In a new and novel on-line domain, the legendary comics creator Stan 'The Man' Lee is gleefully at work launching a commanding cache of super-hero worlds. Go quickly to stanlee.net. Be ready for a lot of visually compelling, action-adventure magic -- timeless in appeal and timely in presentation to a whole new world of Netizens hungry for engaging episodic fare. Go for the adventures, the laughs, the games, the community...and other evolving "bits" that Lee's band of digital revolutionaries are developing into the most comprehensive, individually branded site on the Web today.Stan...
In a new and novel on-line domain, the legendary comics creator Stan 'The Man' Lee is gleefully at work launching a commanding cache of super-hero worlds. Go quickly to stanlee.net. Be ready for a lot of visually compelling, action-adventure magic -- timeless in appeal and timely in presentation to a whole new world of Netizens hungry for engaging episodic fare. Go for the adventures, the laughs, the games, the community...and other evolving "bits" that Lee's band of digital revolutionaries are developing into the most comprehensive, individually branded site on the Web today.
Over almost six decades with Marvel Comics, Stan Lee co-created a wealth of comic book icons including such super hits as Spider-Man, X-Men, The Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk...a host of classic characters who continue to roil across the 21st century's printed pages, television and feature screens. The international scope of these properties is extraordinary. More than 2 billion comic books bearing Lee's name have been published in close to100 countries in over 25 languages. More than 27 animated series based on his work are currently in worldwide syndication while a plethora of live-action films are in development, production or release by a selection of major theatrical studios.
Time For a New Horizon
After serving as creator, editor and finally publisher of Marvel Enterprises, Stan Lee was freed from his lifetime contract when the beleaguered company was reorganizing its way out of bankruptcy in 1998. Aided by the forces of media innovator, producer and long time friend Peter Paul, Lee was able to negotiate a far more limited role in Marvel's future, where he remains as Chairman Emeritus of Marvel Media. Freshly armed with the rights to his own name, likeness and "brand," he and Paul then co-founded Stan Lee Media as an Internet based, multi-media company. Lee began immediately focusing the lion's share of his attention on creating his first new characters in 25 years. Paul, meanwhile, set about strategizing unique pathways across all new and traditional media for the production, marketing and licensing of Lee's recognized brand of entertainment. They've both been very busy, indeed.
Let's Set The Stage
Paralleling the fast-expanding universe of their action packed programming, Stan Lee Media (SLM) made its trading debut on Wall Street in August of 1999. A medley of partnerships and alliances ensued: Warner Bros.' Acme City site began offering free 20 megabyte homepages to every Stan Lee fan worldwide; Macromedia acquired a $5 million equity stake in the fledging company and arranged exclusive distribution for five original series to premiere on its heavily trafficked shockwave.com; IBM stepped up to sponsor SLM's Encino, California state-of-the-art studios -- outfitting the burgeoning facility with its high-end Intellistations for creation of all new digital works; and Iwerks Entertainment signed on to pioneer the application of Lee's new super hero franchises to Iwerks' ride simulations, theme park attractions and giant screen destinations. Additional alliances have been forged with Next Planet Over for on-line retailing and distribution of comic books, eCommerical for direct marketing campaigns and other outsourcing deals with WhatsHotNow.com, Cyberworld and PentaFour Software -- all working in tandem as Stan Lee Media establishes itself as an international leader in today's original entertainment space.
Yeah, But Who Wants To Work With Us?
SLM now boasts over 160 top-notch industry players and creatives, all fueling its forward journey. Peter Paul explains it well, saying, "Stan has attracted the best array of talent ever assembled for the Internet because he's Stan Lee and he's had an impact on most of the people in the creative community today." Paul describes their company as "a true 'convergence studio' with people representing each disciplined media talent. So it's truly a mixture of cultures from analog and digital to Internet, from television and films to Flash." To name but a few of their team: Ken Williams, 18 year veteran of Sony Pictures Entertainment, is now President and CEO; Stephen Brain, recognized as establishing the Fox Animation Studios, is now Exec VP of Production, charged with converging SLM's diverse media talents; George Hamilton, well-known actor and businessman, signed on as President of Global Branded Entertainment, a new division responsible for signing internationally recognized talent as well as other innovative endeavors; and Jamie Wilkinson is onboard as Exec VP, Internet Strategy, after spending the past three years fashioning Disney Online production.
