As the web toon trend continues to proliferate, animated content creators are desperately hunting for ways to break through the digital clutter and achieve on-line profitability. One way to hook enough eyeballs to generate a platform for other revenue streams is by building brand extensions of existing entertainment properties, a strategy that Stan Lee Media is deploying via deals with a roster of music genre leaders, including boy band phenomenon the Backstreet Boys and R&B queen Mary J. Blige. Says SLM co-founder Peter Paul: ‘The benefit to our approach is that you plug into an audience that already exists. I think that the fallacy that most new Internet content creation companies face is that you can’t build a brand or major property on the web without a substantial amount of money and time-which none of them have. Our focus is to identify successful music brands, build co-owned webisodic series that give the fans additional fantasy experiences relating to a franchise they’re already attached to, and then expand those experiences into other media.’
Serving as the test model for SLM’s new development plan is The Backstreet Project, the linchpin of which is a bimonthly series that debuted at www.backstreetproject.com on August 27. Consisting of 22 four- to five-minute episodes, the series weaves a tale that goes like this: A spaceship crash-lands in the middle of their latest concert, and the lads run to the rescue of a beautiful extraterrestrial who’s on a mission to save earth and humanity from an imminent alien invasion. She recruits the fab five and presents them each with a magic amulet that gives its wearer a superpower. Armed with their newfound abilities-like 3-D thought projection and bionic strength-the boys do battle with the alien invaders and save the planet.
Rendered in high-end Flash animation, the webisodes are impressive enough on their own, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as Paul is concerned. Since SLM co-owns the Backstreet Boys on-line franchise with the band, the door is wide open for spinning the series concept off into other media and ancillary products. Even before the first episode debuted, SLM inked a comic book and sold it on the site to build hype for the upcoming web series. ‘We sold over 50,000 copies at US$10 a pop to a girls audience, which is notoriously not a comic-buying demo,’ says Paul excitedly. Future Backstreet Project extensions could include an animated TV special and series, a direct-to-video DVD title and a theme park attraction.
Besides built-in fan support, another benefit to working with pop bands is that they draw in promotional partners like flies. Stan Lee Media leveraged the Backstreet Boys’ popularity with tweens to entice Burger King to come aboard for a US$50-million QSR deal, which launched in the U.S. at the end of August and will run until October 5. As part of the campaign, Burger King is giving away 40 million action figures, based on the band’s superhero alter egos and featuring the website address etched into their sides. The burger chain is also distributing 150 million collateral pieces of tray liners, bags and posters.
The Boys themselves have lent their support to the project not only by giving story line input and voicing their characters, but also by appearing live at the Hard Rock Café for the on-line launch and participating in the filming of two behind-the-scenes minidocs.
Another pop star who is already taking an active role in her SLM-directed on-line franchise is Mary J. Blige. The R&B songstress appeared last month at the MAGIC International apparel trade show in support of SLM launching the property concept. Blige first attracted SLM’s attention when she added an animated pre-concert short, which depicts her as a superhero protecting kids from dangerous situations in the hood, to her tour lineup. According to Paul, this ‘Cleopatra meets Barbarella’ character will be the star of a 22 x five-minute webisode tentatively slated for a holiday launch. He adds that even though Blige’s fans tend to fit into the 20-something demo, ‘a strong, black, female superhero will have broad appeal and could quite easily spin into an animated TV series for kids.’ Initially though, SLM will concentrate on finding licensees in the fashion apparel and accessories markets to manufacture a full line of Blige gear, which will be rolling out in two months.
Rap artist Rza from Wu-Tang Clan could be next up for digital development, says Paul, although it likely won’t be kid-appropriate fare. The quirky rapper has invented a self-starring, self-directing film concept in which he turns into a womanizing, mask-wearing alter ego character named Bobby Digital-after smoking a joint he unthinkingly dips into an experimental chemical formula. As Bobby Digital, Rza has also recorded a CD called Bobby Digital in Stereo. Bizzy Bone, a member of soul/rap group Bone thugs-n-harmony is also in SLM’s crosshairs, as is Stevie Wonder.
To manage all its new music activity, Stan Lee Media is getting ready to launch an independent music division later this month. A joint venture with Global Asset Holding, Stan Lee Music will function similarly to a music unit at a studio-commissioning soundtracks from high-profile music groups and then localizing the tunes for different regions. A recently signed deal with Fox Kids Latin America will keep the division busy to start. Beginning this month, the channel will create Spanish- and Portugese-language versions of Stan Lee Media content, including original comic book web series 7th Portal, for its website. To add local flavor to the on-line programming, Fox Kids LA and SLM will work together to find local bands and artists to contribute regional music.
The ink is still drying on a similar deal signed late last month with Japan’s Venture Soft. The anime and manga company has agreed to pump US$5 million into SLM, as well as producing, distributing, licensing and marketing Japanese and Korean versions of all the SLM webisodes.