Actor headed for CES to plug digital series

Tom Hanks is teaming with Yahoo and Reliance Entertainment on an animated sci-fi program he created.

“Electric City” will be unveiled Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with Hanks scheduled to appear to promote the project, which he has been developing for nearly eight years through his Playtone Prods. banner. He will also voice the title character.

With Hanks attached as both producer and talent, “Electric” marks one of the most prominent efforts yet for original programming in digital entertainment. While the medium hasn’t matched the prominence of TV or film, the spectacular growth of connected devices worldwide has made the market too robust to ignore.

“Electric City” represents the most ambitious foray yet from Yahoo, which is betting on a big name to raise awareness for its first-ever scripted project. The company is aiming to goose its ad revenues with bigger programming endeavors than it has attempted in years past. In October it launched a collection of unscripted shortform series aimed at female viewers — the first in a series of entertainment slates. It partnered last week with comedy video site Funny or Die on a mock GOP debate. And next month it will launch a slate of comedy programming anchored by a standup special featuring Bill Maher.

“Over the last year or so, we’ve tried to build a notion that Yahoo can be a destination for creative projects for great storytellers for big events,” said Ross Levinsohn, exec VP of Yahoo Americas.

Still, “Electric” comes at a time of uncertainty for Yahoo, which last week named a new CEO, former PayPal president Scott Thompson, who is evaluating new strategic directions for the beleaguered company. Yahoo’s previous CEO, Carol Bartz, was ousted in September, and the tech company has been the subject of speculation that it would be put up for sale. Recent buzz has also centered around the prospect that it may move to acquire another hard-hit company, Netflix.

“Electric” will be comprised of 20 episodes that are three to five minutes long. The shortform format is typical for consumption on PC and wireless devices, but the episodes can also be stitched together for sale as a longform program in international markets.

In addition, the video component of the project will be supplemented with nonlinear elements ranging from deep integration with social media to a 3D interactive map.

Yahoo will get the first ad-supported window on “Electric” for an extended period of time on an exclusive basis, but the production will also be available for purchase on transactional digital platforms like iTunes. The episodes will be available for free on Yahoo, which hasn’t yet signed sponsors but is in discussions on that front, according to Levinsohn.

The company is handling global distribution of “Electric,” though it won’t be rolled out simultaneously across regions. The U.S. bow is expected later this spring.

How much those involved in “Electric” budgeted for production is unknown, but the total is believed to be a good deal more than the amount typically spent on original digital productions though not on par with that for a theatrical film or full season of TV episodes.

“Electric” is a futuristic adventure set in a post-apocalyptic world in which a totalitarian regime keeps tight control over the power grid. Hanks’ character is a government operative charged with protecting the grid who comes to sympathize with the bandits siphoning electricity.

Hanks and Gary Goetzman, his longtime co-principal at Playtone, made the rounds with “Electric” nearly a decade ago with the usual suspects in TV and film but never found the right fit. With Yahoo, they were ensured creative control, though Playtone hasn’t exactly been challenged on that front in Hollywood, given the many theatricals and TV projects the company has successfully produced.

Yahoo had to bid against other companies to secure the project, according to Levinsohn, who would not identify the competing firms.

Yahoo execs described the project as a dark, complex drama reminiscent in tone of the ABC series “Lost,” which should appeal to the Comic-Con crowd.

“We’re going after a market that is niche-y but wildly enthusiastic when it gets behind something,” said Erin McPherson, VP and head of originals and video programming at Yahoo.

While financing a digital project may seem like small potatoes for a company as big as Reliance, taking an ownership stake in low-cost original intellectual property can pay huge dividends if it becomes the first in a series of projects that set the stage for bigger moves in film and TV.

The emboldened entertainment strategy isn’t new at Yahoo. The company attempted to ramp up programming as early as 2005 with former ABC Entertainment president Lloyd Braun but later retreated on those ambitions. And Yahoo is now one of a number of Internet giants — including AOL, Hulu and Sony’s Crackle — that are putting increasing emphasis on original programming to stand out from the pack.

That said, the Hanks project still won’t put the level of Yahoo’s investment on par with Netflix, which has ponied up big bucks to launch full-length TV series including the return of the Fox comedy “Arrested Development.”

Word of “Electric” was first made known in late 2010 when Reliance signed onto the produce the project. But while reports at the time suggested the production would launch in early 2011, “Electric” disappeared.

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