And Just What Is This Super Hero Stuff?
Showcasing Lee's signature style -- encompassing irresistible elements of conflict, suspense, heroism and humanity -- the studio's first two Flash produced series 7th Portal and Accuser launched in February and May of this year, respectively. The response has been overwhelming as both series (with new Webisodes biweekly) attract millions of devoted fans each month. And Hollywood is taking quick notice, as well. Working in "Internet time," it was mere weeks after its Net debut that 7th Portal was marked by industry heavyweight Mark Canton for a big-budget theatrical co-production deal.
Their third original series, a dramatic techno-punk styled property The Drifter, is soon to make its on-line debut -- and, garnering a lot of advance heat, is the company's new franchise called Backstreet Project. In a team effort with music phenom the Backstreet Boys, SLM has co-created an animated Web series and elaborate comic book line starring alter-ego super heroes based on the tremendously popular teen-throb band. With a major $15 million Burger King promotion set to roll, the premiere will be Webcast 'live' on August 27th from the Hard Rock in Orlando, Florida. IBM will power the on-line event to a worldwide audience. Then, mixing in another music genre property, SLM also recently announced a partnership with Mary J. Blige to co-venture a Super Heroine franchise based on the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," herself. Preceding the Webisodes' launch (expected sometime this fall), SLM produced a short animated video that is playing to terrific response before Blige's live concert audiences -- and can be previewed now up on stanlee.net.
Other co-branded ventures currently positioned to get Stan Lee's personal treatment are a futuristic extension of the long-running TV series Cops, something wild with the Wu Tu Clan, a new franchise based on the recently acquired and highly successful Conan, The Barbarian character -- and, in the science fiction sphere, a property based on sci-fi master Gene Roddenberry's unpublished Starship material.
Clearly, plans for all SLM projects encompass strategies for spreading out from their Net 'worlds' (filled with Flash animation, puzzles, games, trivia and community) to any and all multi-platforms of traditional TV, video, features, print and merchandising. Paul is confident SLM has the chops for these mega-endeavors, stating, "We actually have the ability to create fresh properties, understand brand, and to attract other best-of-breed partners from each niche market of the global popular culture -- to continue to enhance our brand and build our audience as an amalgamation of all these other audiences for different entertainment genres." With the power of creative and technical partnerships across the world, he is secure Stan Lee Media will soon be "the largest independent aggregators of globally branded entertainment content deployed on the Internet."
So, Who's Making All This Fly?
Tapped to creatively spearhead Stan Lee's Web-launched productions are three of the top animation action-genre producers of our times. A major coup for the company's roster came in January when producer, director, writer and artist Will Meugniot joined forces as Executive Vice President of Creative Production and Development. His vast credits include numerous animated series including The X-Men, Exosquad and the current Spider-Man Unlimited. Meugniot garnered early acclaim as a comic book artist, best known for his own long-running co-creation DNAgents franchise. Long a fore-runner on the animation front, he has won numerous industry awards including the 1999 Monitor for best director, a Genesis Award and double Emmy nominations for episodes of Captain Planet and The Real Ghostbusters. Having crossed paths with Stan Lee many times in the past, Meugniot's uncontrollable excitement about working with him again is infectious and he's keyed up by the overall level of expertise at his new home. "Across the board, the hiring of this company has been phenomenal." Collaborating with Peter Paul for the first time, Meugniot enthuses, "Peter's business plans and vision for the company are just amazing." In a very short time, he predicts, "This place will be an astonishing company."
Meugniot's responsibilities are similar to an editor-in-chief -- supervising script development and the production of Webisodes as well as developing innovative content for overall Web site expansion. "Our first initiative, even before I got to the company," he explains, "was to try to get on the most high-end programs that were possible. And now that we've learned how to do that, our new commitment is to find ways to make those programs more user friendly." Designing stunning, visually stimulating stories within the realities of limited bandwidth, Meugniot admits, is an ongoing challenge. "What I found when I was producing The Drifter episodes was that it's almost like filmmaking but not quite. It is its own medium and it requires a little different thought process to maximize the entertainment value in relation to the download time." He goes on, "I think in time, the Webisodes -- the whole Flash animation thing -- will develop its own aesthetic."
