Can Tom Hanks Really Deliver The 'Comic-Con Crowd' For Yahoo?

Tom Hanks

Looking to ramp up star power for a push into original video content, Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) formally announced Monday that it’s teaming with actor-producer Tom Hanks and Indian entertainment conglomerate Reliance to produce a short-form digital animated series, Electric City.

The big question: Can an older star like Hanks still play big with the young-male audience Yahoo is seeking for this venture? Hanks’ Playtone Productions has been developing the anime project for several years, casting the actor as voice star in a series of three-to-four-minute animated videos, set in a post-apocalyptic future. According to Erin McPherson, Yahoo VP and head of video and original programming, Yahoo’s first original scripted program will be aimed at an 18-34-year-old audience — “the Comic-Con crowd,” as she described it.

Details about the financial scope of the project — which was bid on by several other large digital media platforms — haven’t been revealed. But funded with Reliance’s notoriously deep pockets, it’s probably one of the priciest originals ever created specifically for a digital platform. “It’s very ambitious,” conceded McPherson, who said the program will be available early this year on its own dedicated Yahoo channel but will be promoted across the portal in areas like Yahoo Movies and OMG. “It’s a big bet for us.”

Yahoo will be placing this big bet on the 55-year-old Hanks, a venerable Hollywood A-lister who has starred in some of the biggest films in motion-picture history, but who also doesn’t necessarily seem so congruous with the male 18-34 audience these days. Hanks — who once starred in such cutting-edge fare as cross-dressing-themed ’80s sitcom Bosom Buddies — is now noted for directing and starring in one of 2011’s biggest box-office turkeys, the romantic comedy Larry Crowne, which opened last July to an audience that was astoundingly 81 percent over the age of 35 — one of the older-skewing films in the annuls of a theatrical medium that has traditionally catered to youth.

Playtone, meanwhile, has generated a number of successful series for premium cable titan HBO over the years — notably, World War II miniseries The Pacific and polygamy drama Big Love.

But you never saw any of these successful programs paneled at Comic-Con.

Hanks and Playtone are widely recognized global brands, and their inclusion in the portal’s content universe shows Yahoo is serious about competing in the realm of original video programming. That said, you’d think that if Yahoo searched the pantheon of high-profile talent running production companies, it might have found a partner more versed in youth culture. Ashton Kutcher’s Katalyst Media or Ben Stiller’s Red Hour, for example, come to mind as the kind of innovative, multi-platform production outfits you might expect to see involved in Yahoo’s first-ever scripted content deal.

For her part, McPherson insists that the deal represents more to Yahoo than just the ability to lend Hanks’ name to recently invigorated original programming efforts that also featured the announcement in December of a live Bill Maher stand-up comedy special. Yahoo also announced a major non-scripted video slate in October, touting eight new series featuring such female comedy actors as Judy Greer and Niecy Nash, as well as documentarian Morgan Spurlock.

“We were excited about the project not just because Tom is one of the biggest and best-known story-tellers,” McPherson said. “The other part of the appeal is that this project is provocative and full of mystery and really lends itself to a digital audience. There’s a lot of opportunities to create an immersive, interactive experience.”

Indeed, in its press release announcing the new program, Yahoo touted a range of interactive features, such as the ability of the portal’s 700 million unique users worldwide to navigate 3D maps of the series’ eponymous city, delve into character back stories, and interact with other fans via Facebook and Twitter. Hanks will be on hand in Las Vegas Tuesday, when Yahoo officially announces the venture at the Consumer Electronics Show. “You can expect to see a lot more of these big tentpole properties from us,” McPherson said.

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