Three years ago, an unknown filmmaker posted a minute-and-a-half long video of a weird-looking orange badgering an innocent apple on the other side of the kitchen counter. While the orange was realistic in shape and size, it had the mouth and eyes of a human and spoke in the squeaky voice of an 8-year-old boy. Same with the ill-fated apple, which gets massacred by a large kitchen knife in a surprisingly brutal denouement.
The clip was an epic hit. Within three weeks it had been watched more than a million times. In six months, it had more than 50 million views, and its creator—Minnesota-born Dane Boedigheimer—had become a YouTube superstar, thanks to the dozens more Annoying Orange videos that he and his writing partner Spencer Grove had uploaded in the interim. By January 2012, their wacky talking fruit videos had more than a billion views and were raking in nearly $865,000 in annual ad revenue, according to the web ad-buying platform TubeMogul.
Now Boedigheimer, 34, has made the unusual move of turning a web-originated series into a top-ten TV show for boys. In The High-Fructose Adventures of Annoying Orange, which debuted on the Cartoon Network in June, Orange and his oddball gang of edible friends (including Pear, Passion Fruit, Grapefruit and Marshmallow) move out of the kitchen and onto a fruit cart, where more elaborate escapades ensue. An Annoying Orange Christmas album just dropped on iTunes, and the TV Christmas special—a spoof of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—airs tonight, December 3. It’s a whirlwind success story by any measure, but especially for a guy who came out of nowhere and got millions of kids to tune in to his fantastical, fruit-filled world.
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Eight years ago, Boedigheimer was just another nobody in the City of Angels. The son of a roofer, he spent his first year after college at Moorhead State University in Minnesota working at a one-hour photo lab while trying to break into the film scene in Minneapolis. “I only got in on one shoot, so that was the extent of that,” he says. In 2004, when a college friend and fellow film major recommended him as a production assistant on MTV’s Pimp My Ride, Boedigheimer moved to Los Angeles and took the job, earning $700 a week.
He came up with the idea for Annoying Orange in 2009 while working as a freelance filmmaker for online businesses, creating mostly promotional videos. In his spare time, he made short videos (using a Sony EX1 video camera, Final Cut Pro editing software and After Effects for special effects) and posted them to his site GagFilms. “I was always doing my own stuff and posting it to the internet. I was just doing random comedic videos. One of the things I always went back to was talking food videos. I don’t know why—just some sort of weird obsession with talking food. Annoying Orange was just another one of those talking food videos,” he says. (Predecessors include the hilarious Screaming Eggs and the deranged Kool Aid Killer.)
When his Annoying Orange videos started taking off, Boedigheimer signed on with a management company called The Collective. But he struck out trying to find a TV studio willing to develop the show in-house. Says Boedigheimer: “Their number one question was, ‘You’ve got these two-to-three minute videos on YouTube, which are great, but how are you going to translate that to a longer form?’” With no takers, his management company took the unusual step of financing the pilot on its own for a few hundred thousand dollars (a fraction of what it typically costs a studio to produce a pilot in-house). Even then it was a tough sell: “We shopped it around to a bunch of different places, and most were kind of lukewarm about it,” says Boedigheimer.
The sole exception was the Cartoon Network, which licensed the show in November 2011. “We bet on the potential,” says Cartoon Network Chief Content Officer Rob Sorcher. “We didn’t know if it could make the jump into a TV series, but it looked like it could,” he adds. Tom Sheppard, the Emmy Award-winning lead writer for the TV show, says he signed on because the main character, Orange, “reminded me of classic cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny. I liked tackling the challenges and figuring out how you make a show out of characters with no limbs.” A few solutions: Make them hop, fall, or, when all else fails, launch the more dispensable edibles out of canons.
Not everyone loves Annoying Orange. Parents hate it, and critics have slammed it for being “obnoxious” and filled with “rude humor.” But it’s an undeniable hit with its target audience: boys. It’s currently the top-rated show for boys in its Monday night slot, according to the Cartoon Network, which ordered up another 15 episodes of the show in November. (605,000 boys ages 2-11 watched the Nov. 19 episode, the most recent original episode that Nielsen has tracked.) It’s also the newest member of an elite club of crossover hits, including Showtime’s Web Therapy (starring Lisa Kudrow), Adult Swim’s Childrens Hospital and the Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time.
Even as the Annoying Orange TV show has taken off, its web counterpart has slowly begun to lose steam. While still hugely popular with 2.5 million subscribers, the YouTube channel is no longer in the top ten. Webisodes that used to get several million views on average now hover around a million views each. (A notable exception is the spoof of Gangnam Style, which got more than nine million views.) And traffic to AnnoyingOrange.com, which redirects to the YouTube channel, fell from 564,000 unique visitors in October 2011 to just 38,000 in October 2012, according to comScore. TubeMogul estimates that annual ad revenue from the Annoying Orange YouTube channel has dropped by 42% since January.
Spencer Grove, who writes the Annoying Orange webisodes, chalks the drop up to growing competition. “If we had released the first episode of Orange today, I don’t know if it would go viral,” he says. According to Google, which owns YouTube, users upload 72 hours of videos every minute, versus 10 hours a minute in 2008. The flood of new content has fragmented viewing habits, making it harder for any one channel to hold people’s attention for long. What’s more, Google’s recent $300 million investment in marketing a few dozen original channels has made it tougher for other newcomers to get noticed.
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“Audiences are very fickle,” says Jeff McCall, professor of media studies at DePauw University. “It would be natural to have some decline in the web traffic partly because it is on TV and partly because it loses some of its charm because it is on TV. Once it goes mainstream, people think ‘I’ll look for something else that’s novel and doesn’t label me as a traditionalist.’”
Like it or not, Annoying Orange has become more mainstream than ever thanks to its first ever Christmas TV special and music album, complete with funny renditions of classics like We Wish You a Merry Christmas. “It’s kind of in line with Alvin and the Chipmunks,” says Grove, who worked on the project. Look out, Charlie Brown.