TThe future cultural hub of the Metaverse could be 3,000 miles from Hollywood and Silicon Valley, in a century-old brick-and-wood warehouse in Burlington, Vermont. On the shores of Lake Champlain, Superplastic founder Paul Budnitz and a team of designers have spent the last five years creating a roster of digital characters and complex stories created to attract millions of fans, and potentially billions of dollars, in entertainment, music, fashion. , NFT and cryptography in the emerging world of Web3.
Walt Disney took advantage of primitive cinema to launch his entertainment giant. Marvel did the same trick with the comics. Budnitz, a 54-year-old serial entrepreneur, has built a content studio of quirky multimedia characters designed to thrive in the coming metaverse. Superplastic’s black-themed world is more like The Matrix than Wonderland. Its colorful inhabitants have earned millions from their own social networks. They also made $20 million from the sale of tens of thousands of NFTs with Christies and others. They party with Paris Hilton, hang out in Fortnite, collaborate on physical collectibles with rapper and singer J. Balvin, and even get paid as Gucci models.
“Our company is an ever-growing universe of characters,” says Budnitz. “As they become popular, they can live in any digital market. I’m willing to do anything in any market where I can understand and care about the audience and I can do something amazing.”
Inspired by early 20th century newspaper comics, Superplastic debuted its first characters in 2020 even before NFTs became part of the zeitgeist amid the pandemic. But unlike the comics, the metaverse nature of their origins allows each to travel back and forth between various locations, both online and offline, through digital content and physical collectibles. Janky, a cat-like character, likes pop culture, music, and sneakers. Guggimon, a rabbit known for having the most vain personality, is interested in horror movies and fashion, but also posts content about controlled substances and downward spirals. Later came Dayzee, a rapper who knows everything about commerce and technology.
“Our material is very contemporary,” says Budnitz. “The characters evolve. And I am also a person who is too nervous to sit still for long.”
Investors in technology, entertainment, commerce and fashion are betting on the uniqueness of Superplastic. Since its seed round in 2018, the company has raised $46 million from a mix of backers that includes VC heavyweights (Google Ventures and Index Ventures) and showbiz angels (Ashton Kutcher, Justin Timberlake, The Chainsmokers). and Jared Leto).
Now, Budnitz says Forbes that Superplastic has received another $4 million in strategic investments from Amazon, Sony Japan, Animoca and Kering, the parent company of Gucci and Balenciaga. New sponsors bring cash, cache and critical access to global media and commerce channels.
The deal with Amazon will help develop longer-form shows and comics. Sony will be key to the distribution of music and movies in Asia. Animoca is already collaborating with Superplastic on NFTs within Rev Racing and The Sandbox. Kering, which has already collaborated with Superplastic on NFTs and handcrafted porcelain character sculptures through Gucci, is exploring new types of physical and digital products.
Superplastic is just one of several startups Kering has backed in the past year to explore disruptive business models without overexposing luxury brands like Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent. Other recent investments include second-hand fashion platform Vestiaire Collective, UK luxury handbags subscription platform Cocoon.Club and shopping streaming platform NTWRK. Gregory Boutté, chief customer officer and chief digital officer at Kering, says that early experiments have shown that there is already a “huge appetite” for NFTs and that their exclusive and creative nature aligns with the characteristics of luxury goods.
“We see this trend emerging and potentially having multiple implications in our industry,” says Boutté. “We’re not quite sure how exactly, so we want to locate ourselves in the house.”
AN A serial entrepreneur, Budnitz founded the toy and entertainment company KidRobot in 2002 before selling it in 2013. In 2014, he co-founded Ello, the ad-free social media platform, and a decade ago started Budnitz Bicycles, a Burlington bike shop that closed during the pandemic
Next to his desk is a sign on a wall that reads “Death to Nostalgia,” a rallying cry he’s carried with him since his KidRobot days. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t inspired by the past. His characters have been inspired by earlier comics like Krazy Kat and Ignatz, which ran as a newspaper strip from 1913 to 1944. He also likes the Belgian comic duo Asterix and Tintin.
In a way, Superplastic is a second act for Budnitz. Under his leadership for over a decade, KidRobot made deals with a wide range of shows and brands alike. He made figurines for The Simpsons, Iron Man, South Park and Family Guy. He also collaborates with brands as varied as Volkswagen and Louis Vuitton along with shoes for Nike and snowboards for Burton. A dozen of Budnitz’s characters are still on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
The experiences with KidRobot also taught him a key lesson that is now an anchor for Superplastic: never give away intellectual property. He recalls creating new KidRobot characters that were cast in future shows that were never made and shelved by some studio or another. Instead, he says he’s still getting royalty checks for a movie that was never made 12 years ago.
“If you look at how animated media is traditionally created,” he says. “An artist often has a great idea, ends up selling it to a big studio, and then the studio makes all the money, controls it, and generally often ruins it.”
Budnitz is also inspired by Walt Disney himself from the 1950s, when Mickey’s creator controlled all of his intellectual property. That control allowed Disney to “do the kind of weirdness out of it and create a really transformed vision of a new world” through movies, TV shows, physical products and theme parks.
DDigital celebrities and virtual characters have been increasingly popular. In March, former Disney CEO Bob Iger announced that he would invest in and join the board of directors of Genies, a $1 billion valuation startup that lets people create their own 3D avatars. Meanwhile, major Hollywood talent agencies are signing on to represent a variety of digital characters born from popular NFTs like Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), CryptoPunks and Meebits, each collection with its own network of brands, fans, content and trade.
“We’ll remember this space like we do social media,” says Sarah Early, UTA’s marketing executive. “Everyone will have to have a role in it and jumping in without a strategy is not enough.”
With Superplastic, the plan has always been about the characters and all the movies, music, stories and sponsors that go with them. But the growing interest in digital collectibles is the perfect time for Budnitz, who has a long history of creating and selling limited-edition physical items.
Bryan Rosenblatt, a partner at the San Francisco-based venture capital firm, invested in 2019. When Superplastic announced its Series A round, Rosenblatt said Forbes that Budnitz is a “creative genius” with a track record of “building this cult brand following and having an eye for art, entertainment, and business.”
“It was a totally different vibe than any tech company I’ve ever invested in or worked with,” said Moshe Lifschitz, managing partner at Shrug Capital, which also invested in Superplastic’s Series A round. “There was something about the way Paul approached building a company and hitting it off that was exhilarating.”
Real-world ambitions also help set Superplastic apart. He recently debuted a new vinyl art toy collaboration with BAYC. In June, he plans to open a store in New York City that will sell physical merchandise and have a secret room for NFT owners. He’s also working with a partner on a sushi restaurant opening and with another on an animated “comedy, hip hop, horror” movie starring Janky and Guggimon.
The big question will be whether Janky and Guggimon fans follow them to the box office, listen to their albums, buy their merch, and go deeper and deeper into their metaverse, wherever the rabbit hole takes them.