Until just a few years ago, in the holy city of Loreto – in the rolling hills of The Marches, a sister-city of Nazareth and a favorite pilgrimage destination – the only miracles were those of the Black Madonna. Now, without fear of being accused of heresy, we can say that Loreto is the home of another miracle that reaps converts around the world and provides inspiration for many talented young Italians. It is that of the Winx fairies and their creator, Iginio Straffi. “Still a kid inside,” he says of himself, born 45 years ago to a dressmaker and bus driver in the tiny village of Gualdo (near Macerata), and who has succeeded in transforming his passion for comics into a billion-euro business, giving the American and Japanese giants a real run for their money. Today the company has close to 250 employees split between the bucolic corporate headquarters in Le Brecce Street, Loreto, and Rainbow CGI in Rome which is involved in 3D animation, as well as a network of freelancers and a studio in Singapore for online games. And it closed 2010 with a turnover of over 60 million euros (+20% on 2009) and gross operating margin of 26.5 million. Placing it 16th in the world on the License Global list, the most prestigious sector magazine, with trademark sales of 3 billion dollars, outclassing such heavy-weights as Ferrari and Ducati.
In December, Mr. Winx was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young, and on May 26th, together with the partners of Alfa Park, he will be inaugurating Rainbow MagicLand, the 600,000 sqm theme park just 30 kilometers from Rome where last March the president of the Unione degli Industriali, Aurelio Regina, chose to hold the annual meeting of his thousand businessmen association. In the meantime, the unstoppable Straffi landed at the Croisette to bring to the Cannes Festival a feature animated movie in 3D set in Rome during the age of the gladiators. Entitled Versus Roma, it relates the adventures of a weakling inhabitant of Ancient Rome who becomes a hero. Almost a metaphor of his creator.
When did you realize you had “turned the corner”?
Nine years ago at the international licensing fair in New York. At the time, the Winx were still in embryonic form, but I had brought a poster with me. Our stand was just 9 square meters with café tables to be able to hold different meetings at the same time and I ran back and forth between the reception area and that tiny meeting room. A man came over and asked, “Who are these characters? Who produces them? And who has the toy rights?” Then he added, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t introduce myself.” I still have a slow-motion memory of his taking his wallet out and handing me his card with its gold embossed lettering. “I’m Matt Bousquette, president of Mattel.” I nearly fainted. Just two hours later his associates arrived and we initiated the deal to distribute the Winx worldwide.
Admit it, you’re tired of the Bloom & Co. fairies.
Let’s just say I’m also involved in a lot of other projects. Today movies are my priority. Our goal, already achieved in TV, is to become the European leader in cartoon movies where all the productions are American and Japanese. We’re on the road to accomplishing this. The first Winx film, The Secret of the Lost Kingdom, attracted over 5 million people, with a revenue of 90 million euros, and the second, Magical Adventure, the first 3D animation movie produced entirely in Italy, has been a real success throughout the world. However, both made use of a brand that was already very strong and with an extensive fan base. Versus Roma, which is an original work, is a real challenge. It cost four years of work and 30 million euros, will be completed by the end of this year and will be released throughout the world, including the US, in 2012. This, in itself, is news because only a handful of European movies are released in the US. But we’re not stopping there. We are currently developing a project with real actors. We are the Italian DreamWorks, the difference being that we also sell our films.
OK, let’s be honest, we’re talking about the revenge of the nerds. The kid with glasses who instead of playing ball with his friends stayed inside to watch TV.
Well, I kicked around some balls, too, but my parents were happy because at least I didn’t smash our neighbors’ windows. I was raised on bread and comics. Geppo, Felix, Abelard, Popeye, Mickey Mouse … At age six I was my teacher’s nightmare: I filled my notebooks with comic strips characters I made up myself. On TV I watched Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner, and later Japanese cartoons. I had my preferences: Goldrake over Mazinga and Lady Oscar rather than Candy, but I was omnivorous. Even Heidi and Mimì. Then the TV series of Zorro and Tarzan arrived, as well as the comic strip westerns of Ken Parker. At age 20 I published my first strip in Lancio Story and Skorpio. The same year I joined the team of Sergio Bonelli, the father of Tex Willer, for whom I drew Nick Raider.
But, clearly, this was not enough.
My dream was to work with cartoons. Unfortunately, in Italy, no one was working on mass-scale cartoons [the reason why the Rainbow Academy was created in Cinecittà to train cartoonists of the future – eds.]. So, when at 27, I was offered the chance to work in Paris on an animated film, I left Bonelli and took off. To my parents’ dismay, but I was happy. It was the break I had been waiting for. I worked in France and Luxembourg, first taking care of the storyboards and later also the direction. In 1994, back in Italy, I opened my own animation studio.
And then Our Lady lent a hand. A fortuitous encounter with a priest-entrepreneur.
