’Undercover Brother’ makes leap from Web to big screen

By Gary Gentile, The Associated Press
Monday June 10, 2002

LOS ANGELES – Last week at the box office, “Undercover Brother” struck a blow for truth, justice and the once prevalent notion that short animated shows created on the Internet could migrate successfully to a bigger screen. 

The movie, which began its life as an animated show on the Web, brought in $12 million in movie ticket sales and, in doing so, perhaps breathed new life into the notion that the Internet can be a proving ground for major TV and movie projects. 

Several years ago, a number of ambitious Web sites with names like DEN, Pop and MediaTrip hoped to create episodic entertainment that would draw people to the Web the way they are drawn to their favorite television programs. 

Those sites failed in part because of the slow rollout of high-speed Internet access, necessary for the smooth transmission of most video content. Some also aimed too high too fast and ran out of money around the time Internet stocks crashed and venture capital dried up. 

Some Web sites then retrenched, embracing the idea of using the Web as an incubator for ideas that might later become television shows or motion pictures. 

That strategy seemed to be paying off when, in 2000, Showtime licensed an animated show on Icebox.com, “Starship Regulars,” and planned to make it a live-action series for its 2001 season. Other properties were licensed or optioned for TV and movies, including “Lil’ Pimp” and a show on urbanentertainment.com called “Undercover Brother.” 

“We were going to pitch it, but we held off because we didn’t know if we had a story,” said John Ridley, the show’s creator and a producer of the “Undercover Brother” movie. “By that time, people had heard about it. People started putting in offers before they knew what it was.” 

The frenzy that resulted in several high profile deals cooled once the dot-com boom fizzled, however. 

“Starship Regulars,” created by Rob LaZebnik, a co-producer of “The Simpsons,” has stalled at Showtime, while LaZebnik has moved on to create a series called “Greetings from Tucson,” on the WB this fall. 

“Lil’ Pimp” was scheduled to be released last year by Revolution Studios. The animated film is in post production, a Revolution spokeswoman said, and is still scheduled to include the voices of William Shatner, Carmen Electra and others. 

The success of “Undercover Brother,” meanwhile, may prompt other studios to dust off projects acquired during the Internet gold rush. 

But the source of the material is of less consequence than its commercial appeal, according to industry observers. 

“I don’t think the studios will say, ’Undercover Brother’ is a hit, let’s go back and see what else we might have missed on the Web,”’ said Kevin Wendle, chief executive officer at IFilm, an Internet film site. 

But, Wendle said, the idea of creating compelling shows on the Web and developing an audience that will support a larger release has more possibility now as more homes have access to high-speed Internet connections. 

“I do believe the idea of Web series has a future and has a large future,” he said. “Those Web series will again give birth to big motion pictures and big television shows. This is the first taste of it.”