Things were getting weird again between mission control and the space station S.A.B.E.R. For one thing, both places were crawling with cats, turning a high-concept livestream from Marvel Studios into a chaotic scene of tumbling, jumping, eating, purring felines that just might have been extraterrestrials in disguise (a.k.a. “flerkens”).
Mission control was on the back patio of the CatCafé Lounge in West Los Angeles, where creative marketing agency IHeartComix positioned a row of video monitors and computer gear amid dozens of wandering cats. Jesus Rivera directed the day’s cosmic live broadcast on YouTube, clad in a burgundy tracksuit and white fedora, a scorpion ring on his right hand. “Cue music,” he said to the crew around him, his monitor showing a closeup of a cat’s furry face. “Throw the balls in!”
Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were introduced to flerkens in the 2019 hit movie “Captain Marvel,” starring Brie Larson; the creatures are back for a sequel, “The Marvels.” But at the time, with the end of the Hollywood actors' strike still weeks away, and no cast members available to promote the film’s November release, the MCU turned to a different kind of hero: IHeartComix, a company known for inventive and immersive events for Adult Swim, Lionsgate and Interscope , colliding the epic and ridiculous, the flamboyant and sublime.
For IHC, herding flerkens was just another strange day at the office.
Hype and marketing are nothing new in Los Angeles, but when major artists and movie studios want to roll out their new music, film or TV project and make a memorable (and viral) splash, they frequently turn to the creative team at IHeartComix. The firm didn’t emerge from a traditional business plan, rising organically from L.A.’s indie-dance scene.
“They’ve come to appreciate us for the ideas that we come up with that are usually pretty wild or wacky or unique,” says Franki Chan, IHC’s soft-spoken founder, at the CatCafé clad in a "Love and Rockets" comics T-shirt, with traces of black and red polish on his fingernails. “It’s not so traditional.”
This month, IHeartComix marks its 20th anniversary, two decades after the name first appeared on a flier for a party called “F— Awesome” at Beauty Bar in Hollywood. From there, the company evolved into a promoter and producer of various L.A. parties, concerts and content. Now as a marketing and culture agency, IHC found a sweet spot by bringing their energy and style from the music scene into the movie world.
While competing agencies are often great at making things to order, says Chan, 45, “We’re the opposite. We want to have a point of view. We want to have a voice. We only want to work on the things that we like.”
Last spring, the firm built a space-traveler’s cantina in the desert en route to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival to promote the third “Guardians of the Galaxy” film, giving festival-goers a roadside attraction for Instagram snapshots and TikTok posts. And when the Rolling Stones prepared for the October release of their album “Hackney Diamonds,” the classic rock legends had IHC create an elegant rock ‘n’ roll setting in Manhattan for a surprise performance on a small cabaret stage at the 650-capacity club Racket NYC.
The main directive from frontman Mick Jagger was simple, recalls IHC project manager Sarah Fleisher: “It needs to be like a sexy club show, not a toothpaste launch.” So there was flowing red drapery, tabletops decorated with flowers and smashed crystal hearts (echoing the album cover art), and animated graphics on video screens.
Things have only gotten bigger for the firm since 2018, when it created a party at New York Fashion Week for Marvel’s “Black Panther” film, drawing inspiration from the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Chan’s team collaborated with Disney Consumer Products and a group of Bronx-based chefs called Ghetto Gastro to create a night called “The Taste of Wakanda,” with six different dishes, one desert and three beverages, offering an imagined cultural experience from the country.
“We created all the serving utensils from scratch, the forks, the spoons, the cups, the plates, the serving trays, the bars, and then the environment around it,” Chan recalls. “All of the cast was there. They actually ended up spending most of the time in the kitchen with us because they just loved the food.”
It was a transformational event for company, says Chan, a knockout production that showed the range of IHeartComix stretched far beyond the music scene that birthed it. “It was really unique and different,” says Dustin Sandoval, Disney’s vice president of digital marketing, who often calls on IHC for promotional events for Disney, Marvel and more. “That’s the kind of thinking the IHeartComix team brings to the table, and their passion just shines through because they are true fans of this more than anything.”
At the height of the pandemic, IHC moved its offices into an old Hollywood house near Sunset Boulevard. Chan also lives there, like a flashback to his early years living and working out of a small apartment or warehouse space. The living room shelves are filled with vinyl records, and in the corner is an ancient "Pac-Man" machine. On top is a dragon made of leather named Chester. A replica of Thor’s hammer rests nearby.
Handmade props from past events are everywhere. The firm only recently cleared out a garage filled with layers of ephemera from a few years of projects, but the backyard is still guarded by a green statue of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Over two decades, Chan has steadily expanded beyond his early role as a force on the L.A. club scene to conceiving these high-concept events with his creative team. The goal is always to reach well beyond the experience of the party itself.
“None of it matters if no one posts,” says Chan, noting the viral imperative. “It’s all about creating the press headline: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy goes to Coachella.’”
On the other hand, a room filled only with influencers is not much fun either. “That party’s going to be boring because those people don’t know each other. There’s no relationship there,” Chan explains. “They’re all people that only care about themselves and want to take pictures of themselves. There’s not going to be any vibe.
“People respond to genuine things. You can tell if someone’s genuinely having a good time and having a real experience versus posting something for money.”
