Giving Products a Good Backstory

Jeff Gomez is the quintessential comic-book nerd, a guy who can tell you in detail how Astro Boy went from circus performer to defender of the Earth. Not the sort, one might think, to take meetings with powerful movie producers and executives. And yet Gomez's company, Starlight Runner Entertainment, is a hot commodity in marketing circles, with a roster of clients that includes Coca-Cola (KO), Hasbro (HAS), Microsoft (MSFT), and Walt Disney (DIS).

In a world where ideas are currency and the best ones are kept close to the vest, Gomez's work is a well-guarded secret. His forte is taking an existing blockbuster, whether a movie, toy, or soda, and extending the franchise. Gomez and his team create a backstory, or mythology, designed to get legions of new customers, especially young ones, hooked on an existing idea. As one might expect, many of Gomez's clients hail from Hollywood, where the franchise is king. But he also works with more mainstream companies. For example, he helped Coke devise a world based on its Happiness Factory advertising campaign, which the beverage giant may expand to include videos and games, and, of course, sell more soda. "Whether you're selling movies or toys," says veteran Hollywood marketing consultant Terry Press, "people will buy a good story."

Gomez's own backstory is a familiar one. He recalls growing up "an outsider" on Manhattan's Lower East Side, watching Star Wars, reading Tolkien, and writing his own fantasy stories. After studying film and communications, he taught creative writing at some of New York's toughest public schools before launching a gaming magazine and then joining toy company Acclaim Entertainment. There he wrote comic books and helped create games.

Gomez loved the work but tired of being a salaryman and in 2000 founded Starlight Runner. The name, Gomez's own concoction, refers to friends who come running even if you call them in the middle of the night. Today, Gomez, 45, works out of a Manhattan office with his business partner, Mark S. Pensavalle, a former book editor, and seven twentysomethings handpicked, Gomez says, "because they dream up good stories."

Gomez typically creates a "bible" laying out characters' origins and the trials they may have experienced. He and his team meet for weeks with film directors, game developers, and marketing executives to create a phonebook-size collection of stories from which clients can pick and choose.


Mattel (MAT) was Starlight Runner's first big client. In 2003 the company asked Gomez to create characters to help celebrate the 35th anniversary of its Hot Wheels brand of toy cars. The Starlight Runner team's story featured a scientist who recruits 35 of the world's fastest drivers to find a power source that will save the planet. Mattel created comic books and five animated series, licensed a video game and a children's book, and set up an online portal. The story's various incarnations helped boost Hot Wheels sales that year. Mattel has also licensed the Hot Wheels concept to Warner Bros. (TWX) for a possible movie. Mattel, like many Gomez clients, declined to comment.

Disney hired Gomez in 2005 to come up with a backstory for Jack Sparrow, the character played by Johnny Depp in the 2003 hit, Pirates of the Caribbean. One concept prompted Disney to launch a series of books about the swashbuckling Sparrow as a teenage stowaway searching for explorer Hernando Cortez's sword. The books charmed fans of the first film, and Disney used the series to help market the next two sequels.

At Coca-Cola, Starlight Runner created a backstory based on the Happiness Factory, a TV commercial featuring flying fish with propellers and furry creatures that toil inside a vending machine filling Coke bottles. Gomez's team dreamed up an Oz-like world, where the characters represent the soda's original seven ingredients and are happy only when they are making fizzy drinks. "At first we weren't sure how we were going to work with them," says Coke's global advertising strategy chief, Jonathan Mildenhall. "Within 20 minutes we were dreaming up all kinds of ideas." Coke is considering using the characters in comic books, video games, and a slew of new ads, says Mildenhall, who predicts that the heightened visibility will also hike drink sales.

What's next for Gomez & Co.? Starlight Runner has been hired by Disney to help conceive the backstory for a planned remake of its 1982 science fiction flick Tron. Gomez has been meeting with Titanic director James Cameron about his upcoming 3D space adventure Avatar. For Hasbro, Gomez is helping create a backstory for the shape-shifting robots that starred in the 2007 hit movie Transformers. When Microsoft wanted to expand its Halo game franchise, Gomez helped "bring alive some pretty dry ideas," says Frank O'Connor, the Halo development chief. O'Connor is open to working with Gomez again. "The guy loves his science fiction," he says. "And he's always got great ideas."

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