Recent developments at Homestar Runner include a hiatus for Strong Bad Emails and a Wii title from Telltale Games.
In the last eight years, the independent entertainment website Homestarrunner.com has generated a loyal following for its cartoons, music videos, podcasts, e-mails and games, all through word of mouth, with virtually no formal marketing. Sales of merchandise -- including t-shirts, messenger bags, posters, figurines, CDs, videogames and DVDs, distributed primarily online -- financially support the site and its main creators, Atlanta-based brothers Mike and Matt Chapman.
The biggest change to the site recently is that one of the most popular features, Strong Bad Emails (also known as SBEmails), in which the character Strong Bad comments on current events, has been put on hiatus after the 200th episode. Strong Bad's retirement has given the creators more time to focus on other characters, including Homestar, Pom Pom, The Cheat and Marzipan.
"The content is more varied now," says Mike Chapman, who founded the site with Craig Zobel in 2000. "Before, at least 60% to 70% of the updates were Strong Bad Emails, but now it's sort of a mixed bag. It's a little more fun for us."
Much of the new content these days consists of cartoons covering a wide range of topics, while later in the year, from Halloween on, the content will move more toward holiday-themed episodes. One area where the Chapmans would like to increase their production is Flash-animated interactive games. These are posted under the Videlectrix banner and take their inspiration from 1980s-style arcade games. The person responsible for programming Homestar Runner games recently took a full-time job elsewhere, so there are not as many new titles being made available as has been the case in the past.
Last year, Telltale Games released a Homestar Runner title, Strong Bad's Cool Games for Attractive People, for the Nintendo Wii. It is available through Nintendo's distribution channels as well as on the Homestarrunner.com website. However, more partnerships with outside companies are unlikely in the near future. "That was like a second job on top of our already interesting job," Chapman explains, pointing out that the game had as much dialogue as six or seven years' worth of cartoons on the website. Although the partnership with the creatives at Telltale went well, Chapman adds, "It was more work than we anticipated. People noticed that the site wasn't being updated as much, and creatively, it took a lot out of us. Our brains were fried. Now we're taking a deep breath and getting back to doing the cartoons."
New content is posted almost every week, with inspiration coming from a variety of sources. A certain visual style might spur an idea, or perhaps the brothers feel like adding some Puppet Stuff -- music videos and other content featuring puppet versions of the characters -- and brainstorm concepts to achieve that goal. Sometimes the spark might come from something that happens in the creators' lives. "A while back, Matt was making donuts and he thought: Why don't we do a cartoon where Homestar is making donuts?" Chapman recalls.
As has been the case from the beginning, merchandise sales continue to keep the business going. At least one DVD is released per year, at Christmas, and typically sells well, according to Chapman. Early this year, a compilation, The Best of Strong Bad Emails, became available. All of the SBEmails already are out on DVD, but Chapman points out that the entire set of six discs represents a big investment for fans. As a result, the company released a compilation of 50 classics, plus five bonus SBEmails on one disc for $12.
Other products for sale on the site include CDs of the plentiful music created for the cartoons, apparel and accessories ranging from baby clothes to messenger bags, and printed products such as static clings and bumper stickers. Most feature the major characters, supplemented by limited runs once in a while of items, such as t-shirts, featuring more obscure characters. The Chapmans' sister handles the business side of Homestarrunner.com; the brothers create the graphics for the products and the online store. The website itself is the main distribution channel for products, although some are sold elsewhere, such as through independent comic book stores.
The fan base for Homestarrunner.com grew through word of mouth; viral marketing; endorsements from music groups such as They Might Be Giants (which also has contributed content); exposure through product placement (songs from the website have appeared in Guitar Hero games); and publicity in gaming, entertainment, and general news publications. Chapman notes that Telltale's publicity efforts surrounding the Wii game introduced some new people to the site.
The site's audience continues to grow, and demographics are wide. The core is males in high school and college, but there's no offensive content and the total fan base extends from age 6 to 60, according to Chapman. "The whole family can get it and like it together," he says. "We get a kick out of when a Dad introduces it to his kid or vice versa."
Most of the fans are in the U.S. and Canada, with some from the U.K. and Australia as well. Canadians in particular have embraced the site's humor right from the beginning. Chapman points out that the site has been up and running long enough for fans who have lost touch with it -- perhaps being loyal visitors during college and then drifting away -- to start coming back to check out Homestar and friends again.
As is true for almost any animation or internet company, the economic downturn is not helping the business right now. Chapman notes that fans who are worried about their finances might opt not to buy a t-shirt or DVD now, especially when they can watch most of the content for free on the site. Still, there's no plan to change the business or creative strategy behind the site. As Chapman says, "We never plan anything out more than a week, if that."
Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).
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