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New Media, Old Methods

The days when filmmakers used the Web to bypass Hollywood are over. Now online talent seeks offline deals.

February 18, 2001|HUGH HART | Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar

On Oct. 7, 1999, Los Angeles-based filmmakers Jason Ward, Dave Garrett and Gene Laufenberg had on their hands a self-produced short about a group of elderly women who decide to play Russian roulette. Their agent wouldn't send the reel out because it was too dark, recalls Garrett. "We were all unemployed at this point, with no prospect of distribution on the film festival circuit or anywhere else." Garrett had lunch with a man from San Francisco who asked if he could put their film on a Web site he was about to launch. "So we decided, 'What the hell.' "

On Oct. 8, the short, "Sunday's Game," became the first one posted on Ifilm.com. By Oct. 10, more than 30 companies had called to set up meetings. Today, Garrett and Ward are wrapping "Corky Romano," their first feature film for Disney, with movie and TV projects lined up at Fox, ABC, DreamWorks and Universal. Laufenberg has a job writing for Fox's "The Family Guy" and is producing a pilot for UPN.

Did the Internet accelerate their careers? Undoubtedly. Could it happen like that today? Not a chance.

Garrett is the first to credit his big break to a one-time-only burst of perfect timing, wherein a shocking short on a red-hot site slammed headfirst into an intensely curious Hollywood community. Those days are over, he says.

"Now it's the same problem everybody had before," he says. With an estimated 50,000 short films clamoring for attention on a dwindling number of cash-strapped sites, Garrett wonders, "How do you get people to watch your short? You're competing for the eyeballs."

Still, the Web's ability to showcase under-the-radar talent with zero connections can be a wonder to behold.

Witness Ashley Power, a 15-year-old high school student from the San Fernando Valley who last fall signed with MGM Television to develop her Goosehead.com show "Whatever" into a series for Showtime. Listen to East Trading Wang Wang, the heavy metal band from Estonia that landed a song on the "Little Nicky" soundtrack album after winning a contest on Garageband.com. Gawk at the Lake Hamilton High School cheerleading squad from Pearcy, Ark., that will appear in "The New Guy" movie thanks to votes from visitors to Mediatrip.com.

Bust or boon, one thing is certain: Even the most zealous Web-trepreneurs no longer talk about online entertainment as an end in itself. Where only a year ago now-defunct sites such as Pseudo.com and DEN.com preached the gospel of digital entertainment with "Damn the revenue model, full speed ahead" tunnel vision, today's survival-minded content mavens may as well have stamped on their foreheads, "It's the profit margin, stupid."

But where's the money to come from? Few sites can afford to wait for advertising revenue to develop from a trickle to a gusher--something analysts usually prefer to see within three to five years. And the three dirtiest words in the Web world are "charging for content." So entertainment sites are teaming with old media studios that generate cash the old-fashioned way. The proposition: Develop it on the Web, open it wide in movies and on TV.

Hypnotic.com, for example, hooked up with Universal Pictures for its Million Dollar Film Festival. Five short-film finalists were selected by visitors to the site. Last month at the Sundance Film Festival, a jury of industry professionals screened the shorts and picked David von Ancken's "Bullet in the Head" as the winner. Von Ancken will receive a $1-million development deal from Universal.

Hypnotic CEO Jeremy Bernard says, "Two years ago when I was putting my business plan together, I won't say it was definitely in my plan to partner up with major studios, but it was always in my plan to work with major studios. It's never been a question of us trying to compete with the studios. In lieu of a venture capital model, it was more like, 'Let's figure out ways we can work with the studios.' "

John Hegeman plans an ambitious slate for his sci-fi Web site, Distantcorners.com, looking to launch 26 online shows this year. But he's got one foot firmly planted in the offline world: Revolution Studios has first-look rights to produce and distribute any properties developed on the site, including episodic tales by "Another 48 HRS" scribe John Fasano.

For Hegeman, the Internet is all about creating buzz to build a brand. It's a notion he should know something about: Before starting Distantcorners, he orchestrated the "Blair Witch Project" Web campaign as marketing chief for Artisan Entertainment. Says Hegeman, " 'Blair Witch' showed how the Web could serve as a great rubber band to hold together a bunch of different extensions, where once you introduced the property, it almost becomes the hub to your effort."

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