In 2009, John Agbaje (NA) and his brother Charles founded Central City Tower, an entertainment company devoted to creating original animated adventure stories. Avid artists and storytellers from a young age, the brothers had spent years dreaming up endless characters and worlds and wanted to formalize the intellectual property they had created.
After getting their feet wet on their first comic series, Project Zero, the brothers set out on an ambitious project to create the first animated fantasy adventure story set on the African continent. Inspired by a project Charles completed for film school at Northwestern, Spider Stories was born as an African inspired fantasy of a fearless princess and a wayward drummer who must save a fallen kingdom.
In February the brothers launched a campaign on Kickstarter, hoping to raise $25,000 to fund the development of a pilot episode for Spider Stories. By the end of March they had blown through their target, raising just over $30,000 from 690 individual backers.
Editor-in-Chief Alex Kleiner sat down with John to learn more about Spider Stories and what it’s like to run a successful Kickstarter campaign.
AK: Why did you decide to create Spider Stories?
JA: We wanted to give people a chance to see what is possible on the African continent, and we think the positive impact could be huge. There is a concept known as the ‘single story’ – a pervasive negative image of Africa presented in the mainstream media. So, when people think of Africa, they typically think of poverty and disease when actually there are vibrant cultures, interesting people, and booming businesses. What we hope Spider Stories can do is open up the world a little bit and change people’s perceptions about the continent. Hopefully those changed perceptions translate into some role models that Africans and non-Africans can look up to and when those kids grow up to be business leaders they will view the continent differently as well.
AK: Why are you the first ones to set a story like this in Africa?
JA: It’s still a bit risky if you run the numbers and look at it from a business perspective. Production costs are high and the obvious “target” audience only makes up a small percentage of the U.S. population. So many dismiss it asnot worth the investment. But, we are at the point where we should start to see more and more of these types of stories. Even limiting your thinking to a niche, now that technology and streaming services are making their way further and further into the African continent, things can really pick up steam and suddenly you’ve tapped into the global African diaspora. You’re not talking about a percentage of the U.S. population anymore, but a global population of nearly 300 million people—that’s a big target market by anyone’s standards. We think Spider Stories is special because its universal tale should do well with audiences in the US first and then resonate with the diaspora as well.
AK: Why is it called Spider Stories?
JA: The name comes from Anansi the Spider. Anansi is a trickster, a mischievous folk hero that gets into trouble, but also teaches children important life lessons. We have translated that character into what we call the ‘Spider Spirit,’ and that spirit is the governing celestial body in the universe we set up and is the keeper of stories.
AK: Tell me about the relationship with your brother. What’s the division of labor?
JA: When we were young the two of us would watch a show like Ninja Turtles, but instead of drawing Raphael or Leo, we would create our own frogs or lizards, give them names and write our own stories. The same thing happened when we played the Legend of Zelda. We didn’t go back and draw Link and Zelda, we created our own sword and sorcery fantasies. Throughout the years both of us would write and draw. We would have drawing contests to figure out who was better at different things. By the time we got to Project Zero, I think it became pretty clear that Charles was a better writer and I was a better artist, so that became the division of labor. At the same time, Charles has a fuller creative vision, whereas I have more of the business acumen. We now specialize that way as well. Charles really does well with the stories and the characters and I look at how we lock down distribution, who we’re going to hire, and how we think about merchandising.
AK: Besides the two of you, who else is involved with Spider Stories?
At the core of it, it’s the two of us. Our sister Esther serves as an advisor, and Kaki Ettinger (NI) and Claire Friedman (NE) have both been helping out quite a bit and bring some real expertise from the media world and also on the finance and operations side. Also, my brother is building out the creative team. He has a composer out in Los Angeles that we’re working with, so the family is growing!
AK: What was the Kickstarter campaign like?
JA: Kickstarter is an all-consuming process. The stakes are high. You set a funding target—in our case, $25,000—and if you’re short by even one dollar when the time period ends, you lose everything. So, when we made the decision to go into animation, we knew there was no way we could bootstrap it like we did with the comic books. So we went to Kickstarter. For two months beforehand, we did a ton of preparation work. We created a lot of artwork, shot some video, and refined the story. We launched at the Africa Business Conference at HBS in February. Then we were off to the races.
AK: What was the toughest part of the campaign?
JA: As it always works with Kickstarter, you have some really strong days to start, a lull in the middle, and then strong days at the end. But our initial strong days weren’t strong enough. We reached out to a bunch of people and the advice oneof them gave was for us to suspend our campaign. For a second we considered it, but we knew that we were fully committed and decided to move forward. So what we did is re-focus our campaign. We went to other conferences, made more phone calls, made frequent updates to the website, developed new rewards for backers, and brought more people into the fold to make them feel like they were part of the pilot.
AK: What was the turning point?
JA: Eventually we got some press on a couple blogs and we began to see some traction. At that point, it’s just a game of milestones. Below $10,000, you’re essentially under water. Once you pass $10,000, then you have a story to tell. Around $15,000, you’ve added more fuel. At $20,000, then it’s the home stretch, and we raised that last $5,000 to hit our target in just two days. Amazingly, we were able to overshoot and get to $30,000 before the deadline.
AK: What do you have to say to your backers?
JA: We are so indebted to the backers of our campaign. Now that we have the funding there is no turning back. We will make the film and it will be at the highest quality possible. We will make sure that we will do well by everyone who put their faith in us. It’s not like we had a product to sell that people wanted to eventually buy and we were just doing pre-sales. This was truly $30,000 of pure faith. And that’s why we need to execute.
AK: What are you going to do with the money?
JA: Animation is expensive and slow-moving, so part of our challenge is how much we can do with the budget we have. In general, I think it’s a really interesting question for the industry – how can we find cost efficiencies? At the same time, we will look for additional investment. We generated a lot of excitement through the campaign and we want to create the highest quality show possible, so to the extent that we can further fund the project, it will be an exciting and worthwhile opportunity.
AK: What does the production timeline look like?
JA: Right now we’re in pre-production and are mapping out the full production schedule. Because every frame is hand-drawn, we need to lock down the script before we start creating the animation. So it’s got to be air tight before we start. We’re hoping to finish that up by the middle of May. Then you go through a process of storyboarding and then comes the animatic, which is used to sync up the sound, bring in the voice talent, and really build the film. Then you do clean-up, coloring, and it becomes a polished animation. For a professional studio, all of that work probably takes about eight months. For us, considering that we will be working mostly nights and weekends, it’s going to take a bit longer. We’ll both be in Los Angeles for the summer working on it.
AK: Along with Spider Stories, how do you envision your professional career path?
JA: There is always a lot to learn. I’m passionate about the industry and it’s where I want to be. But there are a lot of procedural things you need to know and developing relationships and finding mentors is equally important. A big part of the industry is being audacious, but it’s also about being humble and realizing what you can and can’t do. So I think I would get quite a bit out of working for a major animation house, or even one of the smaller studios. At the same time, there are periods in life when you can take risks and right now is a great time to run with things, so hopefully the Zeitgeist is with us and we can be successful!