Sharon Schatz goes behind the scenes at Tom Snyder Productions and learns how this surprising little company has been hitting winners ever since its inception.
Last year, while mulling over domain names for his soon-to-launch Internet venture, Austin Harrison (Chairman, CEO and Co-Founder) was playing around with the word "media" when he happened to screen a Doors DVD. He remembers listening to the interview with Jim Morrison where the rocker, "was just talking about the future of music being a river of electronic sounds and, you know, taking a trip into a new generation of music." Facing his own imminent trip into a new generation of online fare, Harrison nimbly configured his two key words into the perfect symbol for his group's bold new journey. Moniker now in hand, MediaTrip.com was ready to roll.
The Trip Takes Off
Starting out as a platform for alternative entertainment content, MediaTrip hit the Netwaves last October with a library of independent films including the now infamous live-action comedy short George Lucas In Love. Directed by Joe Nussbaum, the very funny 9-minute spoof proved an instant online hit, quickly setting a record for the most-watched online short with 150,000 streams in the first three weeks. MediaTrip later, in an exclusive partnership with Amazon.com, released the film on video and achieved the number one sales position on the e-trailer's charts. This deal, Harrison noted at the time, "proves how the Internet can successfully provide a multi-platform revenue opportunity for a filmmaker."
Also included on MediaTrip's nascent site were feature-length films such as the Academy Award winning documentary The Long Way Home and Things I Never Told You starring Lili Taylor and Debi Mazar. In addition to the film library, the new dot-com premiered with -- and continues Netcasting -- trailers and clips from an array of current movies, celebrity interviews, music videos, streaming audio, artist-hosted radio stations, entertainment news and live concert performance footage.
"We tried to provide somewhat of an eclectic experience starting out," Harrison says, and therefore a fistful of original programming was available at the launch. In the live-action genre, there were weekly shows such as No Drink Minimum, featuring short routines from up-and-coming comics and Tattoo TV, a documentary series surrounding the world of body art. On the animation side, MediaTrip garnered instant Net effect with an original, smashingly funny project from Peter Gilstrap and Mark Brooks entitled Lil' Pimp, a Flash produced Web series based on a street-corner character whom the creators describe as a "polite, cute, nine years old, and one heck of a pimp."
Traveling at Net speed into the new millennium, MediaTrip continued acquiring exclusive online rights to innovative independent films including the CGI animated shorts Los Gringos and Sentinelles. Increasing their line-up of original shows, they soon premiered two more animated Web series to great audience response: Creamburg, a second creation from Gilstrap and Brooks, featuring an out-there snack food spokesfigure dealing in the cut throat world of Tinsel Town and Ed Testy, from creator John Whelan, which follows the trials of an angry white(trash) homeowner after his personality is transported into the body of a crash-landed alien. With increasing velocity, a loyal Net audience in MediaTrip's targeted 18-49 age range began gathering behind the site's burgeoning alternative fare.
Revving Up The Engine
Early in the New Year, Hollywood executive/superagent Arnold Rifkin joined MediaTrip's Board of Directors. With strong relationships across the spectrum of today's entertainment worlds, Rifkin brought what Harrison describes as "key strategic guidance" to the young company's evolutionary process. Bridging a few "degrees of separation," Rifkin led the youthful CEO to a destined meeting with Joe Roth, the former Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, who was just then announcing the formation of his new independent Revolution Studios.
At the beginning of last summer, Harrison and Roth publicized the formation of a long-range strategic partnership. Their unique industry relationship will encompass a magnitude of possibilities for creating formulas linking the Web and traditional media's television, film, marketing, production and publicity. To optimize their association and facilitate close cross-consideration for all projects being worked on by both companies, MediaTrip will move under the same roof of Revolution's soon-to-be-completed 65,000 square-foot Santa Monica complex early next year.
