Jan Fleming is a seasoned executive creative director, producer and brand builder who works in diverse media for some of the world’s most influential entertainment companies and lifestyle brands. Her clients include Sundance, The Walt Disney Company, Nickelodeon, Live Earth, Transworld Media and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Jan works in film, television, advertising, marketing, web/digital, publishing and consumer products.
Notably, Jan served as VP/chief creative officer for Robert Redford, developing, designing and producing media and branding for many of the Sundance entities, including Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Institute, Sundance Channel and Film Series, Sundance Resort and Farms, Sundance Cinemas and Sundance Catalog.
As an executive at The Walt Disney Company, Jan led creative development for a major educational initiative, participated in the development of a learning channel for Disney ABC Networks, directed architectural/interior design and programming for Disney’s premiere regional entertainment initiative and collaborated with Walt Disney Imagineering on several innovative projects.
Jan began in television, at Children’s Television Workshop in New York. She went on to create and produce a preschool series for Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr., serve as head of creative/content for Sundance Channel and participate in the development of LazyTown, the Nickelodeon/Sprout series and lifestyle brand focused on health/fitness for kids. She is currently in development on a series with MTV/Fox Digital.
What in your background/education/life experience prepared you to do the work you are doing now?
“Growing up in a small town. Traveling out and away from that small town. A deep understanding and questioning of religion. Working from a young age. Working. Working. Working. Doing it.
Small town life can be very narrow-minded. There’s a lot of insular behavior. I was fortunate that my family was inherently creative and open-minded in ways that were important. My parents were/are both creative, in their own ways. They could just do things. They were artful, but not purposefully. They just were/are.
I was very close to my grandmothers and my great-grandmothers. All these strong women were important in opening up my heart and mind to the world. They were survivors. They had been through depression and war and death of husbands and family, yet they went on and were happy.
My Granny Opal was a born teacher. She taught in a one-room school house in the 40s/early 50s in Northwest Arkansas. She also loved to travel, learn and experience. She took me and my other siblings/cousins with her. But, I think that I traveled with her the most. She took us to see and experience things around us – naturally beautiful things, history, our roots and museums, theater, art, ballet – things that create imagery and magic in the mind of a child.
I mention religion, because it definitely played a formative role in my life, and the way I see the world, in many ways. I realized, that when I was introduced to the world of “branding” – maybe during the days of Nick/Disney – that branding is all about creating religion. The same patterns and methodology existed in what I’d seen growing up and in what “branding experts” were doing.
Humans can create and direct thinking of other humans by sending and packaging messages. Branding is about creating an image and “systems” that support that image and keep it intact. Even if the image/system is made to be “unsystem-like” it’s a system. Religions have created and managed image/systems for centuries.
Systems are comforting. Believing in something and it’s way of thinking/system, provides a certain security. Systems help us to make sense of the world. They create values. They have rules. They set boundaries. They are logical. When they are good, they behave as you would expect. They are made to control in ways that are healthy, but can be unhealthy at times – if taken too literally or to extremes. You start to understand that inconsistency within a system of thought and/or deed can destroy any system or way of thinking. The rules then have to be expanded and changed and manipulated to reframe the image/system. When a brand/religion doesn’t walk the talk, then you have issues..
Religion also taught me that it’s healthy to question everything. Question why you believe what you believe, and who you believe. Question the strength, validity and consistency of any brand or system. I did, from a very early age. It can be disconcerting to question what is human-made, but also freeing.”
In creating Allegra’s Window, what were your chief concerns, stylistically? And how did those meld with your intentions for the viewers?
“Allegra was born out of opportunity. Nick Jr was just beginning and they were looking for a music series. I was head of development for Jumbo Pictures at the time. Such a youngster, doing all kinds of stuff. Jumbo had a relationship with Nickelodeon, because we made DOUG for NickToons.
John Hoffman. a producer I’d met working on a series for HBO/Children’s Television Workshop (Encyclopedia), came to me at Jumbo and said, let’s develop something. We started working on ideas together and Allegra was the result.”
“Originally, we liked the idea of using puppets and also having a live characters, so that they could sing. I had gotten to know Marty Robinson, originally because of Sesame Street, but also because he had a workshop/loft near the Jumbo offices, which I’d visited. He is an amazing puppeteer and it’s hard not to want to incorporate that magic, once you’ve been introduced to it. As the lead puppeteer on Allegra, Marty brought us the best of the best. The puppeteering team on the series was top-notch amazing. All those folks are A-list: Kathy Mullen, Anthony Asbury, Pam Arciero, Tim LaGasse, Heather Asche…Isabel!”
“We believed – and I still do believe – that puppets, used in artful ways, would add a certain warmth to the effort. Now that you can do so much with animation, it’s changed the game. Everyone want to use animation, and it’s beautiful. But, I still think that there is something new and fresh to do with puppets. Puppets rule.”
What kinds of considerations do you bring to a project when thinking about an intended audience? Do you want kids to see things in a new way? Think outside the box? Or is it more about pure entertainment?
