Aidan Taylor-Gooby on Magic Light Pictures – the production company behind The Gruffalo film… And more!

The magic brands behind Magic Light Pictures: Aidan Taylor-Gooby discusses the BAFTA-winning business

First of all, Mr. Taylor-Gooby, you have a fantastically intriguing surname… Does that have a meaning?
Ha – great first question! It is a little unusual but – unfortunately – not particularly exotic or interesting. My grandfather’s parents weren’t married which was a bit scandalous, so his mother gave him both last names. I’ve never met another Gooby in my life that wasn’t a relation – but I’m told there are plenty of them around the midlands.

Interesting! I wondered if it had a quirky origin – ‘good boy’ or ‘god boy’ maybe… In any case, how did you come to be the most prominent Gooby in the industry?
I’m a rare example of somebody who pursued a career in licensing rather than falling into it…

Good god! I don’t think I’ve ever had to ask this before: how did you do that? How does one pursue a career in licensing?
When I left University, I knew I wanted to work in the creative industries, so I spent some time as a runner on TV sets and at marketing agencies. I then got my first ‘proper job’ working for a private investigations firm…

Seriously! They offered brand-protection services to rights holders, and my first day with them was on a tiny stand in the corner of BLE. So I’d stumbled across the licensing industry by accident – but loved the mix of commerce and creativity at BLE. I immediately wanted to be involved, so I kept a copy of the Licensing Sourcebook and wrote to all of the licensors asking for an internship placement.

Aidan Taylor-Gooby, Magic Light Pictures, The Gruffalo
This is terrific! You must be a very determined person…

Ha! It has been said! Fortunately, it happened that RDF Rights – now Banijay – were looking for a Licensing Coordinator… And that was my route in.

So you’re now Head of Licensing at Magic Light Pictures. For the uninitiated, what do they do?
We’re an Oscar-nominated and multi-BAFTA winning production company, specialising in high-quality family entertainment. We’re lucky to work with some of the world’s best loved stories and develop them into beautiful films. Within the licensing division, we take the process further, bringing the stories to life via consumer products and live experiences.

Some of your most high-profile work is based on the IP of creators Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler… It scarcely needs introduction, but that includes books like The Gruffalo, Zog, Superworm and The Smeds and The Smoos. How do you go about turning these incredibly well-loved titles into TV films? What’s the process?
It started with The Gruffalo back in 2008. Our joint MDs – Michael Rose and Martin Pope – had a vision of creating a very faithful half-hour special for BBC One on Christmas Day – which we did for Christmas 2009; garnering 10 million live viewers!

Which is an astonishing audience for broadcast TV…
Yes; absolutely. We’ve subsequently developed 10 Donaldson and Scheffler stories into films, with an 11th in pre-production, giving us a broad catalogue of characters. As we acquire audiovisual rights to create the films, we also acquire branding and merchandising rights and begin developing creative assets that our licensing partners can use to develop all kinds of beautiful products.

Aidan Taylor-Gooby, Magic Light Pictures, The Gruffalo
Given how loved these books are, Aidan, I’m imagining you have to walk a bit of a tightrope in terms of bringing something original to the screen and protecting the source material… What tends to be the biggest challenge?

Magic Light’s approach is to create honest interpretations of the stories that will be cherished by families long into the future. We have very close working relationships with our publishing partners – Macmillan Children’s Books and Scholastic. We’re also lucky to have strong support from our broadcast partners: BBC in the UK and ZDF in Germany.

And how do you make sure you are, in fact, creating “honest interpretations?”
The skill lies with the talent of the production teams, both in-house and external… They develop treatments and scripts which faithfully convey Julia and Axel’s stories – and carefully add moments which bring the stories to life in a ‘cinematic’ way. They add all the details that are in between the pages of the books. It’s such a privilege to watch this process take place and see the films come to life.

“In between the pages of the books…” That’s a lovely way of putting it; I know exactly what you mean. And in your opinion, what magic ingredient does Magic Light Pictures add to the mix? What are you doing that means you’ve got BAFTAs and Emmys on your shelves?
We put an emphasis on quality and integrity across everything we do, from film-making to brand-building. That often involves making difficult choices about what’s in the best long-terminterest of our brands, rather than short-term gains. Indeed, many of our licensees have worked with us for a decade or more, and we’ve managed to sustain steady growth throughout that period without compromising on what makes these stories special and so well loved by the audiences.

Away from these films, what other opportunities exist in the licensing space for you?
In the Spring of 2021, we launched our first pre-school series: Pip and Posy. Based on the books by Axel Scheffler and Camilla Reid, it’s broadcast on Channel 5’s Milkshake; Sky Kids and Nick Jnr here in the UK. Series two will launch in Spring 2023, and we have big plans for consumer products, with fantastic licensees such as Amscan, Ravensburger and Tonies already on-board. It’s a beautiful show with a hilarious cast of characters – and kindness and friendship at its heart. I can’t wait to see pre-schoolers engaging with our licensed products next year.

Aidan Taylor-Gooby, Magic Light Pictures, The Gruffalo
What are some of the less well-known titles you represent?

With 10 titles and counting now in the Donaldson and Scheffler licensing programme, we have a challenge fitting them all in. The Gruffalo and Zog are evergreen, but we’re really focused on finding moments throughout the year for the other stories to shine.

That never crossed my mind! So Room on the Broom…
Room on the Broom does fantastically well at Halloween via dress up and gifting. The Snail and the Whale and Superworm both have beautiful design elements which lend themselves to summer apparel and accessory ranges. Seasonality is so important, and we have such a diverse range of stories to explore.

Great! Are there any kinds of project you’d love to work on that you’ve not yet made time for?
We’d love to develop licensing in new international territories. Our films are available in more than 180 countries worldwide and the books have been translated in 105 languages. We have local agents representing us in Germany, Italy, Benelux, Australia, New Zealand and North America – but we’d love to explore more territories in future.

Well, you know this column regularly attracts up to a dozen views over the course of a month so – you know: fingers crossed! What’s next for you, Aidan?
Pip and Posy series two launches in the spring, and our first licensed ranges are about to roll out. We’re incredibly excited to start bringing Pip and Posy products and experiences to families who’ve engaged with the show this year through TV, the cinema experience and social media.

Great stuff! I hope you’ll come back and tell us more about those products…
I’d love to! Also, the Christmas 2023 Donaldson and Scheffler special is already in pre-production – so watch out for the announcement next year too!

I’m rooting for A Squash and a Squeeze! I used to do kids reading sessions at schools and libraries and I’ve got to tell you: that is hands down my favourite book to read aloud! I’d LOVE to see it on screen. Alright… We need to wrap this up, Aidan, but what’s the one question I haven’t asked you today that perhaps I should?
I’m often asked, “Which is your favourite Donaldson and Scheffler story?”

Aidan Taylor-Gooby, Magic Light Pictures, The Gruffalo
Makes sense! What’s the answer?

Stick Man! I started working at Magic Light Pictures shortly after becoming a father for the first time. Stick Man is a story of a lost dad trying to get back to his family, so I connected with it right away. It’s a brilliant story and the fact that we have created a plush stick with our licensee Aurora always makes me smile…

Brilliant. Thank you, Aidan; this has been fantastically interesting – please stay in touch about future projects… We’d love to hear more.

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