Picking Up the Passengers
In July, MediaTrip scaled their site significantly by building an interactive artist community called "Show Off Your Own." Their intent in aggregating individual Web pages is to promote the free exchange of work and ideas from artists and their fans worldwide. The Netcaster will supply the tools and will support the scores of separate pages so that, in Harrison's words, "Artists will be able to share their creative vision on an interactive platform -- whether it's music, film, games, animation, acting or producing." The first examples of this new area's potential have been seen in MediaTrip's first-ever online casting calls for Revolution's films Tomcats and the just announced The New Guy. By posting their pictures, resumes and/or materials within MediaTrip's designated spots, aspiring actors, actresses and musicians will have the online chance to win featured extra rolls in Roth's current theatrical productions (plus the potential to connect with other influential industry professionals along the way). In the music arena, MediaTrip has enlisted artist mastermind George Clinton to entice musicians to upload their demos for review by him and all other viewers who want to post comments. At the end of six months, Clinton will select one artist as the grand prize winner from a pool of audience selected weekly winners -- for whom he will then produce a demo album. In these new and soon-to-be launched artist community areas, MediaTrip and Revolution Studios remind participants they will be continually looking at the most popular material within the interactive pages to find new talent and projects for additional Internet and offline production/distribution possibilities.
Punching the Animation Tickets
Brought onboard as MediaTrip's Executive Producer of Animation last May, Texas native James Fino came directly from Fox's award winning series King of the Hill. During his four years there, he supervised all stages of production, working as liaison between Fox's creative staff and animation house Film Roman. Fino considers the depth of that experience extremely rewarding, saying, "I was involved in every single process which was exactly what I needed when I came over here to MediaTrip, to be able to get projects in and basically start them from the ground up." This is Fino's first foray into Web series and he admits, "It's definitely a different animal going from television to the Internet but a lot of the animators that I'm dealing with are also making that same transition so we're able to take the problems and irritations from the television side and try to refine them on the Internet side." After a crunch period of learning online production techniques, Fino is readily stepping up to the challenge of working with the writers and animators on adjusting their creativity to match the limitations of current Web technology.
At the same time, he's nudging them to embrace the interactive features possible in all their developing works. Fino affirms that MediaTrip's goal "is to actually start involving the viewer more and more because that is the correct way of using this medium now." Whether that means creating interactive elements within or outside the narrative of a storyline, he feels, "We definitely have to engage the audience and build something more than just a 3-minute cartoon to hold them. What we're actually concentrating on doing is having the core idea of the story and then building an entire world around it so that we have an experience that the viewer can go to and, after the narrative has played out, can still hang around in that world, find out more about the characters, actually speak to other people who are watching and really build a full community around each project that we do."
Fino is presently immersed in MediaTrip's next major original animated series Gary The Rat, the debut project of a partnership deal announced last month with big time actor Kelsey Grammer and his production company Grammnet. Created by Mark and Rob Cullen and starring Grammer, the show follows the life of a high-powered Manhattan attorney who wakes up one day as a six-foot rat and finds that, while he has become even more appealing to his clients, he must consistently foil his new nemesis exterminator Johnny Bugz. Premiering later this fall, the initial 13 Webisodes have already been recorded, Fino says, ina schedule that simplifies the television model for episodic production. "We didn't want to have to bring the actors together 13 different times so we had the writers basically write all the episodes ahead of time. We were then able to table them at the same time, do notes on them...and we recorded the whole series in a single day over on the Paramount lot." MediaTrip is producing the animation with the outside independent studio 3 Birds, a team of animation artists well known for their previous 2D television work on major network shows. Simultaneously, the Netcaster will create a dynamic audience environment for the series called The Bug Cave, to be built around Gary characters and stories, that will feature the games, contests and other interactive content they feel important to all their new projects' online success.
Along with his production and development responsibilities, Fino is focusing a lot of his attention on developing the animation area of MediaTrip's new community pages. As soon as they go live with the necessary tools allowing uploads of up to 20 megs worth of material onto individual sites, Fino will reach out in earnest to animation professionals and students alike to begin streaming their work under MediaTrip's umbrella. The company plans to stage multiple events which will give the participating creators not only great exposure, but also serve as a forum where students of animation can get important feedback on their work. "I really want to create this whole mentoring-like process for students," he adds, while continuing to use the Internet and MediaTrip's unique positioning to incubate innovative projects into both on and offline hits.
New Roads to Travel
MediaTrip's first home-grown project to make the major leap fromthe Internet to feature films will be Lil' Pimp. In August, Revolution Studios announced its theatrical pickup of the series after inking the deal with co-creators Peter Gilstrap and Mark Brooks -- who will write, direct and produce the full-length, Flash-produced motion picture at their Gifted Men Productions. Gilstrap and Brooks first met up while working as columnist and art director, respectively, on a major weekly newspaper several years ago.
