Start Licensing’s Ian Downes catches up with Simon Foulkes, md of Rainbow Productions, about the company, its history and its role in licensing.
I recently joined a few of the Rainbow Productions’ team on a walk in the Surrey Hills – we completed the Surrey Peaks: Box Hill, Leith Hill and Holmbury Hill. The walk was for the licensing wide 10000km for Kelvyn project. The distance covered was around 40km – plenty of time for a chat.
I was chatting to Rainbow Production’s Simon Foulkes about the company, its history and its role in licensing. I thought it was a chat that might interest more people in licensing. Rainbow Productions is a company we all know of in licensing, but maybe don’t know so much about. Chatting to Simon was a good reminder to me that it is always good asking questions, chatting to people and finding out more about companies even those you think you know well.
Rainbow Productions is well established in the licensing community, but it might be useful if you could remind us what Rainbow Productions does and how the company gets involved in licensing?
Thanks Ian – most people in the licensing community know Rainbow from seeing the sea of costumes at the various trade shows around the world, but there are two principal sides to us. As well as organising the personal appearances of famous cartoon character celebrities, we also manufacture costume character mascots across many different industries. Additionally, we are also an event management company, write and produce mini shows, warehouse and refurbish costumes as well as design mascots.
Licensing has always been at the heart of Rainbow ever since we were established in the early ‘80s. The reason for the creation of the company was to devise events featuring life-size costume versions of famous characters. Initially it was to develop and stage a festival at Hever Castle to celebrate the 50th Birthday of Donald Duck and then working with the GLC to create a Walt Disney Festival on London’s South Bank.
Fast forward to 2021 and Rainbow now represents, under licence, over 120 licensed characters.
In the mid ‘90’s Rainbow started manufacturing licensed character costumes in a purpose-built manufacturing facility in South London and now we work with almost every studio in the world to either develop or reproduce their IP as costume characters.
How did you get into the licensing industry?
I started with Rainbow as a costume character performer in 1992 while I was at drama school in London. As a student actor I realised early on I had to turn my hand to many things; busking in Covent Garden; (feigning) being a Portuguese expert on Iberian brandy at the International Wine Fair; a butcher; a hospital radio DJ; a model for a girl’s weekly comic called Blue Jeans; a fair ground ride operator (loved that job) or best of all accompanying Edd the Duck around branches of Swintons insurance.
Almost three decades later and, despite the circuitous route, I am one of the many people who ‘just happened’ to alight at the licensing industry and never looked back.
You became md of Rainbow Productions upon the retirement of David Scott. How have you found your new role – I guess it has been challenging running a business during lockdown?
I worked alongside David for 27 years so I had a thorough understanding of the business. In 1997 I was appointed as a director with a main focus of developing the company’s profile and business. David’s retirement was stage managed to take effect in 2021 and consequently we had spent many months discussing and planning the transition to ensure it would be as seamless as possible. Having a formidable management team in place, as well as many highly skilled workers, has ensured the continuity has proceeded as planned.
As someone who has been on a number of history trips with me Ian, you know first-hand how meticulously I plan things and while I fully expected the challenges of Brexit, the lockdown was a bit more than a curveball. Positivity wasn’t enough to guide the business through the challenges of the last year, but having the support, dedication and professionalism of each and every person at Rainbow has meant that, despite the bloodied nose, we have risen from canvas and are ready for the next round.
What have been some of the changes you have seen in your business in terms of the technology used in costumes and the type of events you work with? What do you see on the horizon for Rainbow Productions?
Fundamentally we pride ourselves on producing hand-made costumes here in the UK made by some of the best propmakers and seamsters in the world. We are constantly being challenged to innovate and design costume characters which incorporate new technology and in recent years we have invested in 3D printers, rotational casting machines and CAD software to ensure that we are always a leading and contemporary manufacturer in our field.
Without question though, the future of change for the company is firmly rooted in our environmental roadmap. Green is the colour which is at the centre of a rainbow and we have created a ‘Green Team’ to ensure that these issues are at the heart of the company’s development.
From an events’ perspective, during the lockdown period, we have reflected on how we manage and develop licensed character live events and have bolstered our portfolio with a range of Sensory Activations tailored towards disability inclusion. Among other initiatives we are liaising with specialists in this field and we are taking steps to train staff in skills such as British Sign Language.
I know Rainbow Productions works a lot in the sports market. What makes a good mascot for a sports event or club? How do you help them develop mascots?