The name of IHeartComix means exactly what it says: Chan relocated from Seattle to Los Angeles in 2003 with dreams of becoming a comic book artist. He landed in L.A. after selling out a self-published comic book at Comic-Con International in San Diego, expecting more success to follow. When that didn’t happen, he was soon broke and sleeping in his car most nights.
In Seattle, he’d been in punk bands and then a promoter-DJ, but now was scraping by as a holiday temp at the Virgin Megastore in West Hollywood. He sometimes got gigs as a background extra on TV series. (He appeared on “The OC” as either “high school student” or “pedestrian.”) By chance, the brother of a Seattle friend was manager of a new club in Hollywood called Beauty Bar, and he needed DJs.
Chan immediately signed up. The idea then was just “to help pay the bills (and mainly to meet people so we had couches to crash on).”
The bar quickly took off, and by the next month, the DJ nights became a hot event, with Chan, Har Mar Superstar and DJ Steve Aoki at its core. That evolved into the larger Cinespace Tuesdays. The nights were documented with style in the pre-Instagram era by a teenage photographer calling himself the Cobrasnake (a.k.a. Mark Hunter). Chan and Aoki, among others, became characters in the Cobrasnake’s popular nightlife photographs.
“You’re taking pictures and you’re posting it on the internet, and people could see what the party looked like, which was a radical idea at the time. He was the first person to do that,” says Chan.
Within a year of that first night, they were also hosting parties in New York, and being hired to create events at Sundance and for various corporate entities. On the decks, Chan’s playlist mingled eclectic tunes from Jay-Z, the Neptunes and Beyoncé to Daft Punk, LCD Soundsystem and Le Tigre.
IHeartComix was the name of Chan’s indie record label, which had early success with the Brooklyn duo Matt & Kim, and their playfully raw pop single “Yea Yeah.” His partnership with Aoki split in 2006 into competing parties as Chan created Check Yo Ponytail under his new IHeartComix banner. Aoki was on his way to becoming a superstar DJ, and there was real tension between the camps, but it had the effect of helping the scene double in size.
Check Yo Ponytail landed an open-ended residency in 2010 at Echoplex, hosting a wide range of cutting-edge DJs and live acts, from the rediscovered Detroit protopunk act Death to haunting singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe. Chan also continued to promote events at Sundance, South By Southwest and other major gatherings across the country.
“We didn’t want to be a local party,” Chan says now. “We wanted to be a national brand.”
In 2013, as the Rolling Stones were celebrating 50 years as a band, they wanted to play a Los Angeles warm-up show in a small L.A. venue a week before launching a U.S. tour. The Stones chose the Echoplex, on a night already reserved for Check Yo Ponytail, which put Chan in a key role for hottest ticket in town that week.
“We didn’t tell the Echoplex who was playing” until two nights before the show, Chan remembers. “It was so secret.” It was also a milestone for what IHC would become.
Chan calls the stretch of time between 2013 and early 2017 “our puberty years,” a time of left turns and general risk-taking, with streaming content and even developing a TV pilot with Seth Rogen. “We were always on the verge of going out of business and experimenting a bunch and trying to start the engine of something new without really understanding what we were trying to do.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic landed in March 2020, all live entertainment stopped. IHeartComix revenue was down 60% that year. Rather than lay off staff, IHC experimented with four streaming shows that covered music, comedy, politics, and a talk show called “Hot Chats” hosted by Chan. No money changed hands for those shows, but they led to opportunities later.
“In February of 2021, I was more poor than the day I moved to Los Angeles,” Chan recounts now. “IHeartComix was totally broke. I put all my money in because we didn’t fire anybody. Even though the money was bad, we were having so many conversations. I was like, ‘I just gotta hold on long enough.’ Then we ended up at the end of ‘21 doing better than we had the last five years combined.”
The first big job as the pandemic receded that year was creating an immersive, action-packed premiere event for the Bob Odenkirk thriller “Nobody,” which unfolded on the Universal Studios backlot with speeding cars, guns, explosions and a dozen stuntmen from the movie. Because of the lingering coronavirus work slowdown, the lot was surprisingly available, along with first-rate cast and crew. Among the guests to witness it was singer Billie Eilish.
That led to an invitation to pitch ideas for the release party for Eilish’s highly anticipated second album, “Happier Than Ever.” IHC came back with a lavish party on an eight-acre private estate in Beverly Hills, designed around lyrical themes on the album. There was a 1950s bedroom with ancient TV sets showing Eilish footage, a koi pond and red footbridges, a palm tree painted blue, green grand piano, a creamy white 1955 Thunderbird, and a pool surrounded by dolphin-shaped fountains. At the party, Eilish welcomed her guests and then dove into the pool fully clothed.
“That’s Franki’s Midas touch: He knows how to throw a good party with good music,” says booking agent Tom Windish, who counts Eilish among his clients. “The Billie one was fantastic, but it seems like they’re generally pretty great, with really nice production. They don’t have a corporate feel to them.”
Chan is contemplating a movie from IHeartComix, and a documentary to recollect its history. But even as the firm celebrates in 2024, its roots in the indie music scene are as important as ever, says Chan, who still DJs a few times a month.
“It’s definitely not a career, but since the pandemic I’ve found a renewed love for it,” he says of performing. “We can never go backwards. It makes more sense for us to move forward with the lessons that we’ve learned and the tools that we’ve built — to take the essence of the scene that we’re from and the things that we love and contribute back to it in new ways.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.