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Writers' revenge: Studios can't mess with Strike.TV

The website -- a product of the recent strike -- lets scriptwriters own, feature and control their work.

November 14, 2008|Richard Verrier | Verrier is a Times staff writer.

Striking writer Peter Hyoguchi was walking the picket line outside Disney's ABC Studios in Burbank in January when he had an epiphany.

What if scriptwriters launched a website featuring their work, which they would own and control free of studio interference?

That hunch is about to be tested. After months of planning and delay, Hyoguchi and his colleagues have turned their seemingly quixotic idea into a reality. Two weeks ago they launched an online "network" for original programming named Strike.TV.

It marks an ambitious effort to connect film and TV writers to the fledgling world of online video. The portal will run 45 original Web series with more than 200 episodes from such veteran writers as Lester Lewis, a producer on "The Office," and "Star Trek: Enterprise" scribe Ken LaZebnik. Shows include actors Timothy Dalton and JoBeth Williams.

Episodes are mostly three to five minutes in length and roll out daily on Strike.TV, and also are available on video websites YouTube and Joost. The Los Angeles company just signed an agreement with Hulu, an online video service, to become its largest supplier of Web-original entertainment.

Programming encompasses horror, drama, sci-fi, animation, soaps and comedy. "The Challenge," for example, stars Bob Newhart trying to do "what many people think is one of the most difficult tasks in modern society -- opening a new DVD."

"Tom Holland's 5 or Die," from the creator of horror flick "Fright Night," is about three friends who get caught in a chain e-mail that instructs them to forward the letter in five minutes or die.

But behind the company's proletarian moniker -- a tribute to its provenance -- is a decidedly entrepreneurial idea that writers should be able to cash in on the Internet.

"We were striking mostly over Internet issues, and yet none of us new anything about the Internet. So we thought, 'Why not just try it ourselves and see what it's all about?' " said Lewis, one of Strike.TV's founders.

Strike.TV is a combination of altruism and capitalism. The writers and actors involved have volunteered their time and money to get the venture off the ground. For the first three months of operation, the company will donate proceeds from advertising to the Actors Fund, which assists entertainment industry workers.

After that, and if it succeeds, the principals will share in future advertising revenue.

Strike.TV was among several online ventures hatched during the 100-day strike as writers sought ways to exploit the Internet and circumvent the studio system with which they were at war. Some of the ventures never got off the ground; others are still in development.

Among them is Virtual Artists Inc., a company backed by a group of prominent writers and software developers, which plans to launch a digital production studio next month.

Virtual Artists is talking to advertisers about sponsoring shows that would be distributed through Strike.TV and other websites.

"We're simply going to the source of money and working with them to fund our shows," said screenwriter Aaron Mendelsohn, a co-founder of Virtual Artists and a writer of the "Air Bud" movies.

Although online advertising is growing, its growth rate has slowed because of the dire economy. Strike.TV founders say it might take 18 to 24 months before the company turns a profit. Like Virtual Artists, they claim an advantage in having a network of top Hollywood talent.

Strike.TV advertisers include Dell Inc. and Johnson & Johnson, and the company hopes to recruit more with the help of ad agency Mother New York.

The concept for Strike.TV emerged in January when Writers Guild members arranged an industry panel to learn about new online ventures and discuss ideas for projects. The meeting drew 400 people and generated dozens of ideas for shows.

"We were getting so many submissions, I just thought we should do this as a business, because there's clearly a demand," said Hyoguchi, who also is chief executive.

The timing was ripe thanks to technological improvements in the quality of online video and the falling price of high definition digital cameras. Strike.TV teamed with BitGravity Inc., a Burlingame, Calif., technology firm that had just introduced an HD online video network.

Owned by 30 writers, software developers, actors and others, Strike.TV had less than $10,000 in start-up costs. That was because filmmakers mostly paid their own expenses, typically a few thousand dollars, with many shows filmed in the homes of actors and Writers Guild of America members.

"Die Hard" and "Tomb Raider" screenwriter Steven de Souza spent $50,000 of his own money to produce six episodes of "Unknown Sender," a suspense anthology. His first episode stars Timothy Dalton as a billionaire who tries to exact revenge on a cheating wife through a videotaped will before having the tables turned on him.

"I thought this was an opportunity to do something without any notes from the studios," he said. "I think it's a big part of the future."

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richard.verrier@latimes.com

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