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Steve Stanford of Icebox.com on Internet cartoons

September 10, 2000
Posted at: 6:45 p.m. EDT

(CNN) – Icebox.com produces original animated series for a target audience aged 15 to 40. Top Hollywood talent has signed with the site, including "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David, "King of the Hill" executive Alan Cohen and Mike Reiss, executive producer of "The Simpsons." Free from the restrictions of movies and television, the Web site’s series are considered cutting edge and irreverent.

Steve Stanford is CEO and co-founder of Icebox. Stanford was vice president of business development for City Search prior to founding Icebox. He was a television literary agent for International Creative Management (ICM) from 1992 to 1997, founding the firm’s New Media Group.

Chat Moderator: Welcome to the CNN chat room, Steve Stanford.

Steve Stanford: Thank you.

Chat Moderator: How did you get the idea for this Web site?

Steve Stanford: We got the idea after talking to lots of writers who were frustrated with the process of developing TV shows the traditional way. We wanted to develop an environment where artists could exercise freedom that would ultimately provide audiences with more interesting programming than they could find on television.

Chat Moderator: Why do you call the site "Icebox"?

Steve Stanford: The short answer is that when we were naming the company, we searched for a long time for a name that wasn't taken. In the process of trying to come up with a name, our initial investor, a company named eCompanies, bought the name "Business.com" for $7.5 million, the most ever paid for a domain name. This put many of the names that we were interested in out of our price range. Then one day, someone suggested the name "Icebox" and, for all of us, it just represented the possibility of this new medium and what we could create.

Chat Moderator: Who is your target audience?

Steve Stanford: Our target audience is 18 to 34-year-old males and females, but if you think about the audience for shows like "The Simpsons" and "South Park," that is our audience.

Chat Moderator: Why cartoons? Why not news and information, or an e-tailer enterprise?

Steve Stanford: We think CNN does a really good job with the news online, so we didn't want that one. When we entered the market, there was e-tailing, news and information, but no one had done entertainment well. We do animation specifically because it is the only quality entertainment that we can deliver to a 56K modem user. So, in the future, when the technology allows, we will also produce live action programming.

Question from JasN-CNN: How do online cartoons compare in content and style to "normal" cartoons?

Steve Stanford: At Icebox, we don't try to do anything that will differentiate our cartoons from "normal" cartoons. The creators of our shows are the same creators that develop shows including "Dr. Katz," "Ren and Stimpy," "The Critic" and many other successful prime time animated shows. We see the Internet as just a new distribution platform for our programming.

Chat Moderator: How quickly can a cartoon be produced for this site? And how does that compare with production for television or film?

Steve Stanford: One of the reasons that the creators like working with Icebox is that the time from the delivery of a finished script to the episode being aired on the site is about eight weeks. In TV and film, this process can take anywhere from a year on the brief side to many years, particularly in the feature film world.

Question from JasN-CNN: Do you have your own artist stable or do you get cartoons from other companies?

Steve Stanford: All of the shows on Icebox are written by creators that are directly under contract to our company. The character design and other key animation are all done in-house. In some cases, the actual Flash animation is done by third parties that are supervised by our in-house producers.

Chat Moderator: What restrictions do studios place on the creative process that artists do not have at Icebox?

Steve Stanford: The restrictions the studios place range from the standards and practices that the FCC mandates on broadcast television to the creative process of studio executives giving notes on the way they want the show to look. The biggest frustration for the creator is that the final product often doesn't reflect his initial vision, but instead is almost sort of content-by-committee. We don 't try to differentiate what we do from traditional entertainment by making it obscene, we just let the creators make the shows that they want to make.

Question from Curious: Do you feel that the content and the depiction of Asians in the "Mr. Wong" cartoon is appropriate context?

Steve Stanford: One of the things that go along with creative freedom is letting the artist be expressive, and ultimately letting the audience decide what is or is not appropriate. "Mr. Wong" is a show for which we have received a lot of feedback, both positive and negative, but overwhelmingly positive. This includes feedback that we have received from the Asian American community.

Question from JasN-CNN: Do you see online media overtaking broadcasting as the dominant delivery?

Steve Stanford: We don't believe that online media will overtake broadcasting anytime soon, but we believe in a future where entertainment will be delivered to television over an Internet-based network. We are trying to position the company to take advantage of that future whenever it arrives.

Question from JasN-CNN: In many countries other than the United States, animation is not always relegated to children's programming. Do you anticipate a broadening of the audience for animation in the near future?

Steve Stanford: Even in the U.S., animation has broadened its appeal beyond the kids' audience. Prime time shows like "The Simpsons" reach audiences well into their 40s and 50s. A big part of the Icebox strategy is to distribute our content internationally and we've received an incredibly warm reception in countries like Japan and the U.K. for our content.

Question from Mr.: How did you get the feedback from the Asian American community?

Steve Stanford: We received it in several different forms. One is through e-mail directly to Icebox and on our message boards, but also through sites like asianavenue.com and Aonline.com.

Chat Moderator: Is it easier for a new talent to break in on a site like Icebox than through newspapers or television?

Steve Stanford: The focus of Icebox is mostly on working with established talent. That said, a big part of our model, going forward, will be to develop the next generation of talented creators. Given that we don't have the same bandwidth constraints as television or even newspapers, the Internet should be a great launching pad for new talent.

Chat Moderator: In addition to cartoons made specifically for the Internet, do you think we will see more movies and books created just for the Internet?

Steve Stanford: I think we'll see movies and books that start their lives on the Internet. But given the economics of Internet-only media today, I think these properties will have to migrate into traditional publishing and traditional distribution outlets to actually be financially successful.

Chat Moderator: Are there any other sites similar to yours? What do you anticipate the future of competition to be like among sites such as yours?

Steve Stanford: The competition in the online-content space became a lot less fierce this week with the announcement that pop.com and shockwave.com were getting out of the original online entertainment business. While not directly competitive to us, we think that AtomFilms and IFILM are both interesting companies in this area.

Question from Summer: Do you think that the Internet nowadays will ever be extinct or old?

Steve Stanford: I think the Internet as we know it today will be no more extinct than broadcast television or theatrical film, though I also believe that there will be evolutions of the technology that take it well beyond what it is today.

"One of the reasons that the creators like working with Icebox is that the time from the delivery of a finished script to the episode being aired on the site is about eight weeks."

— Steve Stanford

Chat Moderator: What is in the near future for Icebox?

Steve Stanford: Icebox will continue to focus on creating the best quality original entertainment on the Web. We will launch 15 new series between now and the end of the year including our first, live action series that will launch on Halloween. In addition, we will launch international versions of Icebox in Europe, Latin America and Asia between now and the end of the year. We also expect to take several additional properties back to traditional film and television in the very near future.

Question from Honkworm: In the spot on CNN, there was talk about using the Internet as a testing ground for new series of shows for use on mainstream media. Do you think that is a step backwards?

Steve Stanford: We don't think that this is a step backwards at all. We think that the Internet is a great medium to distribute new programming. Just as many of the successful feature films that were released this summer, including "X-Men" and "Mission: Impossible II," were based on preexisting intellectual property, we believe the Internet will be a very efficient way to develop this content.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Steve Stanford.

Steve Stanford: Thanks, everyone, for participating!

Steve Stanford joined the CNN&Time Chat by telephone from Los Angeles, California. CNN.com provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Sunday, September 10, 2000.



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