Mondo Media creates some of the Web's hottest animated series. With a new round of funding and orders for more "Webisodes," Lee Dannacher decided to take a closer look at this player.
Watch the Howard Stern episode of Like News. © 1999 Mondo Media.
As the year 2000 surges forward, a sarcastic teenager named Skeeter Dubois peerlessly interviews our world's high-profile newsmakers. On another set, two pub-crawling thugs dubbed Cecil and Stubby carry on with their riotous reviews of the latest flicks. On yet a third stage, a captivatingly capricious God -- in tandem with the Devil, herself! -- pursue their mischievous co-hosting duties on daytime talk. What do these spirited and disparate characters possibly have in common? Veteran San Francisco digital animation studio Mondo Media creates, produces and distributes these animated "stars" in three enormously popular on-line series Like, News, Thugs on Film and The God and Devil Show. Net audiences can relish and interact with these weekly "Mondo Mini Shows" on a variety of major dot coms including Shockwave, Netscape, Entertaindom, AltaVista, Excite@Home and AtomFilms. Recently bolstering their "virtual syndication network" to an impressive total of 14 sites, MondoMediais escalating its winning strategies by continually forging new partnerships which place their distinctive brand of original content across diversified areas of the red-hot Web.
Founded in 1988 by John Evershed (CEO) and Dierdre O'Malley (Director of Marketing), Mondo Media has established itself as a commanding on-line force with a production facility of more than 75 artists, animators, writers, producers and business staff. All of this right brain/left brain talent is vigorously riding the forward momentum created by the powerful audience and industry response to their quirky, highly engaging shows. Fueled with another round of substantial investment just last month, Evershed's group is teeming with confidence. "We have over 10 years experience as a company and we know how to produce shows efficiently," he states, adding: "And we have the ability to put an artist's content in front of millions of eyeballs a week." Mondo's new millennium goal, Evershed says, "is to continue to build our syndication business, create, commission and acquire new content for distribution, establish the Mondo brand further and convert our audience into revenue."
An adventurer from early on, John Evershed pocketed his 1981 degree in English Literature and got a job cleaning monitor screens around Toronto's public kiosks. He remembers, "I was always interested in the intersection between art and technology," so he hung around the company's content studio until they hired him, thus beginning his expedition through the developing digital worlds. Migrating to San Francisco on a job with Chronicle Videotex, Inc., Evershed spent the next couple of years designing and producing interactive applications. He then partnered with Dierdre O'Malley, an independent producer sporting an Economics degree, and together they founded Mondo Media, basing their new studio in the bay area's "Multimedia Gulch." Their earliest client was Prodigy for whom they created content and advertising for its on-line servers. This soon led to other Silicon Valley jobs encompassing point-of-purchase and software demos for retail clients such as Compaq and Hewlett-Packard.
While working on Microsoft's Encarta, Evershed and O'Malley got a taste of entertainment creation and began focusing their talents toward that objective. Their break came in 1993 when an order for the game Critical Path came from publisher Media Vision. Proving a financial and critical success, Mondo followed it up with a second CD-Rom adventure entitled The Daedalus Encounter. For the next few years, O'Malley recalls, "We continued to work on the art and the aesthetic of games until all of a sudden, there was the Internet...it starts formulating and we decided that was the business we wanted to be in." Their inaugural short-form animated project was for Macromedia's then titled "shockrave" site. Called Tech Sergeant, it featured an irascible character who responded to viewers' on-line software questions in an unconventional and irreverent comedic fashion, proving the creative fore-runner of the studio's individualistic style now flooding the Web under the banner "Mondo Mini Shows."
And Then There Was The Net
Securing initial capital in early 1999, Mondo began in earnest on series development and pilot production while at the same time building the infrastructure of their syndication organization. "The first show concept was The God and Devil Show," Evershed recounts. "We were looking for ideas that would rise above the noise level of the Web. We liked the show concept because it parodied celebrities and it provided a great platform for some goofy satire. It was a show that would not get picked up for TV but we instinctively felt that it would appeal to today's Web audience." Instincts clearly won out as this weekly series is now garnering extremely positive reviews running exclusively on Warner Bros. entertaindom.com.
