In the age of inevitable mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations, instances of entertainment companies that have achieved longevity and brand recognition while remaining independent are few and far between. The Jim Henson Company is one of those companies that has resisted the flow toward homogenized ownership. Lisa Henson aims to keep it that way. Carrying on the legacy of creativity and innovation of the company her father founded in 1955, the current CEO and eldest of Henson’s five children is up to the task.
“Ever since I was a young person, I felt that I would become a producer, and my father geared me in that direction,” she recollects. “As children, we were integrated right into our father’s work life, spending a lot of time with him on set or in the workshop where the puppets were being built, watching the puppetry being done from down below on the monitors.” Like many children from the late 1960s on, Henson grew up with her father’s characters, but unlike most, she had a front-row seat to many aspects of show business beyond what the average viewer saw on screen. It seemed natural she would gravitate toward a career related to entertainment and puppetry, but life is rarely so straightforward, and initially Henson had other plans.
“I was really, really good at math in high school and I thought that I was gifted, which turned out not to be the case,” she tells us. After hitting the proverbial “math wall” in her freshman year, she decided to study ancient Greek which, not coincidentally, shares a lot of its alphabetic characters with symbols used in mathematics. And as it happened, renowned classicist Gregory Nagy was cycling through teaching introductory Greek that year, and his tutelage turned Henson on to the brilliance of Homer, inspiring her to change her major to folklore and mythology. While studying Latin for school, she got to know one of her most important mentors, David Odell, who wrote the screenplay for Jim Henson’s first major fantasy-creature film, The Dark Crystal. It was through Odell that she began to learn more about Hollywood and the kinds of jobs available in development.
Rather than use familial connections, Henson took another path that led her to Hollywood. While at Harvard, Henson made a name for herself by becoming the first female president of the legendary humor publication, Harvard Lampoon. “There were magazine spreads about me and somebody in LA picked up the magazine and offered me a job at Warner Bros. as a junior executive,” she recalls.
She worked at Warner Bros. for nearly a decade under another of her mentors, Lucy Fisher, first as a production executive, then as an executive vice president. She then transitioned to Columbia Pictures where she spent three years working as president of production and three as a producer. When she did come to work at The Jim Henson Company for the first time in 1999, she brought a wealth of external experience with her. “In a family company, especially a company that functions as a family, you can become insular, and I felt that bringing my outside experience from bigger companies helped keep the balance.”
Henson Studios is a physical embodiment of that balance. Occupying the studio where Charlie Chaplin once filmed his silent masterpieces, it is an oasis of quaint Tudor buildings wreathed in greenery right in the midst of gritty downtown Hollywood. Deceptively small, it houses one of the largest motion capture facilities in LA, the world-class Henson Recording Studios, a 7,500-ft soundstage—and a few artifacts from some of Henson’s most famous productions, including a life-size blue dinosaur.
The concepts of teamwork and cooperation are as important to running a company as they are in the teachings of Kermit the Frog and Bert and Ernie. “I believe that to have a really good creative environment as a business, you want everyone to feel that they can contribute their creativity to the company in a way that matters,” Henson says. “With everybody working together in this way, I like to think that the sum total is greater than what one individual genius could come up with.”
Since Jim Henson’s death in 1990, the company and his legacy properties have been owned and managed by the Henson children, all of whom are board members of the company. Lisa Henson works as CEO while Brian Henson is chairman. Cheryl Henson is based in New York and is president of the Jim Henson Foundation, managing its philanthropic efforts. Heather is involved with theatrical puppeteering and produces puppet films. John, who passed away in February 2014, was also involved in puppet performance and is perhaps most famous for his role as the Muppet “Sweetums” in several films.
One of Lisa Henson’s challenges is to help bridge the gap between what people think the Jim Henson Company does and what it actually does. For instance, many people don’t realize that both the Muppets and Sesame Street are no longer owned or managed by the Jim Henson Company. The Sesame Street characters were sold to the Sesame Workshop in 2001, and Disney bought the rights to the Muppets in 2004. Both properties had become so large and complex to manage they needed a parent company with the infrastructure in place to help them continue to grow. That is not to say the Hensons are no longer involved with those properties—the Jim Henson Company still builds all the puppets used in those properties with the exception of Disney and trains the puppeteers through its workshops.
Freed from the responsibility of maintaining those properties, the company’s focus is on expanding its remaining legacy properties and producing new projects such as current children’s shows Sid the Science Kid, Dinosaur Train, and Pajanimals, as well as feature films such as Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, scheduled for release in October.
“I have a kind of twin emphasis between developing the legacy titles and developing brand new properties,” Henson says. “One of our biggest opportunities and challenges as a company is to help the audience understand that all the different content we produce comes from one place.” Hence, the ‘Jim Henson’ name is incorporated into the titles of different properties to reinforce that connection.
Maintaining a cohesive Jim Henson brand is a key consideration when it comes to choosing new content. In particular, Henson looks to see if a project will be able to survive beyond its original form. “If the property succeeds—whether it is a feature film, a television show, or even a publishing project—we look to see if it would be able to extend out into other media.”
This has proven to be valuable to them in the past, in particular with their 1982 feature film The Dark Crystal, which established an entire fantasy world that has continued to expand via official art books, graphic novels, and a sequel movie (currently in development). At their 2013 Comic-Con panel in San Diego, they announced a joint contest with Penguin Books – “Author Quest” – inviting writers to pen a young adult novel based on the world. Other legacy properties have similar expansion potential. Fraggle Rock, which recently turned 30, has a feature film in development. Doozers, an animated preschool show that premiered on Hulu in April, features the three-inch green creatures from the Fraggle Rock universe as well.
Though family and children’s entertainment are most often associated with the Henson name, the company has continued its long tradition of working to appeal to its adult audience as well, many of whom have known Henson’s characters since childhood. Adult-oriented properties are marketed under the Henson Alternative (HA!) brand. Their live improv puppet comedy show, Puppet Up! has toured internationally, and many of those puppeteers have moved to other HA! shows like No You Shut Up, which airs on the new cable channel Fusion and is written by The Daily Show writer David Javerbaum.
One of the biggest benefits of maintaining a strong brand is it allows them to partner with other established properties under their third-party licensing label, Henson Independent Properties (HIP). HIP is the exclusive worldwide distributor for programs such as Lily’s Driftwood Bay and The Stringdoll Gang, and has experimented with endorsing films they feel deserve recognition, such as the Thai film The Blue Elephant.
Innovation in puppet technology has long been a part of the Henson legacy, and Lisa Henson has continued to encourage that development into the digital age. Several of their animated shows make use of the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio —a system that combines motion capture technology with puppetry to allow animated characters to move and perform in real time based on their human performers.
“We definitely want to continue to be very innovative and keep doing new things technologically,” Henson reiterates. “That is really at the heart of what my father was passionate about—innovation and doing things in new ways. We want to serve that legacy proudly.”