The sports sector is massive for the company and now we are truly global – recently we made mascots for every football club in the Saudi Arabian league. But, it all started back here in the UK; following on from Lord Justice Taylor’s report in the early ‘90’s whereby, among other things, he identified that the game had to grow to appeal to families. Sports mascots in the States were very well established, and we recognised this opportunity in the UK. My Vauxhall Astra and I then embarked a tour of all the football clubs and before long Rainbow became a key designer and manufacturer of many football mascots throughout the UK & Europe (and you will be pleased to know Millwall as well).
The pinnacle in the 90’s for Rainbow was creating the mascot, Goaliath, for Euro ’96 and then in ’98 being selected to create Footix, for the FIFA World Cup in France. To date Rainbow have produced more International Sports Tournament Mascots than any other company in the world – currently 49 and we have two tenders out there which hopefully will bring up the half century.
There have been some shocking sports mascots created over the years but the standard and understanding of why clubs and tournaments need mascots is now fundamental. Recently I saw that Perry was launched for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 and I feel this character has raised the mascot bar once again as it has factored in diversity, inclusivity, appeal, commercial opportunities, history, and athleticism; all guiding values of the games themselves.
How important is it to have good performers to bring the characters alive? How do you train your team to be ‘in character’?
We have a responsibility to all the brands we represent to ensure that they are consistently and unilaterally portrayed, therefore our performers have to be the best at what they do.
Not only do the performers have to respect and fully understand the property they are representing, but when a child actually gets to meet their hero we need to ensure that they are utterly enthralled and engaged. We lay great emphasis on our performers attending our Character Academy to acquire the skills of physicalising emotions and non-verbal communication, while at the same time enjoying every second of a very physically demanding role.
Personally, I trained in Commedia dell’arte and street theatre many years ago so I understand how impactful (and gruelling) physical theatre is. I am still in awe of how professional and tantalising many of our performers are and very little makes me prouder than when I see and hear the comments, of peers in the industry, in the aisles at BLE. The costume character parade at BLE is professionally one of the highlights of each year.
What have been some of the more challenging characters to develop into costumes?
Costume characters have become increasingly more sophisticated over the years with the addition of technology such as GPS systems, LEDs and remote-controlled animatronic movements. And, their demands have followed suit; skydiving, freestyling, water-skiing, abseiling and even riding on one of the gondolas on Sugarloaf cable car in Rio de Janeiro.
Despite all these challenges which I have every faith in our design and production department combatting, by far the greatest challenge was to produce a mascot for a major European sporting tournament in 24 hours. We received a call from the client on the Wednesday informing us that ‘someone’ had forgotten to order the mascot and it was needed the following day for its launch… in Munich. The following 12 hours was worthy of a Hollywood script, but we did it.
You work across a range of business sectors. How do you keep in touch with the different industries and trends within them?
You are absolutely spot on here that we work across not only many business sectors, but also across many territories.
The sales team each work in their own vertical markets and monitor closely, through their personal connections, industry developments. We tend to look at industries as a whole in order to get the complete picture to ensure that we identify trends and opportunities. The landscape of the leisure industry, for instance at the moment, is very different between operators which are only about to open and those which have been functioning at a reduced capacity in line with Government indicators.
Trade journals, publications, social media, bulletins, and our membership of targeted trade organisations also ensure that we know what is happening in the market sectors and adapt/tailor our products accordingly. In recent months and much as we have all had to adapt to Zoom and Teams calls there is no substitute for meeting customers, peers and industry friends to glean what is actually happening on the ground.
One can imagine you have had quite a few adventures and memorable moments working with Rainbow Productions and the cast of characters you work with. Can you let us know a few of your best anecdotes?
I could fill a book with anecdotes from the many adventures I have had with costume characters over the years, and I am sure there are many more to come.
Being overtaken at the nine mile marker in the London Marathon by Mr Bump and then getting my own back at the 14 mile maker was both a low and high. Representing England on the pitch at Twickenham in front of 75,000 fans was a tremendous highlight (I often tell this story without the full disclosure that I was of course ‘in character’ at the time). Posing for photos on the red carpet with Cameron Diaz (once again I sometimes neglect to mention the ‘in character’ thing). Closing an order for five costumes by giving a pint of blood (to join the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Trust register); standing in a lift with a very famous cartoon character as a visually impaired Government minister stepped in with his guide dog and not knowing if I should say who he was standing next to (fortunately no paparazzi were present as the lift opened).
However, the one I will always remember (and David won’t thank me for this) is the time we were in Syntagma Square in Athens about to launch our first ever Olympic Games mascots to the Athenian public and international press, only to look around just before we left the changing room and realising my colleague had put the mascot’s head on back to front. He maintains he knew but I remain gigglingly unconvinced…
Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.