A Juicy Story
Local Creators of ‘The Berries’ Share the Secrets of their Sweet Success
Their theme song says ‘there’s no doubt when the Berries come along,’ and the creators of the rising children’s stars couldn’t agree more. As they enter their fourth year as producers of an increasingly popular program and musical act for kids, three local dads look back at the road they’ve taken, and how The Berries are leading to just desserts.
When three girls wearing brightly colored costumes and big smiles visited the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last summer, they nearly brought the house down.
The performers were The Berries — Raz, Straw, and Blue — the stars of their own children’s DVD and recording artists with their own CD soundtrack. Their fans will tell you they also have their own T-shirts and downloadable coloring pages.
Children waited in line patiently to meet the Berries and pose for photos — one little girl burst into happy tears after shaking hands with the stars she sings along with nearly every day.
The event was a success for the group, and for its creators, three dads who formed Brain Powered Concepts Inc. (BPC) in 2004 to try their hand at producing, as well as augmenting the pool of children’s programming available today. They started slowly, learning the ropes as they continued to balance family with full-time jobs, but the result of three years of work is an award-winning, live-action, musically oriented children’s program geared toward the preschool demographic — children roughly aged 2 through 6 — that is about to burst onto the kids’ entertainment scene.
But there’s more to the Berries’ story than that, for even though they reside in Berryland, their roots are planted firmly in Western Mass.
BPC is powered by Fred Pokryzwa of Chicopee, Eric Stevens of West Springfield, and Paul Yacovone of Agawam. The partners are long-time friends with children of varying ages, and their venture began with a conversation one evening about the TV shows and DVDs their children watched, and what was missing from them.
“The three of us, as fathers, thought there must be room for something better,” said Yacovone, BPC’s chief financial officer. “There’s a lack of positive role models out there.”
The partners had never worked in the entertainment or production arenas before, but said they had an idea they felt was strong, and the drive to see it through. Instead of taking on the massive task themselves, they pooled their own capital and began searching for professionals across New England to help them bring The Berries to fruition.
Talent by the Bushel
The search began with Bill Miller, an Emmy Award-winning video producer and director based in Sherborn, Mass., whose client list includes Disney Television, ESPN, Major League Baseball, and VH1, among other outlets. It was here that the partners got their first look at the road ahead — one that wasn’t always going to be brightly colored and cheerful.
“He actually tried to discourage us,” said Pokryzwa, BPC’s chief information officer. “He told us, ‘this is a tough business. You don’t want to be in this business.’”
But Yacovone noted that if he and his partners were ready to launch a new company based on handwritten notes from their first conversation, they were ready to take the leap into the unknown world of children’s entertainment.
“We just said, ‘let’s do it,’” said Yacovone. “We knew it was something we wanted to do — we were motivated, especially by our families, and wanted to strike while the iron was hot.”
Stevens, who serves as BPC’s president, said they eventually sold Miller on their concept through a blend of confidence and a little humor, by telling him they still wanted to take their shot.
“We wanted his expertise, and if the endeavor flopped, we told him we’d simply say our children owned the most expensive DVD ever,” he said. “He responded by telling us he couldn’t promise us success, but he could promise us quality, and that’s what we wanted to hear.”
With Miller at the helm, BPC moved forward with trademarking, copyrighting, and hiring, working to identify more children’s media moguls to join the Berries team.
Those who signed on include Ben Stellpflug, a songwriter, producer, and arranger who has worked in various capacities within the Disney Corp., among other credits; Jon Sellew, a script- and copywriter who has written for a number of corporate and media-based clients such as Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and Children’s Television Workshop; and David Porter, Jim Sullivan, and Chris Anderson, managing partners of Mix One Studios in Boston, where the Berries’ nine-song CD was recorded. This affiliation puts the Berries and BPC on par with such clients as Aerosmith, HBO, and the Boston Pops.
“We’ve been involved at all levels, but we have some of the best people in the business working with us, and that has added a lot of leadership to our endeavor,” said Yacovone, who noted that every day in Berryland is a learning experience for the new ‘dadtrepreneurs.’ “We had a slow start — it was more than a year before we started filming. But since it’s all new to us, every step of the way has been a blast.”
That includes the partners’ first casting call, at which more than 150 young women responded to the search to cast the Berries.
“The ultimate goal was to find three women with whom kids could form an instant bond,” said Yacovone. “Picking three was difficult. We saw a lot of talent.”
In the end, Boston-area actresses Erin Leddy, Sheena Melwani, and Michelle DeLuca were cast as Straw, Blue, and Raz, while Joy Scott earned a spot as Cran, the Berries’ cousin, who appears in one of the three episodes filmed to date.
“The shows teach life lessons — things like the importance of friendship and how it’s OK to be different,” said Stevens, “and we look at the Berries as being positive role models. We thought that was one area where children’s shows could do better, so we were very sure early on what type of characters we wanted the Berries to be, and we worked closely with our team to make sure the vision stuck.”
The Berries lead viewers through a series of original songs with titles like “Outside the Lines” and “Something in Common,” and discuss topics appropriate to the preschool age group, such as colors, senses, and friendship.
But the BPC team believes that the Berries provide one of the more progressive offerings for children available today, as well.
“The music is strong,” said Yacovone. “It’s not childlike, and the rhythm is catchy. There are more difficult words than the norm to take in and memorize.
“But the biggest complaint we get from parents is that their kids are demanding the Berries’ CD be played constantly — at home, in the car — and they can’t get the songs out of their heads.”
“And some parents,” added Stevens, “say they keep the CD playing even after the kids get out of the car.”
Pie in the Sky
Beyond positive feedback, BPC has seen other signs of success, including an important national accolade. The Berries’ premiere DVD, featuring the act’s first three episodes, was recently awarded the National Parenting Center’s Seal of Approval, placing it in the company of such high-profile films and videos as The Chronicles of Narnia, High School Musical, and Pooh’s Grand Adventure, all produced by Disney.
The songs and shows have also been featured on Radio Disney and KidVideos.com, the children’s equivalent to YouTube.
As they make plans for the future, the business partners are hoping to locate additional venture capital; increase distribution of the Berries’ DVDs, CDs, and other merchandise; and produce a new set of episodes. They’re also in talks with a major Web-based firm to feature the Berries’ shows online, and hope to pursue a collaboration to syndicate the show on television.
Regionally, as proven by the Berries’ reception at the Basketball Hall of Fame, Raz, Straw, and Blue have a strong following. Big Y now carries their merchandise in all of their stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut, as does Pilgrim Candle in Westfield and South Hadley. Christmas sales helped BPC have its best quarter ever at the close of last year, and Pokryzwa said the local response has only bolstered his belief that the Berries are destined for great things.
“When you see every child react in the same great way to the Berries, you know you’ve got a product that’s good,” he said. “I used to say we wanted to go national with this, but I don’t say that anymore. We can go international.”
Yacovone and Stevens nod in agreement, but the partners’ collective definition of return on investment isn’t relegated to profits from CD, DVD, and T-shirt sales.
“We’d love to make the Berries a household name,” said Yacovone. “The growing brand recognition of the Berries is already allowing more children to get to know them.”
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]