp of ‘edutainment’ and multimedia at Disney Interactive in California, calls the Victoria acquisition a success. ‘We continue to be excited about what we’re doing up there. We have high expectations and we are meeting them.’

Fields supervises the development, creation and production, marketing and sales of children’s and family-oriented computer software. He was formerly the senior vp of original programming and vp of marketing at Disney Channel.

Disney Interactive was attracted to the Victoria studio because of its technology, its engineering team and its artists, says Fields. The purchase price is undisclosed as are the studio’s annual sales and production volumes.

The Victoria studio has developed its own systems technology called M4DS, which is an enabling system that allows programmers to produce software on dvd and cd-rom. While M4DS stays on Vancouver Island today, the long-term plan calls for the technology to be integrated throughout the Disney Interactive network, which includes another remote office in Baltimore.

‘(The Victoria studio) will continue to work on the development of its technology, he says.

But the Victoria studio has a momentum in interactive production that is hard to ignore, says Fields. ‘We continue to be enthusiastic,’ he says.