Slicing the competition by bringing Fruit Ninja to film
Bachelor of Business Commercial Law
VP Entertainment & Licensing, Halfbrick USA
UniSA alumnus Sam White is thriving in one of the most sought after positions in the game development industry. As the vice president of Entertainment & Licensing at Halfbrick, he has the privilege of claiming the hugely popular – and addictive - Fruit Ninja game that has been downloaded more than 1 billion times.
Sam is currently working to expand Fruit Ninja into an ever larger entertainment franchise by helping to develop the Fruit Ninja feature film with New Line Cinema and the Fruit Ninja: Frenzy Force animated series on YouTube Red Originals, a new paid subscription service.
Please briefly describe your journey from studying at university to becoming CEO of The People’s Republic of Animation and now the VP Entertainment and Licensing at Halfbrick:
While I was finishing my degree at UniSA, I helped my brother Eddie White and a few of his friends get organised in forming their animation studio. For example, I paid their bills, helped them with promotions and apply for funding. I wasn't really thinking I'd end up being CEO but found myself taking on the role of a producer and enjoying it. As I wasn't artistically talented like the other guys, I could throw myself into the business side without resentment and things escalated fairly quickly to the point where six of us could work full time in the studio on a very (I repeat 'very') modest income. We didn't have many financial commitments or any children to take care of so we could all afford to take time to build the business from scratch which was a lot of fun, painful at times, but invaluable experience. I would go about it very differently if I wanted to start my own business again. There are too many things I'd do differently to list here but starting with sufficient capital would be just one of those things.
The People's Republic of Animation ended up being acquired by Halfbrick, the creators of Fruit Ninja, after I had formed a relationship for a few years prior with their CEO, Shainiel Deo. Shainiel always loved the work we did at PRA but until Fruit Ninja happened, we didn't really have a way to work together. He was interested in the idea of further developing their intellectual property (games) into other forms of entertainment and products. The role we created to lead that mission was my current role as VP Entertainment & Licensing. As I was working on everything but games for Halfbrick and dealing with media companies, studios and toy companies, it made sense for me to relocate to Los Angeles in 2015. Yes, I could do the job from Adelaide or Brisbane, but I've since found things have moved much faster and I am able to learn a lot more in less time by simply being closer and more accessible to the many entertainment professionals and companies present here in LA and the US.
What is your favourite memory or highlight of your career so far?
Most recently, being able to be part of the Fruit Ninja feature film pitch meetings to the studios and production companies around LA. Tripp Vinson, the film’s producer, led these meetings which also included the two writers of the film. The writers were hilarious and did such a great performance in the 20+ meetings we must have done. The executives in just about every meeting reacted so positively and enjoyed the pitch. It was a great lesson for me in what a good pitch meeting can look like. It was also very conversational and friendly due to Tripp’s existing relationships and the writers' performances but also very candid and professional. Many of the executives, while thoroughly enjoying the pitch, would make it known clearly by the end of the meeting if it wasn't for them. Some would need more time to think about it but decisions were made rather quickly which was a refreshing surprise to me. We ended up going with New Line Cinema and the film is now in script.
What is your favourite project that you have worked on? Why?
I don't know about what my favourite project has been but the Fruit Ninja: Frenzy Force series we are completing right now, launched on 5 May, 2017, is a rewarding project. Rewarding because we have been working for about three years on development from the initial idea, to raising the finance and then going into production. It's also going to be interesting as it will be part of the YouTube Red Originals which is a very new paid YouTube subscription service. We are one of the first original kids series YouTube are promoting on that platform.
What is the secret to a successful app or game when there are so many options flooding the competitive market?
There is no real secret otherwise we would have done it over and over again! We have been lucky enough to develop and publish two wildly successful games, Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride, that are still doing extremely well since they were published in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Many developers struggle to have any hits, let alone two.
How do you introduce a new app or game to the market?
With a significant marketing effort coordinating promotional activity across numerous channels such as in-game messaging, social, YouTube and using our own in-game ad network to cross promote new titles. Plus, we rely a lot on featuring from the Apple, Google and Amazon app stores.
Would you recommend UniSA graduates head into the animation and gaming industries?
I wouldn't make such a broad, blanket recommendation to all graduates. It helps if you have some interest and passion in a particular field before you pursue opportunities in that field. However, it's not a prerequisite. I am a good example of that. I didn't have a passion for animation as such but had a passion for working with talented, creative people to create work that we could share with the world. I've always done that since I was in my teens with bands and musical projects. I knew I wanted to create a business in some form but couldn't have predicted it would be in animation or games. I would say that if you are a recent graduate, and still not 100 percent sure what you want to do, don't be concerned. Find something you think will be a good opportunity and try it. You are probably young enough to change careers at least once and most of the roles you will end up doing probably don't even exist yet!
How have you found working in LA?
I am enjoying working and living in LA a great deal. As I mentioned earlier, the most fulfilling part of working here for me is being exposed to so many talented and experienced minds in the entertainment and licensing business. I get to meet these people and have face to face conversations much more often than I did in Adelaide or anywhere in Australia for that matter. That is the main reason I decided to move here and it has been well worth it. I'm also closer to more opportunities for our company as I'm based right in the epicentre of global entertainment and a huge consumer product licensing industry here too.
What is the biggest difference between the two countries?
That is a hard question to answer as there are many differences, some subtle and some startling. Reducing the scope of that question to the entertainment business within which I work, just the sheer volume of activity in the business here compared to Australia is a big difference. In Australia, while meeting people who actually work in the entertainment industry full time is pretty rare, over here I'm tripping over them. At the gym, jiu jitsu class, at the airport, even my son's pre-school. It is like the wine or mining industries back in SA or QLD, in that entertainment is a massive industry here that employs a vast number of people.
What do you miss the most about Australia and Adelaide?
Not having to line up for just about everything!