Meugniot has also been working eagerly with SLM's Web site team on the radical re-design of their site, scheduled to unveil sometime later this month. "It's very streamlined," he says. "It has a consistent global navigation system at the top of every page and it's just graphically compelling. It'll be very different from what anybody else is doing at the moment." Additionally, they will be adding more features with original animation including short cartoons and character "specials," together with fresh and inventive series themed games. "We're really straining to make sure that every day you go up to stanlee.net, there's some fresh content for you to see."
When considering some of the new aspects of creating for the Internet, Meugniot states, "I'd say the number one thing now is that, as I'm looking at our new slate of development, it is the interactivity issue. It's like: how can we get the audience involved, give them something that functions as an entertainment with a linear story but still gives them the opportunity to be involved in the story in a way that they can't in a TV show." He readily believes that focusing on story and strong characters remains the classic bottom line; but notes that with Web production, the focal point is now enhanced with the challenge of figuring out "what are the needs of this medium and how do we make it work in our favor instead of against us."
Another big-time industry recruit, Larry Houston, has worked with Stan Lee on and off for over 20 years, beginning in the 1980s on Marvel's syndicated Spiderman series. His distinguished action-adventure career spans dozens of animated projects. In multiple roles as director, storyboard and The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men, HBO's Spawn, Disney's TailSpin and Batman for the Warner Bros. shop. He has also spent time in the traditional comic books field, drawing such titles as All-Star Squadron for DC Comics, DNAgents for Eclipse and his own creation, The Vanguards. Before making art and animation his priority, Houston worked as a systems analyst and technician for several major computer companies. Now at SLM, the melding of his animation expertise with his "distant past in computers," he laughingly points out, "has seemed like the perfect example of professional convergence."
When he got the call last October, Houston didn't hesitate for a millisecond to jump over to SLM's nascent studio. "You know, if Stan Lee calls, this is the guy I grew up with. It's like, 'Yes -- I'm there!'" Houston describes the process they've adapted for Flash episodic production as very similar to the standard steps of 2D series formation. Each Webisode starts with the writing department (headed by well-known story editor Mark Evanier) which operates "directly with Stan to create the scripts and work out the little nuances of what he wants in the shows." Artwork and storyboard follow. While layouts are being completed in-house, traditional actor records take place outside, with six to nine 3-minute episodes recorded per session. "Instead of now shipping overseas," Houston explains, "when you finish your pre-production, you hand it off to the digital department which is only a cubicle away." Scanning, computer-generated coloring and lighting take place there. "Once that's done, it's then moved on electronically to the next department which is digital animation." A major departure from usual procedure happens at this stage. "In traditional animation, we have nice exposure sheets done so that, down to the frame, you know exactly what you're doing. Producing for the Internet, it's not as precise. Not yet, at least." What Houston does, then, is shoot a rough animatic of the storyboard to give the computer animators direction on overall pacing and timing of scenes, thereby able to communicate his well honed action-adventure sensibilities.
Once the tricky issues of "downloadability" and "playability" are tackled by Houston and the Flash animators, the Webisode is locked in to its desired length. Lush sound effects and full music tracks are produced using traditional methods of production and final sound mixes take place at the nearby studio, Image Resources. From there -- marking a cool advantage to working in the digital realm -- a dedicated Internet site is used for electronic transfers of the final Webisodes to SLM and shockwave, or anywhere else they may need to go.
Although the schedules remain hectic, Houston is loving every minute in his new job with mentor Stan Lee. "It's pretty much an open type of environment here where ideas are out on the table. Anybody can have input and Stan has an open-door policy for people with ideas. If you have something, come pitch it to him and he will consider it."
