Nanitec president Petra Kay burst with pride as the opening credits rolled for High Kick. "Introducing Dragan Woods as Mike Shao. Brought to you by Nanitec Labs Inc."
Petra searched for flaws in her creation and saw none. Here was the future: no more bank-breaking salaries, contractual problems or public-relations nightmares.
Dragan Woods was Everyman, his features compatible with several ethnic identities to maximize audience empathy. He would never grow old. The pixelated star had a smooth muscled chest as supple as any human male's, equally perfect arms and legs, and a pleasing attitude thanks to extensive market testing.
The most restrained projections calculated that Dragan's expensive genesis would generate a tenfold return within two years, thanks to ticket sales, ancillary markets and tie-ins. Meanwhile, the world's biggest companies rushed to secure product placements.
The plot for High Kick was simple, aimed at the twelve-to-eighteen-year-old demographic. Mike Shao works as a martial-arts coach. One day, the local mafia decides to muscle in on the neighbourhood. The rest was classic: lots of fights, good guy saves the day, local mafia beaten to smithereens.
High Kick raked in an unprecedented $250 million in its opening weekend. "The quality of images is breathtaking," opined the New York Times. "The Next Big Action Star: Mr. Megabytes Packs a Punch," gushed the Washington Post.
Everyone asked Petra Kay how she'd done it. Nanitec provided trailers of its documentary, The Making of Dragan Woods, which had been prepared a year in advance. The documentary topped ratings on all major networks.
Dragan Woods lookalike contests sprang up everywhere. Demand skyrocketed for new and better video games. Children wanted autographed pictures. Petra Kay laughed and created a virtual fan club, with a website address where people could order "autographed" merchandise: photos, baseball caps, posters and T-shirts.
After an enthusiastic response, Nanitec put together a fictitious biography for the computer animation. Dragan Woods was born in Brooklyn but abandoned at birth, had a difficult childhood, became a rebellious teenager and found his way off the streets through martial arts and boxing.
Occasional crackpots began to claim sightings of Dragan Woods at restaurants and nightclubs. When amused programmers brought this to her attention, Petra shrugged it off. "The Elvis Syndrome," she called it, "only this is better than Elvis."
With all the attention spawned by the Dragan Woods debut, the next feature was moved ahead of schedule. Moving Targets presented Dragan as a rebel commando in a futuristic urban jungle, saving a genetically-altered Messiah-child along with his mother from evil marauders intent on world domination. Despite its collection of plot points cannibalized from old hits from the 1970s to the new millennium, the film was another hit.
In its wake, "sightings" became more frequent. Dragan Woods acquired girlfriends: a chorus dancer, a rising starlet, a lingerie model. Programmers at Nanitec started a satirical monthly gossip newsletter: Dragan fathered my two-headed child! Tabloids began fabricating the same types of stories. Petra Kay kept shrugging.
Then, bestselling "autobiographies" sprang up, with titles like My Story: The Real Dragan Woods. The legal department at Nanitec initially advocated restraint. Why compound the absurdity by stating the obvious—that Dragan Woods, in fact, did not exist? Right, answered Petra: and what about the Loch Ness Monster? The legal department sued for licensing infringement.
Tabloid headlines were another matter. According to the judge ruling on the first case, licensing laws did not apply to editorial use. Libel laws were irrelevant. Dragan Woods did not exist, and therefore could not be defamed.
Emboldened, tabloids went on a feeding frenzy. Dragan close to death after piloting pirated plane. Dragan Woods abducted by aliens, implanted with microchips.
Petra Kay ignored them. The fan club thrived, virtual endorsements added to revenues, action figures and video games still sold briskly. Soon, a third film was in the works, well ahead of projected schedules.
On a busy Friday evening, a knock on the door startled Petra as she pored over contracts. Morley Hagan, president and CEO of Hagan Foods Ltd., came into the office. He was one of their biggest product-placement investors.
Hagan stood awkwardly, a newspaper under his arm. "How are you, Petra? Working late, I see."
"Sure. When have I ever done otherwise?"
Hagan took the paper under his arm and spread it out on Petra's mahogany desk. "There's just something I want to talk to you about: this headline, right here."
Petra stared at the tabloid. Dragan Woods Shooting Heroin! There was a full-colour picture, obviously faked from a digital image sent out as part of the standard press kits, showing the animated but oh-so-human-looking action hero with a tourniquet on his arm and an ugly syringe in his hand.
The president of Nanitec burst out laughing.
Morley Hagan glowered. "I don't find it very funny," he said. "I've spoken with several other company heads and they agree with me: we don't like it. This isn't the only paper reporting that Dragan Woods has a drug problem."
Petra stared at him. "You can't be serious."
Hagan sighed. "I know Dragan Woods can no more shoot heroin that he can eat one of our hamburgers. But thousands of young fans have already written in on the website to express their disappointment. Reality doesn't count. You should know that by now."
Petra sputtered with disbelief. "We can't control everything that gets printed about him. Besides, Dragan Woods is good business. He's bigger than Elvis."
"That's precisely the problem. So: either you fix it, or we pull out."
Kay rolled her eyes. "What do you suggest I do—send Dragan Woods to virtual rehab?"
Hagan brightened considerably. "Wait a minute," he said. "That isn't a bad idea!"
Nanitec Labs Inc. soon issued a press release. Dragan Woods would be entering the virtual rehabilitation center of Tiger Springs, in the virtual location of Amestown, USA. The communiqué showed Dragan entering the clinic and walking in the grounds. Never give up on your dreams. You can recover from your mistakes.
Then things really got out of hand.
Petra Kay woke up a few days after the press release to the following headline: Dragan Woods Goes Berserk, Smashes Up Rehab Clinic! Rage simmered in her abdomen. She forced herself to calm down. Ignore the problem. It will go away.
Morley Hagan was less sanguine. "I'm terribly sorry," he stated flatly, "but we simply have to pull out. There's a clause in our contract, as you know, that protects our image."
Nanitec's lawyers sued for damages, and the food company quietly settled out of court. Product placement and merchandising deals ran dry, however. Ticket sales for the third film were also down dramatically from the two previous hits.
There was only one thing left to do.
Barely two years after his spectacular rise to fame, Dragan Woods retired to his virtual Malibu mansion, hitting the virtual slopes at the virtual St-Fritz resort in the winter.
Syndication rights still brought in residual income. Eventually, the gossip died down as well.
One day, after a last visit to her office, Petra Kay sent off her last offering to the highest-bidding network: Better than Elvis: The Official Dragan Woods Documentary.