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Photo by Mark SavageConsidering the fortunes of most cartoon characters, Julius the Monkey has had it pretty easy. His media exposure thus far has been limited to Paul Frank Industries T-shirts and purses, which made millions of dollars for the Costa Mesa company. He hasn't had to suffer the agonies of poor TV ratings or the general mayhem visited upon the likes of Bugs Bunny and Yogi Bear.
But his creator, Paul Frank, will soon walk Julius, a lovable, pie-eared cartoon monkey, into the dangerous neighborhood of Internet cartoons. This fall, Julius & Friends will be syndicated to portals and entertainment websites across the Internet.
The Net has been the grisly domain of dirty-joke-loving males aged 18 to 34 since the online animation industry began in earnest in 1999. The cute Julius will appear before an audience for whom blood-and-guts animations like "Frog in a Blender" rule over anything in which the main ingredient is the milk of human kindness.
So why does nice-guy hipster Frank want to risk Julius? The soft-spoken clothes designer said he always wanted to make a cartoon about him. Simple enough.
Here's the tough part: the folks behind Julius & Friends—Paul Frank Industries, co-producers Zeros & Ones, and online animation syndicator Mondo Media—bet they can make more than a superb kids show on par with Pee-wee's Playhouse or The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. They bet they could eventually make millions from this online cartoon.
They're betting on design smarts inspired by Frank's celebrated fashion line. While Frank supplied the look, the characters and at least one voice, veteran children's TV producer Obie Scott Wade (of Zeros & Ones) wrote all 26 of the three-minute webisodes that form the first season. This cartoon follows the misadventures of Julius and Clancy, his miniature giraffe sidekick, in the town of Planned Pines. It's a place in which any Orange County resident would feel comfortable—the first planned community for cartoon characters, according to Frank.
"Planned Pines is a little like Dana Point . . . a little mountain-y and then a couple of miles away, you have a beach," he said.
It's also got a city hall, a ski lodge and, of course, copious tract housing. Plot lines include Julius rescuing Clancy from being sold on eBay and Julius' kidnap by bitter, out-of-work cartoon characters.
Sound perfect? It's got the cute animals for kids, the off-kilter story lines for adults and games such as Mix Monkey, where you can help Julius mix original music with online turntables.
But there are a couple of weird things about this venture. First, no one has ever tried to make a cartoon out of a clothing line. The weirder thing is that no one is making money off the Internet quite yet. Are the Julius people out of their heads?
Ryan Heuser, the 27-year-old president and co-founder of Paul Frank Industries, thinks the venture is the dictionary definition of rational. He believes Frank's success offline should be repeated when Julius & Friendsapparel and knickknacks will be sold at hipper establishments and a fan site (www.Juliusandfriends.com). But he admitted to initially being wary of spotlighting Julius in an Internet cartoon. "There's no proven business model," Heuser said.
There have been some early successes for this industry. Companies such as Mondo Media and WildBrain each raised $20 million in early 2000 to help launch this new entertainment of watching cartoons on computer. But it's been rough attracting an audience. Industry analysts said it will be five to 10 years before the majority of American computer users are connected to the broadband Internet necessary for better visuals and faster load times than the 56K and slower modems most net surfers use.
Then there's the matter of getting people to watch cartoons online. The majority of net surfers go online for information, not entertainment. For example, top-rated online animation sites such as Shockwave.com have attracted 5.8 million unique users, according to the July ratings of online analysts MediaMetrix. That's out of a complete market of 80 million people. By comparison, top-rated portal Yahoo! attracted more than 49 million unique users the same month, and more than 7 million web surfers visited the website for the Weather Channel—just to see if the sun is shining.
Still, a select few Internet cartoons have been able to grab media glory and mass merchandising. Stan Lee, who created Spiderman and the X-Men, launched the superhero Internet cartoon 7th Portal for his site, StanLee.net earlier this year. By June, the company had licensed the cartoon to Paramount Theme Parks, sold movie rights to veteran producer Mark Canton, and licensed 7th Portal to the Rupert Murdoch-owned company FoxLatinAmerica.Julius & Friends' producers hope to grab some of that and Wade says Julius will remain unaffected by Internet megalomania when they do. He said his company, Zeros & Ones, and Paul Frank have complete control over merchandising and stories. "We're going to be very selective on how we roll the media out," Wade said.
Otherwise, you'll never find Julius in a Happy Meal.
But while the merchandising is selective, John Evershed, CEO of Mondo Media, hopes the audience for Julius is as wide as possible. He said one reason his company chose to co-produce and syndicate Julius & Friendsis because the cartoon will allow them to go after a fresh audience for online cartoons: pre-teen girls.
"They have the time to watch and they're technically savvy," Evershed said. He must know that this underserved Internet group also made Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys the overexposed stars of malls around the world. Imagine what they could do to the still-hip Julius?