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'Flyboys' Movie Tie-Ins Could Mean Takeoff For Cary Game Company

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CARY, N.C. — Having rallied from two heart attacks while fighting to keep his gaming company alive, J.W. Stealey is dog-fighting his way back toward profitability with the help of a potential Hollywood blockbuster movie.

"Flyboys" is a $60 million project filled with World War I aerial dogfights. It is directed by Academy Award winner Tony Bill (producer of "The Sting") and produced by Dean Devlin ("Independence Day," "The Patriot," "Stargate") and premiers nationally on Friday.

Following close behind for national release is "Flyboys Squadron," developed by Stealey's iEntertainment in Cary. Already available is a online version of the game, which Stealey is banking will be as successful, if not more so, than the 10-year-old WarBirds online flight simulator game series.

"I'm back, and going," said Stealey, 54, with the enthusiasm in his voice that helped him earn the nickname "Wild Bill". A former Air Force pilot himself who owns a T-28 Trojan Warbird, Stealey built iEntertainment into a public company, lost control of it to outside investors, fought to regain control as the company's stock shrank to pennies in value, and now has it poised to take off into the wild blue yonder of sales success - and profits. Along the way Stealey, an Air Force Academy graduate with a degree in aeronautical engineering, also had to overcome the effects of the heart attacks. But he's back on the golf course - and is manning the controls of iEntertainment with renewed optimism.

"It's been a struggle, but we're starting to do good things," Stealey said.

The official game tie-in with Flyboys could be a boon for iEntertainment, which employs 15 people and offers a variety of online games.

"This is pretty exciting stuff," Stealey said.

Remembering American Volunteer Pilots

"Flyboys" is based on the saga of the Lafayette Esquadrille, a squadron of volunteer U.S. pilots who joined the Allies against Germany before the U.S. entered World War I. The movie stars James Franco (best known for his role as friend-turned-enemy of Spider Man in the two Spider Man movies) and French star Jean Reno (tough guy from "Ronin" and detective in "The Da Vinci Code").

A mutual acquaintance, Chris Weaver of MobyGames, brought iEntertainment and the flamboyant Stealey to the attention of Devlin, who used some of his own money to finance a movie Hollywood refused to make. "Flyboys" the movie is backed by Electric Entertainment, which Devlin owns. Other financial support came from Oracle founder Larry Ellison, whose son David is an aerobatic pilot.

Impressed by what he saw in the "WarBirds" game, Devlin paid iEntertainment an upfront fee to develop "Flyboys Squadron," Stealey said. He hopes the movie, which is now being advertised heavily on prime-time TV, will drive sales of the retail box PC game version, which goes on sale in stores on Sept. 29 at a price of $29.95. It is being distributed by Navarre.

iEntertainment is also landing a couple of new investors and is planning a PlayStation 2 version of "Flyboys Squadron" for release when the Flyboy DVD is released next year.

The fly in the ointment for iEntertainment right now is whether "Flyboys" will be a box office hit. Hollywood hasn't made a World War One flying movie in 40 years, the last being "The Blue Max" that featured George Peppard, Jeremy Kemp, James Mason, Ursula Andress and Karl Michael Vogler.

Stealey said Devlin's production is impressive.

"We like what we see," he said. "It's very exciting."

Advertisements focus on aerial combat, including one seen in which a fighter crashes into a mammoth German zeppelin. Devlin did secure the use of 22 antique aircraft for the movie, but the combat scenes are built around 850 digital-effects shots.

"They did a great job on the flying," said Stealey, whose demands for accuracy have helped make the "TotalSims" series such a success over the past 10 years. "WarBirds" has drawn more than 600,000 players, and the iEntertainment gaming site can be hosting scores of players from around the world at any one time through its massively multiplayer format.

Plans For Growth

Stealey is not basing his comeback hopes for iEntertainment strictly on "Flyboys," however. He also is talking with the Air Force about a major contract to provide flight-simulator training.

"We can provide real-time flight simulation for less than the cost of one flight hour," Stealey said. iEntertainment is offering training for $600 per pilot vs. actual flight time training costs of $800 per hour. "The contract is being reviewed," he added.

Regardless of how that deal develops, iEntertainment remains a player in the massive multiplayer game market. It continues to grow, with revenues of $2 billion a year now, but they will increase to $12 billion within five years, Stealey said.

As "Flyboys Squadron" and "WarBirds" plus other titles continue to draw players, Stealey is setting a revenue goal of $25 million within three years. If the growth comes to pass, he wants to return iEntertainment to a "full trading" public company. Its stock is now traded in "pink sheets" rather than listed on a public exchange. Stealey knows the public trading route, having taken both MicroProse Software and Interactive Magic (the old name of iEntertainment) through initial public offerings.

iEntertainment is also in the process of landing "a couple" of new investors, Stealey added.

Despite the company's financial difficulties, its WarBirds brand retains wide recognition, as Stealey said he discovered often while wearing a "WarBirds" cap on business trips.

"I had one guy come up to me at an airport who told me that 'WarBirds' got him interested in being a pilot as a kid," Stealey said proudly. "Now, he's an Air Force pilot."



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