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20th Century Fox joins rush to produce made-for-the-Web shows

The studio releases 'Wolfpack of Reseda,' the first online series from its Fox Digital Entertainment division. Increasingly, companies are producing high-quality video for the Internet and major advertisers are demanding Internet content to reach young consumers.

February 17, 2012|By Meg James, Los Angeles Times
  • Tate Ellington stars as Ben March in Fox Digital Entertainment's online series Wolfpack of Reseda. Myspace is the primary distributor of the series, which debuted this week and will unfold over eight weeks with a new episode, ranging in length from eight to 12 minutes, released each Thursday.
Tate Ellington stars as Ben March in Fox Digital Entertainment's… (Fox Digital Entertainment )

In the online series "Wolfpack of Reseda," a nerdy character's life is transformed when he believes that he has been bitten by a werewolf in a San Fernando Valley park.

20th Century Fox, which released the series this week, is trying to transform itself too, as traditional media companies seek to tame the threat posed by another predator — the Internet.

"Wolfpack of Reseda" is the first made-for-the-Web series from Fox Digital Entertainment, a small division of the 76-year-old West Los Angeles movie studio. The dark comedy features a nebbish car insurance salesman who suddenly discovers that he has new attributes, including hairy sideburns and a new Kia Soul vehicle. The series brings feature film production values to the Internet, a medium that a few years ago was dominated by grainy user-generated videos of skateboarding dogs and kids singing karaoke.

The series' release underscores two of the biggest trends in media: a rush by established companies, including Sony Pictures, Netflix, Hulu and now Fox, to produce high-quality video for the Internet, and major advertisers' demand for Hollywood-produced Internet content to promote products to young consumers who are more likely to be tethered to their laptops, tablets and smartphones than the television set.

"We're definitely at the beginning of a new wave of video content on the Web," said Paul Verna, senior analyst with EMarketer Digital Intelligence. "A year or two ago, there wasn't enough critical mass in online advertising to make these shows work. But now we are starting to have that critical mass."

Internet video advertising, the fastest-growing segment of advertising, is expected to more than double in two years, from $1.4 billion in 2010 to an estimated $3.1 billion this year. Advertising for entertainment videos is only a small part of that.

Kia Motors America sponsored "Wolfpack of Reseda" to reach young consumers, specifically men in their 20s and 30s who are most likely to be online. Myspace is the primary distributor of the series, which will unfold over eight weeks with a new episode, ranging in length from eight to 12 minutes, released each Thursday.

"Wolfpack of Reseda" represents an evolution in the way major media companies think about the Web. At first, they feared the Internet would destroy the value of their content by enabling piracy or by cannibalizing their traditional revenue streams. Then TV networks and movie studios began using the Internet as a promotional vehicle for their movies and TV shows. They uploaded trailers and created Web "extras," such as games and fan pages, to expose their content to a wider audience.

"For a while, the Web was seen as a means to an end but now it has become an end to itself," said Matt Glotzer, senior vice president of the 2-year-old Fox Digital Entertainment studio. "We are right in that transition."

Google last fall announced it was spending $100 million to create new entertainment channels on its YouTube service in a play for consumers' attention and advertising dollars. Yahoo also is ramping up its original productions, helping to spark a boom in independent content companies, including Maker Studios and Michael Eisner's digital studio Vuguru.

"For a long time the only piece that was missing from content creation for the Internet was the people who do this for a living, the major studios and TV networks," said Forrester Research media analyst James McQuivey. "Anyone who has content chops now sees that it is open season with these new online distribution channels."

Earlier this month, Los Gatos-based Netflix released its first original series, "Lilyhammer," which stars Steven van Zandt, the former "The Sopranos" actor and E Street Band guitarist, as a New York gangster out of sorts in the snowy world of Norway. The Santa Monica online video service Hulu, owned by Fox parent News Corp., Walt Disney Co. and NBCUniversal, on Tuesday released its own series, "Battleground," about a hapless campaign staff in a pivotal election state.

The concept originally was pitched to the Fox TV network. Now, it's aimed at an audience that might not even be watching TV.

"There has been a declining television audience — not just the cord-cutters but the people who have never subscribed to pay TV at all," said Rebecca Lieb, media analyst with Altimeter Group. "That's the target audience for these shows, the young generation, which is the most sought after by advertisers."

Kia, the car company, read various scripts in development at Fox before selecting "Wolfpack" as the project on which it wanted to collaborate.

"This wasn't an existing script that we were just integrated into, and this isn't a glorified car commercial," said Tim Chaney, Kia Motors' director of marketing communications. "These webisodes gave us an opportunity to showcase our product in a natural and more organic way than just a 30-second TV spot."

"Wolfpack of Reseda" is among a handful of Internet projects that Fox Digital Entertainment has spent the last 18 months developing. Additional online series will roll out in the next few months, Glotzer said. And although some digital studios are trying to seed the Web as a way to test story lines that could turn into full-fledged movies or TV shows, that's not the only objective.

"This is about building a franchise," Glotzer said, adding that Fox was contemplating creating subsequent seasons and the Web series also could become a precursor for other "Wolfpack" productions. "That franchise can live on the Web in an eight-minute or 12-minute format — that would also be a success for us. The ultimate goal of the studio is to create a third independent pipeline for content."

meg.james@latimes.com

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