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Carrying Forward: Online Animation

Has the boom gone completely to bust? Lee Dannacher visits some of the dotcom survivors and learns how their business approach saved them from the crash.

Barbra Streisand is lampooned in Mondo Media's The God and Devil Show. Mondo Media has managed to establish and maintain a strong presence as a major producer and syndicator of Web entertainment. © 2000 Mondo Media.

Barbra Streisand is lampooned in Mondo Media's The God and Devil Show. Mondo Media has managed to establish and maintain a strong presence as a major producer and syndicator of Web entertainment. © 2000 Mondo Media.

Gone may be the lavish days of Internet expansion but animation on the Web soldiers on. Three years ago, the dreams dreamed were of a perfect round-the-clock audience in a perfectly new market. Creatively, this came true in an explosion of Flash produced fare. But the business of Net entertainment proved mercurial -- crashing downward as fast as it had scaled up just moments before.

Its hard not to feel like weve been depressingly blown backwards -- until we remember that this has all been just a beginning. The animation going up on the Web today is as exciting and viable now as it was at the outset.and many of the companies profiled on these pages two years ago have been steadily advancing -- albiet at a much slower and quieter pace -- in their continuing efforts to blend animation, emerging technology and new media ideas in fresh and interesting fashion.

John Evershed, CEO and co-founder of Mondo Media, has seen artists' interest in working on the Net wane since the dotcom bust.

John Evershed, CEO and co-founder of Mondo Media, has seen artists' interest in working on the Net wane since the dotcom bust.

Those who have weathered the melee of Net mania have done so by staying adaptable, adjusting the scope of their businesses and realistically looking for cash-flow opportunities in the off-line worlds. Their roads to staying above the fracas have been individual and imaginative, as evidenced by the companies we followed up with below

Mondo Media

From the start, San Francisco-based Mondo Media's Internet plan was to become a dominant producer and syndicator of entertainment on the Web, eschewing the costly lure of becoming a destination site itself. That successful, multi-tiered business model has kept them up and running. With an established 14 year track record in award-winning design, entertainment and digital production services, Mondo Media, led by CEO and co-founder John Evershed, has been able to maintain focus on leveraging their character-based animation across multiple media fields.

Mondo Media's Happy Tree Friends found a home this year on MTV's Downloaded. The production also served as a basis for Mondo Media's first foray into DVDs and merchandising. © 2000 Mondo Media.

Mondo Media's Happy Tree Friends found a home this year on MTV's Downloaded. The production also served as a basis for Mondo Media's first foray into DVDs and merchandising. © 2000 Mondo Media.

In their heavy production days, the company churned out hit after hit with Web series such as The God and Devil Show, Thugs on Film and Like, News -- using these Mondo Mini Shows to create and feed an online distribution set-up they dubbed The Mondo Network, which remains strong and active today. Although production has diminished considerably, some new episodes are still going live and most importantly, the company now has an established library of over 3,000 minutes of broadcast quality animation with which to pursue licensing and merchandising possibilities worldwide.

In fact, several of their properties have already enjoyed off-line success: episodes of Thugs on Film have aired on BBC America, and their wacky Happy Tree Friends debuted on MTVs Downloaded special just last year. Based on audience feedback from their Website, Mondo chose Happy Tree Friends as their first foray into DVDs and merchandising, introducing those materials for sale this summer. That series will also be featured prominently in this falls Spike and Mikes Sick and Twisted Festival, while in yet another ancillary deal, a bit from one of the Webisodes can be seen in Jennifer Anistons The Good Girl feature now in theatrical release.

While episodic production, advertising and marketing will remain essential to what Mondos brand is all about, Evershed says they are simultaneously focusing on their digital entertainment services business -- with particular emphasis on the games industry. At the same time, the studio is rapidly growing their viral marketing network, creating a full spectrum of guerilla tactics to provide new kinds of on-the-edge exposure for their content overall.

dannacher04_likeNews.gifdannacher05_thugsOnFilm.gifLike, News (left) and Thugs on Film were two of the first Web series on The Mondo Network. © 2000 Mondo Media.