The other two Net shows unveiled in Mondo's inceptive wave -- Like, News and Thugs on Film -- are also distinctively topical in story content and strong in personality, giving these leading series a legitimate air of immediacy by chronicling in `toons life around us. Last September, Netscape was the first to enter into a one year non-exclusive distribution deal for these two shows, airing them on its entertainment section www.netcenter.com. Following soon after, Macromedia's www.shockwave.com partnered with Mondo for these same weekly Web series, leveraging their entertainment draw for the launch of its "Toon-A-Vision" zone. In the ensuing six months, Mondo's unique on-line syndication model has been in full swing, evidenced by the plethora of additional partnerships they now have in line.
Christened the "Mondo Network," Evershed describes their distribution concept as "a hybrid between a TV syndicator like King World and United Media (a comics syndicator). Like King World, in that we're pre-selling advertising on our shows before partnering with our affiliates...and like United Media in that we're distributingvery character-driven entertainment with lots of ancillary and merchandising potential." In addition, their production process has roots in traditional media models. Evershed likens the operation to producing "a weekly television show. Monday is spent brainstorming with the entire writing team. Wednesdays, we table read with the voice talent, and Thursdays the writers submit final polished script. VO session, animation and post is performed in the second week." Right now, almost 100% of the work takes place at their facilities in San Francisco. And with an array of powerful new shows soon to go into production, Mondo is looking to expand its in-house crew of writers, directors and animators. At the same time, they are available to outside animation independents interested in pitching original concepts for co-production or syndicator-type partnerships who have their own capabilities of episodic production in a place elsewhere.
One of the beauties of Internet production is being able to produce and test pilot shows in a way unfeasible on television orcable due to budgetary and other business constraints. Mondo is primed to take advantage of these lower cost development opportunities and plans to go "live" with carefully chosen trial concepts on their own Web site (www.mondominishows.com). Evershed sees this as "an opportunity to reach out to our fans and to help us evaluate content." O'Malley concurs, citing the value of feedback they now receive on Mondo's airing series which they feel helps those shows already in production. She explains that they monitor daily, in "focus group style," data from their own fan base as well as assessing information from the numerous affiliate areas designed specifically to extol audience reaction. They predict this same system can work well for pilots before giving the most well-received concepts full green lights to series production. The additional benefit of Webcasting these pilots will be in providing a revolving platform whereby potential partners from around the world can readily preview Mondo's work and assess possibilities for future business.
At the end of last year, Mondo Media extended its strategic business arrangement with Macromedia's shockwave.com and, indeed, Macromedia led the latest round of the $20 million of new funding togetherwith Foundation Capital, Sofinnova Ventures and others. According to Evershed, "Macromedia has taken an equity stake in our company as part of their investment because they believe in the quality of our content and the scalability of our production capability."The studio is in pilot production now on three original shows which will have a 90 day exclusive on shockwave.com before moving into the Mondo Network syndication pipeline. Both companies will share in ad revenues from the shows' sections on Shockwave's site and in the properties subsequent world wide syndication deals.
Simultaneously, Evershed is very pleased with Mondo's creative and business relationship with Jim Banister at Warner Bros. On-line in the continuing production of The God and Devil Show. Theywere very gratified by the visibility Mondo gained during entertaindom.com's momentous launch, as well as the added press received during the announcements regarding the combining of Time Warner and AOL. Evershed says he feels "confident that the merger will make Entertaindom (and The God and Devil Show) more readily accessible to AOL's subscriber base." It's clear this type of planning is at the core of Mondo's focus as they target those new partnerships whichcan increase their content's exposure and further leverage show and character possibilities across multiple entertainment, marketing and licensing outlets.
