Tom Hanks hits CES to tubthump Yahoo show

Animated 'Electric City' will have 20 episodes

Tom Hanks provided a jolt of star wattage to “Electric City,” his upcoming digital production with Yahoo, with an appearance Tuesday at CES in Las Vegas.

The actor-producer sat for an hourlong Q&A with Yahoo executive VP Ross Levinsohn in which they unveiled a three-minute teaser of the animated project, a series of short-form episodes that will be accompanied by interactive add-ons including a 3D map.

Project launches spring 2012.

“We can go on and tell the story as long as we can make it alive and fresh and surprising,” said Hanks, who not only came up with the idea for “Electric” but provides the voice of the lead character.

Levinsohn praised him for taking his company’s programming efforts to a whole new level with its first scripted effort. “Today is an acceleration for us,” said Levinsohn. “2012 is a huge year to continue that transformation.”

Preceding Hanks was Rohit Sharma, CEO of Reliance Entertainment, which is co-producing “Electric” with Yahoo and Hanks’ Playtone shingle. Hailing the production as a “gamechanger” for digital entertainment, he told the crowd, comprised mostly of advertisers, that “Electric” is probably just their first effort in this nascent space. “Reliance has a had a strong foothold in Hollywood in a short span of time,” he said. “We want to do a similar thing in the digital space.”

Hanks explained that the former Soviet Union inspired the idea for “Electric,” which is set in a dystopian future where an oppressive government keeps tight control of a power grid barely able to supply electricity to the population. The actor talked of how the apartment buildings were hard-wired with government-controlled radio that made it difficult for its citizens to know anything besides propaganda.

But Hanks also made clear that steering the idea for “Electric” in a digital direction was in part because of the limits imposed by the studio system. “It’s just so hard to make a motion picture,” he said, ticking off a litany of financial and creative constraints. “Tell a story loaded with ambiguity and irony and you’re going to come to fisticuffs with the marketing and development people who are going to say, ‘Why does it have to be so hard to follow? Why can’t we have someone to root for?'”.

Hanks connected the urge to break out of the traditional strictures of mainstream storytelling with Playtone’s miniseries for HBO including “Band of Brothers.” “At Playtone, we have been able to re-establish the idea of long-form miniseries that had disappeared from American television until we went to HBO and said we’ve got to get back into this because we can’t tell a story to the most surprising degree in two hours. We need 13 hours.”

He also said that putting “Electric” on TV wasn’t possible given its current landscape. “If you’re dealing with scripted television, you have much fewer slots open as opposed to talent shows, singing competitions, sports and live programming,” he said. “But with Yahoo, if you can dream it, you can make it true.”

Hanks also let slip that “Electric” cost $2.5 million to produce the 90-minute total, split into 20 short episodes. Other actors providing voices include Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ginnifer Goodwin and Chris Parnell.Despite the weighty subject matter in “Electric,” Hanks kept the mood of the evening light with constant sarcasm. He even managed to get a great parting shot when Levinsohn closed the Q&A by acknowledging that Yahoo’s new CEO, Scott Thompson, was in attendance on his second day on the job.

“Hey Scott, I want to personally thank you for bringing all your storytelling moxie from PayPal,” he joked, citing Thompson’s previous employer. The new CEO’s appointment had drawn criticism that he lacked experience in the media business.