Tom Hanks has told the New York Times that his production company Playtone is developing Electric City, an animated science-fiction series for the Internet and digital media. The series is being developed in conjunction with India’s Reliance Big Entertainment, which in addition to financing movies, has experience in the use of the Internet and mobile technologies to deliver entertainment content. Debuting in early 2011, Electric City will consist of twenty episodes lasting three-minutes each.
The Hollywood Reporter reports that the production companies involved in creating Electric City describe it as a “multi-platform digital experience.” In addition to the episodic Web TV series, there will be an online social game and an application for mobile phones so cell-phone users can watch the series and play the game.
The project has been in development for six years. No American entertainment company would finance the project despite the participation of Hanks, who is one of the top box office stars in the world.
Amitabh Jhunjhunwala, the head of Reliance’s corporate parent, the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, issued a statement declaring, “We are delighted to work together with such talented individuals as Tom Hanks….”
Reliance Big Entertainment, which recently provided a $325 million financing package to Steven Spielberg’s movie studio Dreamworks, will develop and manage the project. It is establishing itself as an international player in the market for direct content delivered via the Web and mobile portals, including digital cinema and mobile television.
Reliance executives liked Hanks’ idea as it would provide digital content of interest to the 700 million anglophones in India.
Wooing an Audience
That is an enormous audience in India alone. When the rest of the English-speaking world is factored in, there are over a billion potential Electric City fans. The problem that Reliance related to Tom Hanks is that Indians have yet to connect emotionally with episodic digital content, as no previous “new media” incarnation has hooked them.
Millions of Indians access digital content on their cell phones, but nothing has broken through and become a big success — yet. Reliance believes that Electric City will be the first digital content hit.
The failure of new media to catch on is a problem in America and the rest of the world, too. Unlike the app Farmland on Facebook, digital content so far has proven a bust in terms of developing a dedicated core audience that is essential to turning a profit. Solving this conundrum is vital as the global entertainment industry forecasts the future of visual entertainment as being on the Web.
Tom Hanks is using the original Star Trek TV series as the template for Electric City. His Web-based series will take place in the future, but it will not be a dystopia evocative of George Orwell’s 1984. Instead, it will be in the vein of the optimistic, socially conscious future imagined by Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek.
In addition to strange new civilizations, Star Trek explored social issues pertinent to the 1960 such as the threat of nuclear annihilation and racism. Electric City will feature scenarios that tackle such modern issues as the depletion of natural resources and freedom of communications.
In a telephone interview with New York Times correspondent Dave Itzkoff, Hanks said that when he first thought about Electric City, he envisioned the series as a “neo-film noir” look at the future. The original Star Trek, in addition to being “an awfully good adventure,” provided him with “a bunch of cool stuff that you can latch onto.”
Hanks has been a sci-fi fan for a long-time, having been turned on to the genre by Robert A. Heinlein’s short story “Have Space Suit – Will Travel.”
Tom Hanks described Electric City as “an electronic version of Little Dorrit,” Charles Dickens novel that was published in serial form from 1855 to 1857.
Serial content, once a mainstay in popular culture and helped fuel the rise of the novel in the 19th Century and radio, movies and television in the 20th, has yet to catch on with Web users.
So far, no company has been able to turn a profit from episodic content carried via the Net. However, the hugely successful Hanks, whose movies have grossed nearly $4 billion worldwide and who is also a successful, Emmy Award-winning TV producer , may be the one who succeeds where others have failed.
If Electric City is a success on the Web, it could spin off such product as graphic novels and an online role-playing game.
Hollywood Reporter, “Tom Hanks lights up ‘Electric City'”
New York Times, “Tom Hanks Uses Web to Plot the Future” by Dave Itzkoff