As executive producer of Mondo's bold and dynamic style of programming, Evershed feels more than up to the challenge of leading the unique and colorful "bullpen" of talent necessary to sustainaudience excitement and strong syndication loyalty. He flashes back to his beginnings and delights in saying, "I've been dredging up my English lit. experience because our shows are so writer-driven.This has been a very rewarding turn for me professionally because we're having so much fun creating "Mondo Mini Shows." O'Malley, who took on a variety of responsibilities along the way in the company's business development, understands that it's fiercely competitive out there for the industry's top writers, creators and animators. She feels positive, though, about attracting new peopleand projects, stating, "Mondo has a long history in creating an atmosphere where talent is comfortable and where they can stretch their wings." Evershed believes that since they've already proven themselves successful in both creative production and getting the shows to a wide Internet audience, top-notch submissions and independent interest will be there for them. "Besides," he adds, "I like to think our stuff is some of the funniest stuff on the Web (or TV for that matter) but I'll let you be the judge. Talent likes to work at places that produce quality content."
Let's Meet The Talent
Aubrey Ankrum, creator of The God and Devil Show, has worked with Mondo Media as a graphic artist since the mid-nineties and is a great example of Mondo's nurturing within for new productions. He seems to love working in the Flash animation format, musing, "I'm a lazy, instant gratification kind of guy, so I never even did much traditional pen and ink animation. The process seemed too labor intensive and compartmentalized." Although his current show seamlessly integrates interactivity within the show's concept (the audience gets to vote on whether the talk-show's guest goes to heaven or hell, followed with an animated tag triggered by which "fate" one clicks), Ankrum feels, "Interactivity is fun when it makes sense...," but he adds, "If you don't need it to tell your story or define your character, I'd leave it alone." Ankrum's early influences include the music of Devo and Oingo Boingo, seeing them, he says, as "subversive outsiders who took an unflattering look at American culture, but they influenced the very culture they lampooned." On the comedy side, he gravitated toward the outrageousness of Monty Python and Mad Magazine. Very much enjoying his own manipulation of today's popular icons, Ankrum summarizes: "So, The God and Devil Show uses pop culture as a common language and then twists it into something else entirely different. Sometimes it's a gag, sometimes it's a message. Hopefully, it's always funny."
Don Asmussen, the self-described "god of hellfire," is a well-known cartoonist/illustrator with regular strips in Time and George magazines, and the San Francisco Examiner. His work has also appeared in the New Yorker, US News and World Report and Mother Jones; and in 1997, Russian Hill Press published his well reviewed "San Francisco's Comic Book of Big-Ass Mocha." When asked how he got involved in Internet animation, he responds, "John Evershed saw my work in a magazine and called me. We started discussing a `Mondo Mini Show' and here I am." Writing, directing and drawing the elements for Like, News, Asmussen works closely with the show's animator, Michael Lipman, whom he designates his "esteemed colleague." Having recently moved, himself, from the print world to animated on-line production, Asmussen gives the following advice to any other artists thinking of making the jump: "There are no free spaces left. I'm the last position available. Give up -- ha ha. OK, here's my serious answer...try it. It's a lot of fun and the Net allows you to truly express yourself. I highly recommend it."
Dan Todd, creator, writer and director of Thugs on Film, grew up on the Emerald Isle and still sports a bit of the Irish brogue. He's been in film and video production for the past 10 years as well as writing for Wired, serving as the senior editor at New Media Magazine and as editor for various other publications. The series' characters Stubby and Cecil came out of his real-life pub-crawling sessions with two best friends, whereafter the show ideas were developed and fleshed out within Mondo Media's creative environs. The artwork and design force behind this project is Rhode Motijo who, along with his continuous collaboration on the weekly Thugs, still makes time to persist working on his creator-owned comic book, Pablo's Inferno.
Mondo Media has clearly benefited from their successful history in providing multimedia design services to major game outfits and other on-line clients, giving them the chance to amass very bright, on-the-edge digital talent. Evershed states, however, "We have already scaled back this aspect of our business dramatically over the past year and at some point will be completely converted to original content." The studio eagerly anticipates, then, broadening to an even greater pool of fresh creative minds for coming ventures, with Evershed adding: "We have a lot of 3D talent that we're looking forward to utilizing for some new shows that look nothing like the 'Mondo Mini Shows' we have created so far." Meanwhile, the studio seems simultaneously at ease and enthused with their current play on the Internet's frontier.
Lee Dannacher is an animation producer/sound track director of over 300 half hours of television films, as well as numerous network and video holiday specials. Currently based in New York, she is freelancing in audio, project development and new media productions.