This question recently led to a lively discussion in the Characters Engage Linkedin group.
An American screenwriter and producer said that in his experience the concept gets people through the door, while the characters make them come back.
In response, a European IP developer asked, "... do they therefore become vital to sustaining and growing the franchise? Also, how important do you think characters are to moving franchises into other media formats?".
The screenwriter and producer said that in the case of Maurice Sendak's "Where The Wild Things Are", for example, the characters did not have developed personalities and that therefore the merchandising had next to no shelf life, despite the fact that the concept was great. Dreamworks Animation, on the other hand, cleverly started introducing Kung Fu Panda two years before the movie was released, managing to establish his name and character, as well as the high concept title, well ahead of the launch. Characters, he said, are not only essential for longevity, but there can't be any crossovers without them either.
When he was asked what gave characters such remarkable abilities, he stressed the importance of their backstories. Typical examples include Orphan statuses, which he said would immediately hook an audience, being communally estranged, misunderstood, and other such circumstances.
An American illustrator thought that things were different when characters represent a company rather than a story. Mentioning Mickey Mouse, he wondered whether Mickey was actually still a character in the classic sense, or whether he had become more of a brand mascot.
The IP developer thought that in the case of Mickey Mouse a traditional character had indeed become a brand mascot, and in the case of the 3 rings which represent the silhouette of his head, even a global iconic brand logo, on a par with The McDonalds "M", the four rings of Audi, or the bitten apple of Apple.
A writer, director and concept artist said that despite this, characters, at least in the beginning, need to have a great story attached to them, and that this story needs to relay inner conflict effectively.
A character designer wondered whether that is actually always true. He mentioned the Crazy Frog phenomenon that swept the UK a few years ago, despite the fact that there was little, if any, story associated with the Crazy Frog clips.
Other examples, he said, can be found in the character licensing arena. "Hello Kitty", for example, originally made a rather clever point of not having a story, not even a mouth to relay feelings with. This was a very clever attempt to enable people to project their feelings onto her. The character itself, was simply über-kawaii.
He thought that stories depend on characters, but characters are not always dependent on stories, in the character industries. Where the story is the product you are selling. whichever media format it may be in, it needs characters. If, on the other hand, you are selling a product utilizing the brand recognition value of a character, such as "Hello Kitty", the character alone is of vital importance.
Echoeing the point the screenwriter and producer made at the beginning of this discussion, the IP developer thought that characters are uniquely sticky. It is they who have the power to engage their demographic in format after format, on platform after platform and in industry after industry.
But what do you think? You can let us know your thoughts... here.