“Looking back, I think of Allegra as very rudimentary, in many ways, an experiment, really. Nick Jr was doing a lot of experimenting then. As we were making the series, they were doing quite a bit of research on preschool viewing habits. They were thinking more and more interactively about tv for preschoolers, so we were playing with that as we got the research – trying to incorporate new thinking and information as we went along. Obviously, we all wanted the kids to feel an affinity with the main character, Allegra and see the world through her eyes (Allegra’s Window). It was about helping little kids through little kid things – feeling small, going to daycare for the first time, making friends, learning how to play with others, dealing with siblings, having fun, family – just the normal stuff. ”
If you were creating Allegra’s Window today, what would you do differently?
“A million things! First, my style/tastes have changed DRASTICALLY. I’ve grown as a creative director/designer/thinker. There would be a radical shift in the way things were designed. The look and feel was way too busy! Oy.
Form. I think it would truly be a mixed media series and incorporate more animation and interactivity. The writing was truly great, but I know we could think smarter with another go at it. The music. I would get some of my music industry friends to help and pump that up, make it more energetic and poppy. I just know so much and have had the opportunity to become acquainted with such talented people. We had amazing artists working with us on the show before. They have all grown way beyond that point in time as well…maybe they’d come back. We’d super team it.
There are much cooler, less hand-made ways of incorporating a mix of media now — but I’d still want to keep it warm and tactile and little-kid inclusive. It would be incredible to do it again, knowing what I know now. Really fun.”
As a Creative Director, what do you need to know from a client before you feel ready to plunge in and start working on a project?
“A lot of things, but at the heart of it is, what is it that they really want? Finding that out takes time. Listening. I have become a good listener. Sometimes I have to listen and look for what’s not said overtly.”
What brands are effective re: kids?
“Kids. Hmmm. Apple. iPhone, iPad — all the smart phone/tech brands are doing pretty well.”
Sundance has become a gargantuan brand – how did you go about creating themes that would emerge through the clutter of hundreds of screenings and thousands of people?
“Well, when you say “Sundance,” I assume that you mean Sundance Film Festival. The Sundance brand is something other. Sundance is a family of related entities or brands: Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Institute, Sundance Channel, Sundance (the place) & Sundance Resort, Sundance Cinemas, Sundance … etc.
People should understand that Sundance is a real place. It’s where everything started. That place is a mountain and canyon (Provo Canyon) that Mr. Redford stumbled upon in the late 50s. He bought 2 acres there in 1961 (for $500) and he preserved more land there over time and as he could. In the late 70s/early 80s, he and some industry colleagues started the Institute. He suggested that they do workshops up there for budding filmmakers, as he had this place and some land. That’s how it all came to be in Utah.
The Film Festival came a bit later – to support those filmmakers and help to give smaller films a way to show up and possibly get out there. Sundance Film Festival is mainly held in Park City, which 40 miles away from Sundance.
“I have worked on most all of the Sundance organizations and I worked on the Festival for 10 years. Over time, the Festival has become the best known. It’s the most famous, for many reasons, a combination of what was happening in the world/film industry and what Mr. Redford and others cared about and were doing.
The Festival is a gigantic event. It’s like the Olympics of Film, so thematic, branded design for this event has to be both beautiful and very functional. When I started working with the Festival, one of the main things that we did was “clean up” the information design and create some clear forms for communicating with Festival audiences. That was done interactively with the Festival/Institute staff to help to not only present solid, well-designed pieces, but to make sure that all media served a purpose. There is now very little superfluous junk. Everything you see or hear or touch or use works better as a system to help people get excited about, understand and navigate the Festival. I believed that cleaning it up was very important and that work paid off.
Over the years, developing the “themes” to skin that infrastructure of information design became an interesting challenge. At its core, the big idea underlying the Festival/Sundance brand is the same each year. I found that it was about finding a new facet of the big idea and focusing on that.”
Topping yourself is hard. It was always a process that Mr. Redford had a say in, but he let us fall or fly in the end.
I recently went through my attic and looked at the span of the Festival work. There is some smart, beautiful work there, done by amazing designers. The thematic ideas were solid and they carried through. Some of my favorite themes where the most abstract. One year, I had the wild idea of using FIRE. First, I love looking at fire because it can be amazingly beautiful and it’s a part of that landscape and the mountain lifestyle, especially in winter, when the Festival is held.
I liked that fire was symbolic of many things about Sundance and The Festival: the incredible passion and drive of the Festival and filmmakers; the elements of heat, danger and risk-taking; the drawing effect that fire has in the cold; and that Sundance is at the iconic, fiery, molten heart and hearth of it all.
So, for me, seeing FIRE, interpreted in all the ways we could throughout the media and design of that year’s Festival, juxtaposed to the frozen white of that place….well, it just worked. And it popped. The other challenge is that Park City is a cluttered landscape of buildings and signage. Whatever is done there, has to stand out, but also fit in and make sense…so, yeah, good luck with that.”