Amanda Congdon’s fame, at least among Web-heads and media nerds, bloomed online last year with her snappy, three-minute daily news segments on Rocketboom.com, the New York-based indie video blog that dallies with the day’s headlines. But Hollywood beckoned.
So after a very public falling-out with the site’s creator last summer, she packed up and headed to L.A. She landed in Santa Monica just last month and now -- faster than you can say Rocketboom -- she has a development deal at HBO, a video blog with ABC News, a team of high-juice agents at Endeavor and a solid shot at making that treacherous crossing from Web-born personality to Hollywood.
Congdon, repped since May by Endeavor’s Ari Emanuel, is known for her impish delivery, signature hair-flip, script toss and, yes, her snug-fitting T-shirts. On Rocketboom, she talked former vice presidential nominee John Edwards into reminiscing about his facial hair, quizzed passersby with “Why is President Bush so awesome?” and donned a baseball cap, uni-brow and goatee to portray beleaguered Sprint PCS customer “Travis.” It’s this ironic whimsy, delivered with a mix of sarcasm, slick editing and DIY spirit, that caught fire online, catapulting Rocketboom’s viewership from about 700 in 2004 to more than 300,000 last summer. Every week, Congdon, now 25, seemed to get a little blonder, a little more polished, until suddenly she was appearing as herself on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” and entertaining CNN host Howard Kurtz with quirky camera changes.
But Rocketboom creator Andrew Baron was not quite so sanguine about the way she leveraged her Internet fame into TV. When asked why he hired Congdon over 400 other candidates in 2004, he demurred.
“I’m really pretty angry about the way Amanda left,” he said by phone from New York. “My jaw’s a bit dropped still. I can’t believe everything she did, so until everything gets resolved and cleaned up
Now that Congdon’s here in L.A., she’s dead-focused on making the most of all this attention.
On a recent weekday afternoon in her new digs, Congdon answered the door in a loose ponytail, black leggings, a T-shirt and wedges, looking far more Silver Lake hipster than Upper West Side native making a Hollywood play. She does, however, have an actor’s demeanor and diction, and she answers questions in paragraph form like a movie junket pro.
“I’m allergic to my apartment,” she said, with her familiar dry humor. This time, though, she was serious. The carpet in the bedroom, she said, is making her sick. That’s why, she said with a grand sweep of the arm, the bed is in the living room. And why she and her boyfriend, Mario Librandi, a former Rocketboom producer and director, will soon be relocating again -- this time across town. They love L.A., though it’s been tricky settling here, she said. The friendly smiles from strangers and innocuous small talk are still a bit off-putting. And though the beach is lovely, they’ve decided to move to Los Feliz, where, as Librandi noted, there’s more “Brooklyn love.”
Meanwhile, Congdon is planning segments for her ABCNews.com video blog, a project supervised by Michael Clemente, former senior producer and writer for “World News Tonight With Peter Jennings.” The show will debut before year’s end and focus initially on media and the Internet with plans to cover the environment, the presidential race and the South by Southwest Interactive conference in March. She’ll also contribute reports to the network’s 24-hour digital channel, ABC News Now. And there’s a chance, with the right story, that Congdon could end up on the TV network.
“We’re not going to do anything to change the way she sees what’s out there,” said Clemente. “We just want to harness her energy.”
In a week or so, Congdon will be at HBO meeting with President of Entertainment Carolyn Strauss to plan her comedy show there. (An HBO spokesperson declined to comment on the project.) Congdon expects to have an online companion show where she hopes to feature sketch comedy a la the 1980s comedy show “In Living Color.” “I’d love to have dancers or something,” she said, chuckling.
As for the show, “It’s unchartered. It’s not been done. So why not try it? The thing that’s so great about the Web is that it’s offering all these new ways to be creative that were never available before.”
Congdon is mindful about the potential backlash that might follow her as she goes from “new media to old media.” In fact, some veteran bloggers dismiss Congdon as a poseur -- just an actress using Web cred to launch her career. But she’s earnest about maintaining her Internet presence. She said she has carefully chosen projects that would enable that.
“I wanted to make sure I could still blog and video blog online independently,” she said. “I think that because I was so careful ... that’s helped people to know that I’m not just selling out or disappearing into the corporate abyss.”
Congdon is the older of two children raised by Broadway actors. She went to a competitive elementary school and a high school so tough, she said, that college was a breeze. In 2003, she graduated magna cum laude from Northwestern University.
She landed a role as the coat check girl in NBC’s not-so-reality show “The Restaurant,” worked as a commercial actress, a model and trained in improv comedy.
In late 2004, she answered a Craigslist ad posted by Rocketboom’s Baron seeking an anchor for a daily news show.
Congdon wrote sketches and tweaked Baron’s scripts with her own jokes. She started out earning $50 per day, and by last March, after major advertisers came onboard, she was making $4,000 per month. Eventually, Earthlink and Verizon were spending tens of thousands of dollars a week for ads on the site.
“I think a lot of [the video blog’s success] had to do with the spirit the show had,” she said. “That it was quirky. It was honest. Anything I do online I want it to have that feeling.”
Congdon and Baron had planned to move Rocketboom to L.A and spoke to Emanuel about expanding its profile. But then Congdon started getting media attention and grew impatient to move. Baron wasn’t ready. “There were a lot of details to be worked out,” he said, adding that Emanuel’s plan for Rocketboom “was too aggressive.” Congdon contends control of the show, not logistics, was at issue.
Emanuel signed Congdon in May. She officially left the show July 5. Within days, Baron replaced Congdon with Brit Joanne Colan. The feud spiked Rocketboom’s viewership to over 1 million last summer, but it dropped rapidly, and this month the audience is about 150,000, according to Alexa.com, which monitors Web traffic.
“I built that show with Andrew from the ground up,” Congdon said. “It was my whole life. And I wanted to do other things, of course. I’m just that type that’s constantly reaching. But gosh! That was my main gig.... I don’t think he saw that me having greater visibility would be positive for the company.”
Ultimately, the dispute reflects the clash of cultures that haunts the Web-to-TV transition. Indie Web culture operates on an anti-corporate, almost punk sensibility. But corporate entertainment is all about the bottom line. Now, it seems, it’s up to Congdon and the Endeavor agents packaging her to cut a new portal into the mainstream.