You oughta be in pixels

SCOTT KIRSNER runs the blog CinemaTech ( and is the author of "The Future of Web Video."

THE INTERNET IS rerouting the road to stardom and rewriting long-held beliefs about how entertainment hits are made.

Complete unknowns such as Judson Laipply are producing online videos (“Evolution of Dance”) for the cost of a camcorder tape and attracting more viewers -- 34 million at last count -- than the average episode of “Seinfeld” in its heyday. A pair of new-age vaudevillians in Maine parlayed 101 bottles of Diet Coke and some Mentos into a $30,000 payday by allowing ads to be placed at the end of their video. And last month, Google acquired the video-sharing site YouTube for $1.6 billion, sending the message that it believes the consumergenerated video trend is here to stay.

Meanwhile in Hollywood, established media companies scramble to develop survival strategies. Disney and Warner Bros. are trimming the number of movies they distribute each year and spending more to promote those they do release. In New York, NBC Universal announced last month that it was eliminating 700 jobs and cutting back on scripted entertainment in prime time, after four successive quarters of declining profits.

It’s easy to dismiss online videos, with their shaky camera work and sometimes amateurish performances. Despite their rough edges, though, Internet videos, produced on a shoestring and distributed outside the traditional studio and network systems, are remaking the culture and business of the entertainment industry. Two of the digital medium’s most important new dynamics are “access for all” and “remarkability.”

The foundation of the entertainment industry has long been that you had to pay your dues. That can take the form of working in the William Morris mailroom to learn the business or apprenticing with an accomplished cinematographer in the hope of getting a union card. But even after dues are paid, landing an audition with a director or scheduling a pitch meeting with a network exec requires a combination of talent, luck and connections.


The Internet entertainment economy is upending this hierarchical culture by granting access to all wannabe creators. Inexpensive cameras, editing software and a personal computer are all that’s necessary to make an online video. Creative choices are made by creators, not by executives relying on audience polls.

In the past, independent filmmakers had trouble lining up a significant number of theaters to show their movies, and independent producers of TV programming had to find a channel willing to air their vision. Today, global distribution occurs with the click of a mouse. And the amount of time viewers spend watching videos on the Internet has been growing at a rate that any TV executive would envy. According to comScore Networks Inc., which measures online activity, Americans spent just under 100 minutes a month viewing videos on the Internet as of March.

Increasingly, there are ways for online producers to make money too. Such websites as GreenCine and Brightcove allow video makers to set a price viewers must pay to download their shows. Revver places ads at the end of videos submitted to it and shares the revenue with their creators, which is how “The Extreme Diet Coke and Mentos Experiments” made $30,000.

In the future, Internet video makers with a track record of producing popular content might turn to the Internet for financing, much as politicians use the Internet to fuel their campaigns. Documentarian Robert Greenwald, for instance, recently raised $220,000 from fans of his previous movies to pay for “Iraq for Sale,” which debuted in September. The end result is that aspiring directors, editors, cinematographers, writers and actors won’t necessarily need to figure out how to get invited onto a studio lot or into a network TV conference room to produce good work, get it seen and be compensated.

Videos, once launched onto the Web, are passed from one user to another on the basis of their remarkability -- they’re remarkably funny, remarkably stupid or just remarkably weird.

Online creators know they must grab users’ attention instantly. “You’ve got about five seconds to hook somebody into your story, and if not, they’re gone,” said Gregg Spiridellis, who with his brother, Evan, created the animated political satires “This Land” and “Good to be in D.C.,” which combined have been viewed more than 80 million times. Spiridellis also sees an advantage in producing two-minute comedy clips for the Web rather than forcing a traditional 22-minute TV show to fit the digital medium.

No one had ever thought of crossing “Schoolhouse Rock” with the Capitol Steps before the Spiridellis brothers. And no one had ever tried to replace Dear Abby with a devious, black-clad ninja before Both are remarkable.

How should movie and TV executives respond to this emerging Internet entertainment economy? One option is to ignore it. Another is to fight it. That’s what Hollywood studios, in particular, did when television sets arrived in living rooms and VCRs later joined them. But there are three more productive strategies.

One would be to regard the Internet as a kind of “farm team” of talent, giving the most promising creative types the resources and marketing power of a studio or television network. This apparently was Viacom’s strategy when, in August, it bought the website Atom Entertainment, a sort of Schwab’s drugstore of little-known filmmakers and animators. And last month, United Talent Agency in Beverly Hills started a small division to hunt for up-and-coming performers, writers and directors online.

A second strategy would be to give Internet creators access to video content produced by the studios and networks and allow them to “remix” it to create homemade music videos promoting a favorite TV show, or snipping a few seconds of a new movie’s car chase to include on a website devoted to the best car chases of all time. Instead of treating Internet users as copyright violators, this kind of arrangement would turn them into co-promoters of entertainment product. This was the strategy of director Richard Linklater and Warner Independent when they allowed online amateur editors to cut their own trailers for “A Scanner Darkly,” Linklater’s July release, and post them online. The winning submission won a trip to the movie’s premiere, and Warner ended up with dozens of promotional trailers instead of just one.

The third strategy would be for studios and networks to learn (or relearn) from Internet creators how to produce fast, cheap and au courant content. They might try shooting a feature film in a week, like the studios once did. Instead of spending $200 million to make an “Aquaman,” a studio could turn out 10 inexpensive Web shorts first to see if young audiences responded to the character. A network might produce quirky and original content that doesn’t fit the mold of an hourlong TV episode, such as the edgy, five-minute videos on Warner Bros. Television Group evidently was pursing this tack in September when it announced the creation of Studio 2.0, a business unit that will create short-form live-action and animated content especially for PCs and wireless devices.

The mainstream entertainment industry has long proudly rebuffed the creative onslaughts of outsiders, and many of its executives still regard themselves as the nation’s premier hit makers. But as the tools to make, distribute and market videos become accessible to anyone with ambition and an idea, the industry will have to adjust its culture and business models to survive. Media companies, as well as the entertainment industry’s guilds and unions, ought to be eagerly exploring ways to work in tandem with the egalitarian, fast-moving and increasingly revenue-generating entertainment economy taking shape on the Internet.