‘Electric City’ to join charge of animated shows onto Internet


It’s a long way from Woody.

In an upcoming animated series called “Electric City,” Tom Hanks plays Cleveland Carr, a former police officer charged with maintaining order in a murky metropolis, where secret police and murder lurk beneath the veneer of a peaceful society.

The series, conceived by Hanks and co-produced by his production company Playtone and Indian media company Reliance Entertainment, will debut this summer — not in a theater or on a TV screen, but on the giant Internet portal Yahoo.

“It’s a great way to get into your audience’s bedroom, to be able to go wherever they are and to give them an experimental and compelling story,” said Gary Goetzman, Hanks’ Playtone business partner.

“Electric City” is a high-profile example of how the Internet is becoming a new frontier for animation, in much the same way cable television was in the early 1980s. The Web is creating new opportunities for artists and filmmakers to distribute experimental and often irreverent entertainment to millions of viewers worldwide without having to go through the traditional gatekeepers: the major studios and television networks.

Top online video distributors such as Yahoo and YouTube are creating or distributing premium online animation as part of an effort to keep viewers on their sites and to generate more advertising dollars. Google Inc.’s YouTube, its dominant online video site, is helping fund and develop 100-plus free high-quality channels with the support of top Hollywood animation veterans. They’re also courting undiscovered talent.

“There are tens of thousands of bedroom animators now that are creating interesting content, putting up blogs and posting it on YouTube,” said Graham Bennett, YouTube’s manager of original programming. “We’re trying to create the best of a new breed of animators.”

YouTube has partnered with veteran cartoon executive Fred Seibert, former creative director of MTV and president of cartoon factory Hanna-Barbera, to launch “Cartoon Hangover.” Seibert’s Frederator Studios, behind such children’s TV shows such as “Fan Boy & Chum Chum” and “The Fairly OddParents” is producing 10 original series, each consisting of four-minute episodes, aimed at older teens and young adults. Its “Bravest Warriors” is about a group of teenagers who are superheroes.

“I used to call what we did garage-band animation,” said Seibert, who launched his first online animation channel in 2005. “Now, this is studio-based, quality animation with world-class talent from the heart of Hollywood.”

It’s a two-way street. Some animated Web hits are migrating to television. Cartoon Network will debut a new series this summer based on “The Annoying Orange,” a breakout online character that became a YouTube hit, with more than 1 billion total views. The series, created by former film school student Dane Bodigheimer, features an annoying but entertaining citrus that heckles other animated fruits and vegetables.

Talent agencies also are becoming players in the online animation arena. The Collective, the management and production company headed by Michael Green (co-founder of the Hollywood agency the Firm), is partnering with teenage actor-comedian Lucas Cruikshank on a new animated series called “It’s Fred,” based on the characters from Cruikshank’s popular Nickelodeon TV show and original Web series.

The series, which debuted in December and features new episodes every two weeks, is written and directed by Eryk Casemiro and Kate Boutilier, producers of the hit 1990s TV shows “Rugrats” and “The Wild Thornberries.”

“‘The Annoying Orange’ and ‘Fred’ are two very good examples of creators that built very, very robust audiences without the help of a third party, and what we’re trying to do is capture that value in the best way we can,” said Green, whose company licenses merchandise from both shows and represents their creators.

Mondo Media, a San Francisco company behind the popular online shows “Happy Tree Friends” and “Dick Figures,” is expanding its animation channel on YouTube by developing 65 original pilots over the next three years.

More in the style of the Adult Swim animation cable network than Cartoon Network, Mondo Media’s new projects will cater to older teens and young adults. They will include “Off the Curb,” about a crew of smack-talking knuckleheads — created by Carlos Alazraqui, an actor in Comedy Central’s “Reno 911” — and “Ad Wizards,” from Kent Nichols and Douglas Sarine, creators of the YouTube hit “Ask a Ninja.”

With creative teams in the U.S., Australia, Canada and Scotland, Mondo solicits material from a global network of talent, helping to finance productions, package shows for possible television distribution and sell merchandise: Backpacks and plush toys from “Happy Tree Friends” — a show that draws 20 million views a month — are big sellers in Japan.

“We’ve got this kind of market now where you can develop a show at a reasonable price and reach a massive global audience,” said John Evershed, co-founder and chief executive for Mondo Media.

That’s why Yahoo is making its first big move into original scripted programming with “Electric City,” taking advantage of its global scale of 700 million monthly users. Developing with a budget of about $2.5 million, “Electric City” consists of 20 four- to five-minute episodes. It will debut on Yahoo in June and or early July.

“Electric City” will be heavily interactive; users can download games and share comments about characters and plot lines on Facebook and Twitter. They can even ask questions of Hanks. It also has a 3-D map that enables users to explore the city.

“We think it’s an incredible story that fits into a strategy of being a place for the world’s best storytellers,” said Erin McPherson, Yahoo’s head of video programming. “Our core audience is very tech savvy. They conduct their lives online. It’s not a stretch for them to watch a piece of long-form video.”