Don Lamberto Pigini, a small publisher from Recanati who was looking for video cassettes with educational cartoons to accompany textbooks. I was able to create them at a reasonable price. He believed in me and wanted to become my partner. And so Rainbow was born.
Rainbow as in the song from The Wizard of Oz?
I was looking for a name that communicated animation, color and movement. We started by creating projects for the RAI and DeAgostini. Once we became more solid, we developed our first project, Tommy & Oscar, a courageous boy with a mad-inventor uncle who makes friends with an alien which could transform itself into any object, but remained pink.
How do you come up with these stories? Do you dream them at night?
The truth? I’m still a kid. Like Peter Pan. There’s a reason I still don’t have children. Because of my position, I have to act like a grown-up, but my friends all have a place in my comics, transformed into some animal or other strange character.
When did you come up with the Winx?
In the mid-90s, when almost all cartoons, from Pokemon to Dragon Ball were for boys. I thought, “Why aren’t there nice stories for girls anymore?” But my Winx, with their long hair, anatomical physiques and such content-rich stories were much more complex than traditional drawings. They required a lot of cartoonists, and more qualified ones, and I didn’t have either the money or the know-how. So they remained on my hard disk. Years later, when the team was up and running, I pulled them out again. It took four years to create the first series. In January 2004 the Winx Club made its debut on RAI 2. From there on to France, Spain and 127 other countries around the world. At the same time, the Winx magazine and books appeared.
You’re not bad at drawing women.
I’m no Milo Manara, but I’m pretty good. When I was in high school, I was already drawing girls in a very sensual way. I wanted the Winx to have a strong graphic impact, and I drew my inspiration for them from celebrities. Bloom, the most popular, is Britney Spears when she was getting her start, Stella is Cameron Diaz, and so on. The instructor of the gladiators in Versus Roma looks like Angelina Jolie. But it wasn’t easy to convince the RAI. They thought the Winx would have a small audience and that boys would change the cannel. But its audience was stratospheric.
And so the Winx made their way as a case study into the classrooms of the London Business School.
Because they are not just a business model, but a real cultural phenomenon. Seven out of every ten backpacks of girls sold in Russia and Turkey have the Winx trademark. In Asia, half the girls have one of their t-shirts. Winx conventions are organized throughout the world, the first musical was seen in Italy by 300,000 spectators and the Winx on Ice performance fill ice palaces around the world with 10,000 girls at a time.
What does Rainbow have in store for television?
PopPixie, the series which debuted in January in Italy, France and Spain, has large audience shares. After the summer, we will see if, like for the Winx, TV success will also be accompanied by merchandising success. In the fall, the second Huntik series will be launched and for Christmas, the toys for it; then next year, also textbooks. But the most innovative project is Mia and Me, a cartoon plus live show where a flesh-and-blood girl enters and exits the cartoon in 3D through a magic book. A technique that has never been used before in the world. And we are developing a cartoon for adults that is a bit cutting, along the lines of The Simpsons.
The decision to sell a 30% share to the American media giant, Viacom – owner of Paramount and Nickelodeon, #1 in children’s TV – proved a strategic move.
Last summer we signed a business agreement with Nickelodeon to broadcast our cartoons in the United States (as well as in Great Britain, Canada, Latin America, Benelux, Australia and New Zealand) and produce two new series together. From TV to film, the synergies with Viacom will be the driving force in our turnover. For this reason, two months ago this US company also wanted to become a production partner, buying in with a minority share.
Do you think in the future you could also sell your share?
I will never give up my majority holding and, as soon as the market recovers, I will quote Rainbow on the stock market. Maybe in the US.
In the meantime, everything is ready for the grand opening of Rainbow MagicLand (see accompanying article) with six theme areas out of 24 dedicated to your characters.
Despite the fact our share in the park is only 10%, our creative involvement was enormous. The Castle of Alfea with its 36-meter towers is the symbol of the Roman structure, while the Huntik Dark Ride is the most adventure-filled ride, where every car cost 120,000 euros. Plus, there are the Huntik Spillwater, the aquatic roller coaster with a 4-meter tall winged 3D monster, the Winx Suspended Ride with 6-meter tall Winx dolls and, for younger visitors, the Bombo roller coaster, one of the characters from Monster Allergy and the Pixie Kiddie Shop, the house of the PopPixie with mini bumper cars.
Now that you are a millionaire, what indulgences have you permitted yourself?
Very few. I like traveling to exotic places: the Maldives, Thailand, the Caribbean. I don’t have any hobbies, except my work. But I did treat myself to one thing: Imagination Factory, the new headquarters of Rainbow which will open in June. An investment of 20 million euros for an ultra hi-tech structure that is fully ecological. Using geothermal and solar energy, we produce more power than what we use in the entire building. Inside there will be a heated pool, Turkish bath, sauna, tennis court, movie theater, five/seven-side soccer and a nursery. The Winx have made me rich and I reinvest it all. For as long as it lasts. But there are still a few good ideas in my hard disk.