Tom McLaughlin is a further powerhouse addition to the Encino team, brought on in February of this year to help drive SLM's high-end goals. As a creative producer/ director/designer, McLaughlin's extensive background in action adventure includes work on such successful titles as X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Batman, Gargoyles and Silver Surfer. While studying at New York's School of Visual Arts, NYU and Pratt University, McLaughlin picked up day jobs in animation which eventually led to his creative involvement in dozens of award-winning commercials for clients like McDonalds and MTV.
As director and designer on the acclaimed Pee Wee's Playhouse, McLaughlin treasures that early experience at Broadcast Arts because he found himself not only responsible for content and design, but as a "sometimes" animator and cameraman, as well. "It was the greatest learning experience of my life because it was soup-to-nuts, you learned everything."
McLaughlin feels as excited about working at Stan Lee Media as he was in those heady days on the New York show. "It's the same kind of atmosphere," he says, "with an innovative spirit that's just pure adrenaline!" Having "bumped into" Stan throughout his production career, McLaughlin remains super-impressed with Lee's creative output. "Stan is still in there, a 77 year-old, ready to swing it out with anybody." He describes the new studio as "like a bomb ready to explode with all kinds of stuff. It's one of the most exciting places I've ever worked because of all the different applications we want to go into." Last winter, while still on a project with another studio, McLaughlin was handpicked to freelance an animated commercial to showcase SLM's gala launch party of early this year. Coming into the studio shortly thereafter, he worked on the Backstreet Project promo and just last month completed the highly praised Mary J. Blige video. He loves working on these special projects, stating, "We want to put the level up for everybody to get excited about the content that we're doing. We want people to look at us and say, 'What is Stan Lee doing next?'"
SLM's Webisodes have been McLaughlin's first foray into full-out Flash Internet production. He's been happily riding the learning curve with design and direction on The Drifter, Accuser and a new series entitled Stoneman. He believes making the transition from 20-minute 2D broadcast series to the short Web productions has been facilitated by his early career back East. "My commercial background does tremendously help with the Flash stuff where you have to streamline your thinking," he says. Instead of feeling frustrated by the creative limitations in this new medium (e.g. less dramatic use of special effects and heavy action sequences), McLaughlin feels, "If you're a good producer or director, I think that's where you show how clever you are. You give me four minutes in Flash? We're going to roll up our sleeves and see how good we are. That's the whole attitude."
The Future Is Now
Peter Paul considers the biggest challenge SLM faces now is keeping up with the growth in the multiple directions they're going. "While we're aggregating more entertainment franchises than anybody in history, we're also building a company dealing with all the financial issues of a public company and then doing all the partnerships around the world and coming up with technologies that advance our content." And their expansion is occurring at super-speeds. On the international front, SLM announced in June a strategic alliance with FOX Latin America to both create original programming and localize existing Stan Lee content for cross-platform distribution throughout the Latin American region. New plans will also be announced this month regarding SLM associations with the leaders of anime and manga in Japan. These alliances, Paul states, "..will demonstrate our commitment to the global popular culture in partnering with these other regional genres to help them establish infrastructures that will be competitive on a global level with American productions."
On the technology side, Paul is stimulated by their recent partnering with USAnimation in propelling its vector-based Toon Boom software which will permit animators to create programming that can be easily exported to Flash (also vector-based) and/or converted between all Internet, television and film mediums. He feels it will revolutionize content because, "..there will be one production that will be portable and amortized over every media platform that it's applied in." Since Stan Lee Media's intention from the starting gate has been to provide their branded, Web-based entertainment in all platforms imaginable, technology advances like these will play heavily in their future. As Tom McLaughlin says, "We're prepped and ready to fly!"
In his work positioning Stan Lee Media's velocity -- out of their 50,000 square foot, "media-genic" studio -- Paul is having fun. "Being in the middle of one of the most creative enterprises to be established on the Internet today and being at the helm of the company as it navigates uncharted waters in establishing a new medium of entertainment and communication...and joined with the unsurpassed storyteller to kids of all time in that voyage -- what's better than that?"
Lee Dannacher, currently based in New York, is a Supervising Producer and Sound Track Director of over 350 half hours of television animated series, along with numerous home video and film productions.