ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.10 - JANUARY 2000

Quenching The New Millennium's Thirst For Animated Fare
(Continued from page 3)

Plympton's How to Kiss. © AtomFilms.
Just last month, AtomFilms announced the acquisition of Bill Plympton's catalog of work, securing on and off-line distribution of his material. In association with this renowned independent, they are pushing their own net "envelope" by creating what will be the first in a series of highly interactive fansites called "Plymptonia." It will include Plympton's existing short films, his production of some new original Flash content and provide as many interactive and informational ideas as they can come up with. Next to launch in this new genre will be a full service fan-site surrounding Aardman Productions entitled "The Aardman Observer." These fan areas will take atomfilms.com into differing design territories as they work toward making each of them more expressive of the individual artists' unique identities, as well as separating them out from the overall presentation of the site's other content and channels.

Led by Mika Salmi, founder and CEO, AtomFilms' extraordinary growth remains fueled by the adamant dedication to the cause of bringing independent shorts to new audiences worldwide. Although submissions pour in daily on VHS and digital files, Wynne stresses the importance of their continual presence at animation festivals. "That's always the first and last place for us and I think it's great for exposure. It brings a lot of animators together in one place at one time...and the biggest advantage in that is for the independent animator to meet with us face-to-face. When you want to go into partnership with anyone, you want to feel good about who you are going to work with and I think that `face time' is the quality time." He believes unquestionably that the success and future revenue for independent animation will be on the web, both for artists and distributors alike. AtomFilms, then, is inarguably taking the lead in making that happen.

Worms, Fish, Silicon and Chaos
Honkworm International is certifiably one of today's leading entertainment studios producing original animated properties optimized for the Internet world. Currently in production and distribution of over six series plus multiple one-off webisodes, Honkworm has plans to double its output within the coming year. Since its inception, founders Johan Liedgren (CEO/Principal) and Noah Tannen (Partner/Principal) have not only been the writers, producers and directors of very popular and odd-ball content; but on the business side, they have pioneered new models for revenue from the net syndication, co-production and sponsorships of their online work.

Johan Liedgren.
Originally from Sweden, Liedgren has spent the last two and a half years building the Seattle-based studio into an artistically and financially sound entity, drawing on his passion for both the creative and business sides of the start-up game, while carefully carving Honkworm's niche in the new net "space." Along the way, Honkworm has been stylishly innovative in its toon content as well as instrumental in forging new architecture of how entertainment, advertisement and commerce can integrate with web cartoons. For the outsider looking to differentiate companies such as his own from those like AtomFilms, Wild Brain, iFilm or Entertaindom, Liedgren suggests one way is "to ask first: is this company trying to drive traffic to a site -- yes or no?" If the answer is yes, that company must spend all its time, money and energy into getting traffic to their web place and will be judged accordingly. Liedgren emphasizes the fact that, "Honkworm is not a destination site. We will never spend money to drive any traffic here. We obviously care if people come and enjoy our work but it's not part of our business model."

What Honkworm does, he says, is to concentrate all their time, energy and creativeness into producing really good content. Dan Pepper (COO) further explains their studio setup by adding, "We do generate our creative inhouse but we also have contract writers and creatives that are submitting ideas and concepts that we either will take into production or develop with them. At that point, we have what I would call a `virtual studio' kind of model where we can match the concept to individuals and production entities that best fit the production design." Liedgren likes to call this particular process "using e-lancers" and he seems very comfortable in maintaining and expanding this network of outside storyteller, artist and director relationships. They both point out that Honkworm retains ownership in all of their programs. "So our focus," Pepper concludes, "is to generate Honkworm titles that we essentially build as an asset and we can then license and syndicate those properties at will."

One example of a Honkworm alliance which significantly bolsters their production capacity is the four year content development, production and distribution agreement they signed with Camp Chaos Entertainment in October of last year. Honkworm secured a first right of refusal in the acquisition of all Camp Chaos' programs and is additionally guaranteed non-exclusive distribution rights for all their current and future content. Based in Philadelphia and continuing to maintain one of the first web sites to produce regular online Flash cartoons, Camp Chaos' side of this deal includes a renewable production retainer, as well as the confidence gained by working hand-in-hand with a reputable industry leader in online creative programming and distribution. The relationship had its beginnings with Camp Chaos providing animation services for Honkworm's Siliconites series. This and other projects fostered a lot of mutual admiration and finally, the recognition of the mutual benefits possible by bringing Camp Chaos into a more defined arrangement with the Honkworm group.

Honkworm International's revenues to date have been from syndication, co-productions and sponsorships of their creative content. Just recently, their coffers were supplemented by the infusion of new capital investment from American Greetings which should give them the ability to go forward with more partnership, acquisition and/or alliance agreements.

From the sponsorship angle, Honkworm has made history, of sorts, by mutating the traditional idea of product placement into a successful online campaign for Budweiser, wrapped around their hugely popular Fishbar series. Honkworm offered to write and design within the show's content subliminal, branded Budweiser material -- which would be in addition to the usual "brought to you by" front and end tags utilized in typical sponsorship deals. Budweiser was intrigued but then the question was: what kind of distribution venue would be acceptable to this idea? The necessary triangle was complete when Excite came into the picture as the "broadcaster," if you will, and the portal ended up actually brokering the final deal which included featuring the series on its main page. Liedgren says Budweiser was, of course, "really happy because now not only did they get to be associated with the Honkworm stuff but they're up there on Excite which has millions of eyeballs every day looking at the Budweiser/Honkworm content." This business scenario is now undoubtedly being used as a model by many other groups struggling for successful corporate branding and "advertainment." Liedgren doesn't particularly like that phrase and would rather describe Honkworm's approach as "entertainment that also works as advertisement." He is extremely mindful of being "very, very, very sensitive to the viewers" and understands the dangers of turning them off if the advertising component is too strong or inappropriate relative to the creative content. "The viewer and Honkworm obviously have to be the guys saying, `Stop right here' ... and I know from experience that you say no to the brand, you never say no to your viewers, right? You should say no to the brand because if the viewers keep coming, the brands will be back asking to be part of it again, anyway."

Honkworm is currently being pursued (and pursuing themselves) some interesting co-production deals in Hollywood and elsewhere from within the traditional entertainment world. They profess no interest in being acquired and say they have already turned down numerous large and lucrative work-for-hire type entreaties. As Liedgren puts it, "To be an in house creative shop for one studio, I think, is kind of limiting our `outside.'" Instead, Honkworm is looking at a future with "Hollywood" that could entail joint projects with, he says, "established brand-name talent -- like well known comics or famous broadcast writers" that would join forces with Honkworm, developing projects where their respective creative sensibilities would overlap into novel programming. Meanwhile, Liedgren feels Honkworm is right where it should be, saying, "We're on a roll and growing as fast as we can." So far, that's been a pretty dynamic and impressive roll.
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Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.


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