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They're spinning their own Web Video on the cheap

New media enthusiasts are busy creating low-budget Internet videos, with and without union contracts.

August 03, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

The SCREEN ACTORS GUILD and television and film producers see eye to eye about hardly anything these days, yet on one thing they can agree: The Web is the battleground.

Talks between SAG and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers have ground to a halt, and a possible work stoppage looms. But as the parties caucus with their lawyers and negotiators over next steps, production on the very thing that divides them -- entertainment created for new media platforms -- continues at a fever clip across town.

The filmmakers may be twentysomething nobodies toiling in their backyards with store-bought cameras and a single floodlight. They might be experienced professionals with several dozen skilled crew members. Some are financed by media giants such as Microsoft and Disney. A few are funded by no-interest loans from Mom and Dad.

What these content creators hold in common is a belief that these made-for-Internet series -- a few minutes of often distinctive, frequently risque, storytelling -- represent Hollywood's future, even if many of these mini movies may never be seen on anything larger than a mobile phone.

For the actors, the pay is often peanuts -- just a couple of hundred dollars, if anything at all, for a day's labor. Yet the potential creative rewards and professional exposure can, in many performers' minds, make up for the financial sacrifice, particularly because several Web shorts have been developed into television series. Writer-director Marshall Herskovitz's "Quarterlife," for example, moved from the Internet to NBC (where it quickly flopped).

"I don't know what's going to happen with this thing -- I really don't," said Rand Holdren, who stars in "Get Ripped," an upcoming Internet series by 60Frames about a creepily intense personal trainer. "You need other work to make ends meet . . . but my agent said, 'It's a Sunday. What else are you going to do?' "

The financiers say they have to keep costs low because it's unclear how many of these shows will turn a profit, or whether they will be seen by more than a few insomniac Web surfers. But some of the more inspired videos and series -- actor Will Ferrell's “The Landlord” or ad writers Troy Hitch and Matt Bledsoe's “You Suck at Photoshop” -- can attract 5 million views or more, an audience comparable to one for a modest network TV hit.

The United Talent Agency started UTA Online almost two years ago not only to sign Internet artists but also to help develop a sustainable business. "Our goal," said UTA Online’s Jason Nadler, "is to make sure there's a marketplace on the Web for these people to make money, not to build farm teams for another medium."

Although SAG says more than 600 Web episodes have been produced under the guild's new Internet/Online agreement -- “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” with Neil Patrick Harris among them -- a large number of series are made without union contracts. Indeed, as the fractious SAG talks and the 100-day screenwriters' strike make obvious, no one can agree on what this new medium is worth and how it should be covered.

Because you can now watch almost any Web short free, very few people seem to be making material profits on these stories -- yet. Twenty-two-year-old Web auteur David Lehre has been able to make ends meet in part by winning more than $100,000 in various Web movie contests.

In many ways, it is the Wild West all over again. "It's like we are in California 100 years ago, with a movie camera and a tent setting up on the side of a river," said Christopher Kubasik, who is writing and producing potential Internet series for ABC/Disney's Stage 9 Digital Media and Michael Eisner's Internet company, Tornante, "saying, 'OK, what are we going to shoot today?' "

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Bare-bones operation

Some movie sets spare no expense. James Gunn's "Humanzee!" production spared almost every single one. The writer-director of the horror film "Slither" and a screenwriter on the two "Scooby-Doo" movies, Gunn on a recent late night was making his darkly comic short in his Studio City house. There were no lighting trucks, catering crews or camera cranes -- just a handful of friends and collaborators working really fast, under the radar.

"It's the kind of shoot where you need a permit," Gunn said. "But we don't have one."

In just three days of production (a lifetime in the made-for-Internet world), Gunn was writing, directing and costarring in one of the first of a series of comic Web movies produced by Microsoft for its Xbox video-game console.

When Gunn finished working in his own house, he moved the shoot to the home of his brother Sean, who was costarring in the film as the titular half human-half primate. The total cost for the seven-minute story about the crossbreed with terrible manners: around $10,000, about what a Hollywood mogul spends for a one-night stay at the Cannes Film Festival.

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