This week, fantasy quadrilogy “The Wingfeather Saga” became an overnight success following 15 years of world-building by the author and a decade of engagement from its devoted fans.
On Wednesday, in the final minutes of a three-hour livestream, Andrew Peterson — series producer and author of the four-book series — and former DreamWorks filmmaker Chris Wall watched as online investment hit $5 million to fully fund season one of their animated action-adventure television series. “We are going to work hard to make this as awesome as we can,” Peterson proclaimed to supporters, as family members cheered in the background.
Hitting its ambitious goal in only 20 days, “The Wingfeather Saga” becomes the biggest-ever crowdfunded children’s entertainment project — a title held only months ago by “The Tuttle Twins,” another series distributed by Angel Studios. The Utah-based, family-values-focused studio recently pioneered innovative marketing and distribution strategies that upend Hollywood business models. Angel has had early success with “Dry Bar Comedy” and the gospel-inspired series “The Chosen.”
“The cool thing about Angel Studios is that, when our thousands of readers invest, they become part owners of this thing,” said Peterson in a phone interview from his Nashville home. “People aren’t just giving us money and getting some little gift in return like Kickstarter. As partners with us now, these families get to participate in success when this builds.”
For producer Wall, who worked on more than 15 “VeggieTales” short films, infusing entertainment with truths comes naturally. He laments, however, that most values-based series can’t hold the interest of younger viewers.
“Like every producer in the world, our job is to entertain,” said Wall in a phone interview. “If we create engaging stories, robust characters, eye-catching visuals, and memorable songs where appropriate, we can earn kids saying: ‘I want to watch this.’ Then we’ve really won.”
He lists “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” as examples of the sort of serialized action-adventure series they want to create. It’s not empty talk. With 20-plus years in the animation industry, Wall is assembling a team of animators who’ve been at Disney, DreamWorks, and all the majors, some of whom will work remotely on the upcoming series. These independent producers are thinking big — which they’ve been doing for years.
Small Beginnings, Immense Dragons
Known worldwide for his Christian radio hits, including “Is He Worthy” and “Lay Me Down,” Peterson has long been eager for fantasy fiction to define the second leg of his creative career.
Fifteen years ago, when his three children were still at home, the singer-songwriter recalls being continuously on tour. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to be doing this when I’m 60. I love music, but this is going to wear me down.’ I could picture myself as a grandpa who wrote nerdy fantasy novels, but not as one touring the country doing shows.”
Indeed, when I asked how well he knows Michael W. Smith, who lives nearby in the Nashville area when not packing concert venues nationwide at age 63, Peterson laughed heartily. “I don’t know how he does it! We call him the Gandalf of Christian music.”
Peterson invested years in honing his craft at fiction writing, off-the-cuff citing theses on creative inspiration from scholars Madeleine L’Engle and G.K. Chesterton. Still, back when they barely knew each other a decade ago, producer Wall recalls when the folk artist gifted Wall a copy of his first novel. “I said, ‘Oh, you’re a fantasy writer. I’m sure it’s … great.’ I was really hesitant!”
In the saga, three siblings embark on a quest, although Wall noticed it differs from many popular myths today. “Often in a child protagonist story, you have parents who are either detached, deceased, or outright against the kid,” said Wall. “In this story, the kids actually do much better when they’re with their families. At times when they do get broken up, they struggle. They need each other’s support.” A father of six kids, Wall and his family were quickly swept up in the drama.
Full of dragons, magic, and intrigue, medieval lands of “The Wingfeather Saga” draw from the mythic wells hewn by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and their contemporaries in the Inklings. It’s intended squarely for ages 8 to 12, considering the level of darkness and peril the saga dramatizes. Similar to “The Princess Bride,” it doesn’t take itself too seriously, often delighting in silly humor and lighter moments.
As to religious themes, Peterson steers away from direct allegory, making it most akin to Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium. “I’ve given my life to trying to tell the truth as beautifully as I can,” said Peterson. “I’m not trying to shoehorn any overt Christian doctrine into this. Rather, I wrote the best story I could and am trusting that it’s going to bear its own truth.”
Slated for re-release last year, the pandemic halted a planned book tour and marketing campaign. It seemed the series would languish. On a whim, Peterson began to read to fans online, thirty minutes every night. He had no idea it would draw an average of 20,000 users on Facebook and YouTube for months. New editions of the books stocked out on Amazon for several weeks.
After a big year in sales, more than 250,000 total copies have now been sold according to the publisher. It’s an impressive sum, although leagues away from 100 million copies sold of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Peterson’s series may have a long runway ahead.
Cultivating the Story Through Relationship
As entertainment increasingly moves to streaming video on-demand (SVOD), drawbacks to the new model have emerged. Every service promises options for families, most failing on several fronts. Those few that succeed with a quality series barely get noticed in a crowded marketplace.
Responding to these new realities, Angel Studios has pioneered what they call “CVOD” (community video on demand). Their first major series to distribute, “The Chosen,” has become a global hit with more than 175 million views worldwide for its currently 13 episodes. By releasing it free via a mobile app, it generates maximum buzz through community interaction around the series while ancillary products and dedicated fans help fund future seasons.
Having met with Netflix, Amazon, and other Hollywood players — who showed interest in “The Wingfeather Saga” but sought to wrest away some creative control — Peterson says working with Angel has felt too good to be true. “They’re allowing us to tell the story exactly the way that we want. They don’t want to own the IP. They’re mostly here to cheer us on and distribute it.”
In the ever-evolving world of CGI action-adventure series, producer Chris Wall intends to deliver the goods. That’s why their six-episode first season will cost $5 million. He says that’s quite competitive compared to Disney. “This new ‘Monsters, Inc.’ spin-off series coming out is being produced for 14 million per episode,” he said. “We’re able to get under that quite a bit, and still recruit top talent.”
Five years ago, with fewer contacts and less experience, a short pilot for “The Wingfeather Saga” reflected that desired high caliber of talent. Those who joined forces with Wall included director Tom Owens (head of story for “How to Train Your Dragon 2”), animation producer April Lawrence (“Kung Fu Panda”), and animator Keith Lango (“Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas”), among other artists.
Although they are now working on a grander scale — with million-dollar budgets, app development, and dozens of people involved — Peterson happily reminisces about how his elementary-age children provided the impetus for it all. “You want stories where your kids are eager to know what’s going to happen next. I had a hard time finding books ideal for reading aloud with short chapters. So I had to write it.”
Creative tools sharpened during those years may come back out as TV series production ramps up. “This process has been moving like a freight train. Now we’re getting right to work,” Peterson says.
Watch the pilot below and learn more at “The Wingfeather Saga” official website.