In 2019, when Paul Budnitz, the Burlington, Vermont-based entrepreneur behind the designer toy company Kidrobot, decided to create Superplastic, a new media company built around animated characters, he borrowed a page from Walt Disney and updated it for the 21st century.
“It was like, okay, what if, instead of doing what everyone else in the world has done, which is create some really cool characters, sell them to a studio, the studio may or may not ruin it before it actually gets out there, and then, when it is actually made, the studio will own the IP. . . .” Budnitz said over the phone recently.
“Maybe it’s a punk rock attitude, but—fuck that. If we can control and own our own stuff, what if we just made our characters famous on social media and use that as our primary platform? Now we own the IP, tons of people know about it, and we can do all kinds of things.”
So the world was introduced to Janky and Guggimon, a pair of badass, buddy-anarchists who combine an avant-garde Art Spiegelman-esque aesthetic with the colorful, graffiti vibe of street art. As predicted, the duo made waves on social media and have now garnered an audience of 8 million followers across Instagram, TikTok, and Discord. Janky and Guggimon toys followed (they sell out in minutes in limited-edition drops), along with a licensing agreement with Fortnite (where both have appeared), and a deal with Gucci (they’ve been models). There was even an auction of CryptoJanky NFTs last July through Christie’s—staged in a short, animated film as a heist, in which Janky and Guggimon broke into the storied auction house and stole art.
Having established the so-called JankyVerse—which is now populated with a growing number of cohorts, such as Dayzee and Staxx—most companies, at this point, might cave and sign a deal with Netflix or Disney to go ahead and make that film or TV series. But as a sign that Budnitz truly wants nothing to do with traditional media, the company, which he says is profitable, is now financing and producing its own feature film, and is planning to open retail stores in New York City and Miami.
“I’ve said no to Quibi. I’ve said no to studios,” Budnitz says. “The basic, religious tenet of this company is, We’re building this weird, 1956 Disney redux in 2021 with these really weird characters. We’re going to control everything.”
Investors have been buying into this credo. Superplastic recently raised $20 million in a Series A investment round, bringing its total funding to $38 million. Investors include Google Ventures, Day One Ventures, Index Ventures, Founders Fund, and individuals including Jared Leto, Justin Timberlake, and Scooter Braun.
Budnitz, who studied art at Yale, says he plans to continue leaning into NFTs, which he calls “an art form that’s very playful. That’s what I like about it. The whole NFT thing is just another way to sort of play within our narrative, and for our characters to play within it. But at the same time, it really links so well to everything else.”
For example, in Superplastic’s online store, there is a special room that can be accessed only by people who have bought Superplastic NFTs. Special Janky crypto tokens are being created that will be distributed automatically to NFT owners. When the retail stores open, there similarly will be rooms in the back accessible only to those with Superplastic NFTs in their wallets.
“I think when NFTs first dropped—and we only got into it in February, March, so all this has happened really fast—people saw it as a medium where they’d make a lot of money, just put a picture up,” Budnitz says. “We really see the medium as something you can use functionally, and do really fun and interesting stuff.”
For the Christie’s drop, “We built something that looked like a slot machine. If you clicked it, it showed you an NFT you could buy. If you didn’t want it, you could hit the button, and it shifted and got you another one. But you couldn’t go back to the original one. So it was like, take it or lose it. People would miss them and then want to get one, but then someone else would have bought it.”
NFTs are also good business: The company has sold $7 million in blockchain collectibles this year.
In two weeks, production will begin on an animated film, which Budnitz says will be a horror-comedy hybrid that will be released in theaters. An animated band in the movie will be announced a year before the film comes out—and mined for more toys and NFTs. The idea is to add one more entry point to the JankyVerse and continue to create the ultimate flywheel.
Though when I put that word to Budnitz, he says, “We’re way more chaotic than that. We’re a small number of people figuring it out as we go. We just have a basic rule to not put out anything that is not really awesome. There’s actually a poster [that says that] on the wall. Beyond that, we’re going as we go and seeing what happens.”