Master of the Digital Universe

July 18, 2011 | Queens College

Part Tolkien and part Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Gomez ’85 helps Hollywood and Fortune 500 companies tell their stories across multiple media platforms

You can’t hide in your bedroom and “play with your plastic dinosaurs forever,” muses the boy inside Jeff Gomez ’85. Instead, through his imagination, this lonely Latino child from the Lower East Side morphed into a globe-trotting storyline universe creator, consultant, and producer. From a gritty childhood and an adolescence of playing Dungeons & Dragons in the Queens College Student Union, he has shaped a professional life immersed in dozens of fictional worlds.

President and CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment in Manhattan, Gomez is a guru of transmedia storytelling, which involves creating a narrative robust enough to span animation, ads, films, web content, and books to video games, toys, and theme parks.  He guides Hollywood and Fortune 500 companies as they incubate or expand their epic fictional realms of branded entertainment, such as Disney’s sci-fi Tron: Legacy and Microsoft’s $2-billion Xbox game Halo. The fantasy universes Starlight Runner has been involved with generate millions of fans eager to interact with that world—as well as megabucks for the companies.

Starlight Entertainment springboards a company’s intellectual property into enormously profitable transmedia franchises. Marketing experts seek the CEO’s expertise to broaden their entertainment brands through these story franchises. Coca-Cola, for example, came to Starlight Runner to expand its animated “Happiness Factory” ad featuring a fantasy world inside a Coke machine.

Gomez, who co-founded Starlight Runner in 2000, guides a lean creative team—about a dozen freelancers. Their first project was to create the narrative that propelled Mattel’s Hot Wheels die-cast metal toys through mini-comic books, a video game, a website, action figures, and an animated television series. Clients also include Hasbro, Sony Pictures, Showtime, and 20th-Century Fox.

“What I do for a living,” Gomez notes, “is not creating alternate reality games or devices that sell more movie tickets. Transmedia narrative techniques give us a new way of expressing ourselves artistically that is just starting to come into its own. It all starts with a story.”

A Gomez biopic would be peopled with superheroes and legends of the imagination, beginning with Godzilla. Later, as a teen, Star Wars and the Hobbit realm of Middle-earth fascinated him. “You can basically sum up my life,” says Gomez, “by combining Tolkien with Bruce Springsteen.”

As a youngster, Gomez spent a thrilling year in Honolulu, Hawaii, “discovering Japanese superheroes that jumped from one media platform to the next.” He soon came back down to Earth, returning to New York in the late 1970s. As he’s told some of his audiences, “My life became less like Power Rangers and more like Midnight Cowboy” as he wandered the streets of Times Square. When his mother could finally afford to move to Flushing, he discovered QC’s campus. As a 14-year-old needing “an outlet for my imagination,” he says he sneaked into the Student Union to play Dungeons & Dragons. Then as an undergraduate, he became “a popular gamer,” drawing dozens of onlookers as he infused drama into this fantasy role-playing game.

That campus hub, Gomez says, is also where he first noticed “the young lady who sneered at us because we were such nerds.” Years later, she would become his wife. He and Chrysoula Artemis-Gomez ’85 now have a daughter, age 8.

Through fantasy role-playing games on campus, Gomez says he discovered “a group of people where I felt I genuinely belonged.” In classes, majoring in film studies and communication arts and sciences, he continues, “I finally felt not talked-down to. Listening to my fantastic professors was completely eye-opening. They taught me story. They opened up the hood of the car,” revealing “all the pieces that comprise the engine” in the language of film. He especially cites film studies professors Jonathan Buchsbaum, Royal Brown, and Robert Kapsis as well as Edgar Gregersen (Anthropology) as influencing his development. Notes Gomez, “One course on persuasion I’ve used on a daily basis ever since.”

A year out of college, Gomez and other QC graduates began to desktop-publish Gateways, which became a national magazine about fantasy and adventure games. Chrysoula did the illustrations. Kissena Park Press, his company’s publishing imprint, pays homage to this Queens park where Gomez proposed to Chrysoula. Starlight Runner’s name, its CEO explains, originated in Gateways. “It’s a euphemism for your best friend,” someone who would “come to you at night.”

Before Starlight Runner, Gomez had made a name for himself writing for the adventure and video game industries. At Acclaim Entertainment’s comic book division and as a Valiant Comics editor, he “steered the lives of several superheroes for a few years,” he notes. “I became aware of the Magic: The Gathering trading card game and had a hunch of how popular it was going to be.” He says he convinced his bosses to put him in charge of writing the comic book and producing a video game that became “smash hits.”

Those boyhood plastic dinosaurs weren’t forgotten. Gomez turned a comic superhero into the Turok: Dinosaur Hunter video game for Nintendo. He is amused that “all those hours that people told me I had wasted playing D&D earned me my first $100,000 check.”

Gomez’s first job after college—teaching creative writing in a Bedford-Stuyvesant elementary school—ignited a commitment to inspiring others. Today, through his Life Adventure System curriculum and “Never Surrender” talks, Gomez coaches students in how to lead while following their bliss in what he calls “that Joseph Campbell manner.” In more than 1,000 venues, he has drawn upon his street smarts and entrepreneurial lessons to help 120,000 young people face their own dark days. With Operation Respect, a foundation created by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame), Gomez devised and produced the anti-bullying video “Don’t Laugh at Me,” featuring hip-hop star Baby Jay.

At Starlight Runner, the CEO has come to know James Cameron through working on Avatar, Johnny Depp through Pirates of the Caribbean, and Will Smith through Men in Black III. He notes, however, “It’s not so much that we hobnob with movie stars and directors.” What intrigues Gomez is “playing a hand in twirling these enormous entertainment franchises, fostering the universe of the intellectual property so that it continues to have something important to say about life, even though it’s about crazy, fantastical creatures.”

For Gomez, “the act of thinking about these rich universes”—the style of their proper names, their geography, the continuity of their narratives—aids him in bringing his obsessive-compulsive disorder “down to a low roar.”

He now plans to devote more time to telling his own story and to “the social and international components of what I do,” he says. “We’ll always have fun with the next Avatar movie, but we’re really getting into things that are truly impacting people’s lives. I’m a person who is very interested in shifting people’s perceptions about themselves and their world.”

From Frodo Baggins despairing at the Black Gate of Mordor to Luke Skywalker battling the Galactic Empire, Jeff Gomez loves succumbing to the spell of a well-spun yarn. “I’m evidence,” he says, “that a good story can improve a person’s life.”

Part Tolkien and part Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Gomez (Queens College ’85) helps Hollywood and Fortune 500 companies tell their stories across multiple media platforms

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Contact: Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Director of News Services
718-997-5590
phyllis.cohen-stevens@qc.cuny.edu

Maria Matteo
Assistant Director of News Services
718-997-5593
maria.matteo@qc.cuny.edu