Malibu father and son executive produce new movie on cosplay

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Everette and Michael Plen Malibu residents are the executive producers of the new movie, "Cosplay Universe" that opens this week. The documentary featured one of the final appearances of Stan Lee the legend who created the Spider-Man character. Photo courtesy of Michael Plen.

Cosplay, the portmanteau of the words costume and play, is a growing social artform. People dress as their favorite characters from science fiction, Japanese anime, books, movies, or video games. 

Just this month thousands of cosplayers from around the world celebrated their art at Anime Expo 2022 in Los Angeles. Cosplay however, is more than “playing dress-up.” This expressive and growing cultural phenomenon is explored in a new movie opening this week, “Cosplay Universe,” with two executive producers, Malibu father and son Michael and Everette Plen.

The movie, shot pre-COVID at earlier anime conventions, highlights the costuming sub-culture and evolution of the artform. Some of the biggest world superstar cosplayers are featured in the film. It culminates with a competition at the world cosplay summit in Nagoya, Japan. The documentary dives deep into the world of cosplay and taps into the psychology behind this art of self-expression, demonstrating how cosplayers can transform and expand their confidence and perceptions of themselves. In the film, cosplay is seen as a supportive avenue for gender exploration, as well as a welcoming community for all, including neurodivergent and disabled people.

For some cosplayers it’s become a business which the film’s co-director Jonathan McHugh commented, “is the coolest thing you could do to, to be in love with something and making a living out of it.” Not only are cosplayers selling costumes or entering contests, they’re monetizing their art on social media or as contest judges and creators.

The documentary features one of the final appearances of comic book legend Stan Lee, who created the Spider-Man character. 

“That was one of the greatest days of my life going to Stan Lee’s office,” McHugh reminisced. “He was as genuine as you’d think. He’d been around so long, seen so much happen, from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s to watching Comic-Con in the 2000s. He loved walking around Comic-Con talking with people, signing autographs and being the godfather/grandfather of this whole movement.”

The first time McHugh attended a Comic-Con he says he was “blown away” by people dressed up in the middle of summertime. 

“Growing up in New York, we dressed up once a year at Halloween.” He added. “People use these costumes as a transformative desire to try something out.” 

Some people in the film candidly discuss their transitions to different genders. “It gives people empowerment,” the movie’s co-director said.

Twenty-four-year-old Everette Plen came aboard the documentary after years of success as a child actor. He currently is an in-demand voice-over artist specializing in animation and narration. He’s also a third-degree black belt who teaches karate at the Joey Escobar studio in Malibu. 

The movie is, “a personal thing for me,” he said. “I’m a big fan of cosplay.” 

The younger Plen designs outfits, collects props and has an extensive action figure collection. 

“I use cosplay to fuel my creative side. Everybody who designs these things puts their own creative flair on it,” 

he said. “Cosplay is one of those subjects that isn’t widely spoken about, but it’s very impressive. You’ll see people in these fantastic outfits and there’s always a mind behind it. The costume designers and artists are the people that go out and create these beautiful works of art that they walk around in and wear.”

Plen admires that cosplay can range from wearing a simple helmet to a fully mechanized suit of armor that can take years to create. 

He wanted to emphasize “that cosplay is not an exclusively professional art. Anybody can do it. It’s one of those artforms that’s inclusive. Because of that you get unique and original art. At conventions you can see so many levels of creativity. The only limit is your imagination.”

Michael Plen, a longtime music executive and 30-year Malibu resident, worked with Everette on the music end of the film. 

“It’s the story of kids who took their hobbies of building costumes and grew their confidence,” he said. “Some turned their hobby into a career. People loved them and it became million-dollar businesses for them. It’s a phenomenon that’s gotten huge. When Everette and I used to go to Comic-Con it was insanity. There was a kinship there (with the cosplayers).”

The Plens, who lost their home in the Woolsey Fire, loved working together. “We worked hand-in-hand,” Everette said. “We’re like puzzle pieces. We get stuff done as a team.” McHugh mentioned the Plens were “great to have on our team.” 

Co-directed by Jordan Rennert, “Cosplay Universe” opens July 14 at Laemmle theaters.