One fall-out of the dot-com bust is that a great many artists interest in the Net has seemingly tapered off. Evershed is frustrated that Mondo Media is not getting third party submissions as often as I would like. He believes there are still lots of independent geniuses around who are capable of coming in with the next hit and he doesnt want them to be discouraged. This whole adjustment were going through has not lessened the number of people using the Internet and theres still an appetite out there for compelling content. In light of that, he urges the creative community to think of Mondo like a comic syndicator and to stay in touch. The Internet is still a powerful way to gain exposure, he reminds us, and Mondo Media is well situated. With our syndication infrastructure, we can still get material out in front of millions of viewers.

The toughest part in riding out the Nets volatile times, Evershed says, has been trying to maintain a focus on the here and now of growing revenues day to day while not losing site of our long term future. We had to be realistic about the external market conditions, and at the same time find the seams of opportunity that the downturn created. One thing that happens when you trim your company to 10% of its size is that you distill your team down to the essence of what its really good at. We have an excellent team of people now that are mining these seams and the results have been pretty exciting. Were making our targets and cultivating some new opportunities in a considerably less cluttered environment.

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Michael Jenkinson, CEO and co-founder of Urban Entertainment (left), and Nichelle Protho, vice president of production and programming. Jenkinson has built a successful operation by keeping the company small. Photos courtesy and © Urban Entertainment.

Urban Entertainment

From the inception of their Internet play, Michael Jenkinson, CEO and co-founder of the highly successful Urban Entertainment, has kept one eye solidly on the bottom line in a media plan that has mixed rock-solid business acumen with high-octane creative elements. Sticking to their initial mantra of Lets be scalable, the Los Angeles company has kept themselves small in number, bringing in-house only the essential team of high-level management, acquisitions and a core producers group while outsourcing everything else -- thereby keeping their infrastructure lean and flexible.

With cash flow from the sale and distribution of independent films (on top of venture capital monies along the way), Urban Entertainment has built a rich Website of original animated shows and live-action shorts. Today, with a recent infusion of more investment capital (as well as ongoing deals with New Line Features and AOL/Time Warner), their site continues to expand. In an earlier response to the dot-com aftermath, Jenkinson expressed his thoughts in a letter to Variety, writing, Weve seen that the survivors are the hybrid businesses, the ones that took advantage of using technology as a tool to facilitate more efficient operations within current business structures. Its undisputed that Urban Entertainment has mined these tools of the Internet well -- creating an environment that utilizes the Net for attracting top creative talents, for development and exposure of new programming, and for collecting a wealth of beneficial audience feedback. After bundling all of the above for any given show, the company then has a wealth of ammunition on hand to court interest in the offline worlds.

dannacher08_undercoverBro.gifdannacher09_undercoverBro.jpgUndercover Brother from Urban Entertainment is the paradigm of how an Internet series evolved into a major motion picture. © Urban Entertainment (left) and © Universal Pictures 2002 (right).

UrbanEnt.com currently showcases over 18 animated series and Nichelle Protho, VP of production and programming, reports that episodic production continues on their more popular shows. Periodically, new original series are going live, as well, such as the recent one from John Ridley entitled The Shonuffs, which premiered on the site just last month. Attracting high-profile creative talent (such as director John Singleton, writers Tina Andrews, Mike Elliot and George Tillman, and the music worlds Lil' Bow Wow, to name but a few), Prothro says their goal is to continue to work with those artists inside and outside of the animation world. Referring to possible hook-ups with traditional animation studios, she said Urban Entertainment would definitely be interested, noting, We think there is real synergy to be had between us.

Protho explains her companys attention has always been on acquiring or producing content that we could exploit, and their discerning eye paid off handsomely this May when Urban Entertainments Undercover Brother (created by the prolific John Ridley) jumped from the Internet to the big screen. Marking an industry milestone, the Web series morphed into a well-reviewed live-action comedy directed by Malcom Lee, which Urban Entertainment co-produced with Brian Grazers Imagine Entertainment. Universal Studios handled the release to a wonderful box-office response nationwide. On the heels of this success, Urban is again in theatrical development with Imagine and Universal on a second Web original called Pookie Poo. Elsewhere on the feature front, two other Net series from Jenkinsons group, Those Who Walk in Darkness and There Goes the Nation, are in development with Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment, respectively.

Coinciding with the theatrical release of Undercover Brother, Urban Entertainment made a deal with Black Starz! cabler to broadcast all twelve episodes of the Net series (with the animation bumped up a little for better TV play) in a special programming stunt hosted by the films star, comedian Eddie Griffin. At the same time, they created a separate Website for the film, giving it an individual platform for contests, games and other special marketing and promotional gambits tied to the pictures release.

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