Brooks first approached Gilstrap with drawings and ideas he had on a concept that would later become their other hit MediaTrip series Creamburg. Working with Gilstrap at night, Brooks animated over a 7 week period to complete a 23-minute pilot which was eventually optioned by cable caster HBO. Austin Harrison, aware of the Creamburg tape, contacted the duo about its availability for the then forming MediaTrip.com. Withthat show still tied up with HBO, Brooks and Gilstrap went home and quickly brainstormed the Lil' Pimp concept. Within 24 hours, they were back in MediaTrip's offices presenting their new series creation. The Netcaster pounced on the fresh idea and later, when it became available, picked up Creamburg for series, as well. For a co-ownership stake, MediaTrip has funded the two Gifted Men projects and all parties couldn't be happier with the shared trajectory of their relationship -- especially since Creamburg is also now being seriously considered within Revolution Studios as a television cross-over property.
From art studies at Colorado University to designing album covers, Brooks has harbored a long-standing love of animation. "I really wanted to make animated films," he laughs, "but I just didn'twant to draw that much!" Once Flash became a reality, he took to the new technology with a vengeance. He and Gilstrap have written, drawn, animated, voiced nearly every one of their characters and produced all of the music for their various series (both have a substantial history and current place on the music scene). By today's date, that totals approximately 26 Webisodes of Creamburg, 48 Lil' Pimps, as well as six shows for their series Adventure Men, which is running now on iFuse.com. Accomplishing all of this in only the past eleven months, these two creators have established themselves as walking-definitions of major Internet entertainment auteurs. Located at Hollywood and Vine, their studio will have to expand to handle the creative and production aspects of their first feature film. Brooks acknowledges, "There's just so many parts (of filmmaking) that we kind of gloss over when we're doing these 3 minute shows but there's stuff you need to pump up if you're going to put it onto a screen that large." Animating within Flash but at 30 frames, Brooks feels their work will transfer nicely to the bigger medium, adding, "The backgrounds will all be painted offline so it will have a painterly look, almost like an old-school '40s or '50s cartoon." More relevant than the technical issues faced in any production format, Brooks believes, is the whole entertainment approach one adopts in any creative endeavor. "The question is can you draw or can you not draw, can you tell a story or can you not tell a story, can you act or can you not act. To me, that's more important than the technology,really -- just the ability to make stuff interesting."
New Content on the Road
Gathering more steam, MediaTrip announced in late summer its partnership with comedian Adam Sandler and producer Jack Giarraputo to develop an entertainment destination called Shnorff.com. Working together, the two entities will create original Web content including episodic shows, animation, games and shorts for sole distribution on the new co-branded site. Joe Roth's Revolution, who helped facilitate the deal, will have first-look rights for Schnorff's online creative properties. Still in the development stages, this new venture serves as an illustration of the opportunities now presenting themselves to Harrison's still youthful Netcasting company. And whether it's with known or newly developing artists, Harrison feels one of MediaTrip's greatest strengthsis that, "We try to really get behind the creative people wework with. We're definitely a viable place for artists to take theirwork to the next level."
Harrison speaks from a wealth of experience as well, having begunhis new media career as early as 1995 when entertainment on the Net was just beginning. In true pioneer fashion, he produced online broadcastconcerts for the famous Whiskey-A-Go-Go before there was even any appreciable audience booted-up to tune in. He then did a two-yearstint as Director of New Media for CARAT, the world's largest media agency, where he learned and honed his skills in marketing and advertising for emerging media concerns. In 1998, he jumped back to the content creation side by taking the producing reins for Hollywood.com. While there, he was instrumental in raising revenue to an all-time high, doubling per month users and managing all production staff and editorial content. Leaving there to start MediaTrip's voyage in May of 1999, Harrison's new online journey has been both arduous and highly rewarding.
The Trip Ahead
Though constantly investigating the surplus of technical and creative possibilities his company and partnerships present -- in marketing, distribution to known and emerging technologies, creative advertising and more -- Harrison says right now his main focus remains "onbuilding compelling Internet experiences." Confident in the spontaneousatmosphere of today's entertainment evolution, he continues to show an unerring eye for finding the creations that are attractive across many different and complimentary platforms. Harrison makes his way into MediaTrip each morning excited by that task. He says with a smile,"It's always like: what's another thing we can do on our Website that is entertaining to our users? Because that's the challenge, that's the drive, that's why you wake up day to day is to entertain people, you know? That's the real kick."
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.