CyberFlix started not quite seven years ago when an unlikely quartet of young turks got together in a basement on Wagon Lane, a forested neighborhood near the river in South Knoxville, and played computer games. "It looked like NORAD down there," musical director Scott Scheinbaum recalls, a dark basement with 10 computer screens flickering. Often working all night, they'd send out for pizza. He recalls the delivery man's consternation at seeing the place. "What do you guys do here?" he asked.
The basement belonged to Bill Appleton, a 31-year-old refugee from Silicon Valley whom some called a genius. Originally from Oak Ridge and son of ORNL honcho William Appleton, Bill was a 1979 graduate of Oak Ridge High before he studied philosophy, painting, and economics at Davidson. Studying grad-school economics at Vanderbilt, he discovered computers. Macintosh computers, to be specific, which became an article of faith. Self-trained, he became fascinated with cyber technology, especially as it had to do with designing computer games. He'd done a couple himself: one called Apache Strike, another called Creepy Castle.
He had sojourned in Silicon Valley and later Chicago, where he made a name for himself developing video games and a software process to create them. But he always returned to Knoxville, which he considered his home. He'd apparently run into business problems in both Chicago and California and admitted he was glad to be back in Knoxville, away from all that.
With him were three other guys you wouldn't expect to find sharing a late-night pizza.
Shaven-headed Scott Scheinbaum, 32, grew up in Chicago, but family ties brought him to Knoxville, where he graduated from UT in music composition. He worked at Turtle's Records on Cumberland, but he was best-known downtown as a nightclub rocker: a former keyboardist and vocalist for punkish bands like Proud Flesh and Ministry of Love. He was living in the Maplehurst neighborhood in the mid-'80s when a friend introduced him to a neighbor named Bill Appleton.
The tall, quiet one was artist Jamie Wicks. Only 25, he'd been trained in computer modeling; he'd known the older Appleton since his childhood in Oak Ridge. "He's the quiet guy who sits next to you in class and draws pictures of monsters," recalls a friend.
The guy in tortoise-shell glasses was Andrew Nelson. Originally from upstate New York, 34-year-old Nelson had moved here to work for Whittle Communications, where he became associate editor for a waiting-room celebrity magazine. Disenchanted with Whittle and smitten with the new CD-ROM technology, Nelson left Whittle in 1992, showing an early talent for escaping a doomed venture at the right moment. Scheinbaum had introduced him to Appleton.
"Bill inoculated us with his vision of becoming multimedia superstars and taking over the world," says Scheinbaum. Movies were old fashioned; video games were for kids. Appleton's interactive movies would be the new medium for all people.
His claims sounded grandiose. In 1994, he told a reporter, "By 2000, we'll be one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world."
Appleton started his campaign by releasing Lunicus in April, 1993, a futuristic tale about a lunar colony operated by the U.N. Though it was a shoot-'em-up as most video games were, Lunicus featured a first-person perspective, and stood apart with its attention to character personalities.
In May, 1993, the fourplus Eric Quist, attorney and childhood friend of Appleton's, who would become CyberFlix's business managerincorporated. Bill had called the new business CyberSoft. Cyber, of course, is the '90s prefix suggestive of artificial intelligence. The Soft suffix may have sounded a little too derivative. Loath to dismiss their sophisticated creations "computer games," they preferred the term "interactive movies." Nelson suggested a suffix that sounded cinematic: Flicks. CyberFlix.
Nelson would write the scripts for these flix. Scheinbaum would handle the sound effects and music. Wicks would do the graphic design. Quist would handle the business. Appleton would make it all possible with the technology he'd developed.
In 1993, the multimedia disks known as CD-ROM were just a rumor to most Americans, and the rumor was that it was too slow to be much fun. The system Appleton called DreamFactory made significant changes to speed it up. This "authoring tool" was a complex network of computer functions which would be the main partner in what would become possible over the next five years.
In Appleton's basement, Nelson, Scheinbaum, Wicks, and Appleton commenced work on a new title, a post-apocalyptic shoot-'em-up called Jump Raven.
The took their product to a Macintosh trade show in Boston. They weren't granted even a real boothbut crowded around a corner, near the real exhibits, they stole the show. "How do you do that?" asked veteran engineers. Representatives from Paramount saw the exhibition and signed a multi-million-dollar deal for it.
Heartened, CyberFlix hired a couple more employees, including Robb Dean and Rand Cabus, and found a real office. In October, 1993, they moved into a spacious loft on the third floor of a handsome early-2Oth-century brick building at 4 Market Square.
They brought their sense of fun with them. One of their first hires was 3-D modeler Jay Nevins, then only 23. The third floor of 4 Market Square was "kinda like a treehouse," he recalls. "Everybody was buddy-buddy. We'd work until one or two, then every night we'd go down to Manhattan's. The next day we'd roll in at 10 or 11 or noon and do it all again."
"The general rule was 'Show up by noon, or call,'" remembers Michael Kennedy, a graphic artist who was another early employee. The policy changed little for the next five years. "When my family visited, I was embarrassed to tell them they pay me to play video games and eat Tootsie Rolls," says producer Bob Clouse, a later arrival. "I would take six hours to tell my grandparents what I did for a living. And then they'd say, 'Why don't you just get a job?'"
For downtown and for Knoxville's reputation as headquarters for a young business with a dynamic national reputation, CyberFlix seemed to promise everything Whittle Communications did a decade before. The first of several CyberFlix open houses, in the fall of 1993, coincided with one of the biggest layoffs at Whittle. Freshly unemployed Whittlites roamed the floor, transfixed by the flickering images on 20 computer screens. To some, Whittle's mantel of downtown savior and national innovator was being passed to an even younger, more dynamic company.
That was the first of their annual Nightmare Before Christmas parties. With live bands, free beer, and an open door, the first one reportedly drew over 1,000 people to the third floor of 4 Market Square. The fire marshal was not among them.