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Mini millionaires: Five who made their fortunes from children’s cartoons

It was announced today that animated character Peppa Pig is to become a billionaire with a new US merchandising deal – and she’s not the only one. Here we look at five cartoonists coining it from their creations.

Image: Nick.co.uk / Viacom International

CHILDREN’S ANIMATED CHARACTER Peppa Pig is set to generate around $1billion in revenue for the brand’s owners after signing a huge US merchandising deal with Fisher Price, it emerged today.

But Peppa’s proud owners aren’t the only ones making millions from cartoons. The global market for kids’ animation characters is huge – estimated at $92billion in the US alone – and creating a top brand brings enormous rewards. Here we look at five people (or groups) who have made millions from their childlike imaginations.

1. Stephen Hillenburg – Spongebob Squarepants

Before striking gold with his underwater cartoon, Stephen Hillenburg was a scuba diver and marine biology teacher at a California college. A lifelong animation fan, he drew an educational comic about life in tidal pools which featured a character called Bob the Sponge. In 1987 he left teacher to pursue a career in animation working for Nickelodeon – where, nine years later, he pitched a show about trouser-wearing ocean-dweller Spongebob Squarepants.

After premiering in 1999, Spongebob swiftly became one of the most lucrative properties in kids’ TV. Ten years later,  it was generating €5.5billion a year in merchandise sales, with 76million people watching the show worldwide each quarter. Now 49, Hillenburg owns a production company called United Plankton Pictures and one website has estimated his personal worth at €62million.

2. Keith Chapman – Bob The Builder

One day during the 1980s, 26-year-old Keith Chapman heard a JCB at work outside his window. He watched the digger, sketched an image of a character, and put it aside. Years later with three young sons, he began to read them bedtime stories based on his impromptu creation. When he asked what story they wanted, Chapman told an interviewer, they would always shout “Bob! Bob!”

Bob the Builder went into production in 1998. By 2003, it was generating €37million a year in revenue for production company Hit Entertainment. Chapman sold his creative rights to Bob to set up his own company, but is still estimated to have earned more than €5million in royalties.

3. Anne Wood – Teletubbies

Anne Wood introduced Roland Rat to the world in 1983, practically saving struggling UK breakfast channel TV-am in the process. Shortly afterwards, she set up her own company Ragdoll Productions, and it was with the bizarre concept for Teletubbies – four friendly, fat, alien-like creatures with televisions in their stomachs – that she struck gold in 1997. (When asked why the Teletubbies co-existed with giant rabbits, she told one interviewer: “There simply must be rabbits.”)

Teletubbies swiftly rose to number one in the children’s TV rankings, and its 365 episodes were broadcast in 113 countries. Soft toys of the characters famously sold out of UK stores at Christmas. The show delivered €136million in profits for the BBC from overseas merchandise sales alone; and 68-year-old Wood’s personal fortune was estimated in 2006 at almost €150million.

4. Neville Astley, Mark Baker and Phil Davies – Peppa Pig

The trio met while working at an animation college in the 1980s, and kept in touch afterwards. In late 2001, they came up with some sketches for a pig character. The group chose a pig, Baker told The Sun, “because pigs love playing in mud as do small children, and pigs make ‘oink’ sounds which we thought would be funny.” Davies own children said the character was just “OK”, he told an interviewer – but others disagreed. It is now shown in 180 countries. Even before the new US deal, the show was bringing in €110million a year from merchandise.

5. Chris Gifford, Valerie Walsh, and Eric Weiner – Dora the Explorer

Asked to develop their own show while working at kids’ channel Nickelodeon, Gifford, Walsh and Weiner decided on a young girl with animal friends called Tess. But then network executives returned from a conference on the under-representation of Latino characters on television – and it was decided to remake the character into bilingual Latina Dora. The show was rigorously tested on children. In its early years, staffers with kids “would come in and say that their 4-year-old didn’t like an idea for an episode”, Walsh said last year. Production would immediately be stopped.

It all paid off. Ten years after first appearing in 2000, Dora had notched up almost €8billion in global merchandising, selling more than 20million DVDs and 50million books. There are more than 950 license agreements in place for Dora products. “We are really mindful of what they [children] want and like,” Walsh has said. “We really do listen to kids.”

Read More: Peppa Pig to become a puddle-splashing billionaire >

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Michael Freeman

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