Eisner wants 90 seconds from you

Times Staff Writer

"PROM QUEEN," a flashy teen-aimed soap opera, wouldn't be out of place on the CW or MTV. Tribes of teens trade quips and barbs at their lockers. Snatches of rock or hip-hop underscore most of the drama, and there's a blink-of-an-eye edit about every three seconds.

But "Prom Queen" is an Internet show that according to Media Week has gotten nearly 3.7 million views on MySpace, the show's leading distributor. With 80 episodes, each clocking in at a lean 90 seconds, and a new episode airing every day until the show's finale June 14, "Prom Queen" shrinks and shellacs high-concept drama for the text-messaging-while-driving-and-eating-a-burger attention span. Episodes can also be downloaded to a video player or watched at Veoh, sponsor ElleGirl and old reliable YouTube.

What separates "Prom Queen" from scores of similar click-hungry projects is, of course, its financing, which comes courtesy of Michael Eisner's Internet production company, Vuguru.

Eisner was burned by Web-based entertainment during his tenure as chief executive at Disney -- the company's disastrous Go Network was shut down in 2001 after losing millions -- but those were different days. Speaking on a cellphone from a Manhattan sidewalk between meetings, the 65-year-old executive, who started his investment firm Tornante Co. in 2005, said that for the first year or so, the rewards would "be more in education than economic." The money, he hopes, will come later.

Eisner waved away any distinctions between Old Hollywood and New Media. "Old Hollywood at one point meant motion pictures, and then Old Hollywood had Jack Warner and Leonard Goldstein to make the first deal for Old Hollywood to make broadcast television. Old Hollywood and New Hollywood became one.

"It's simply new ways of doing things.... Old media, new media, it's just labels put on older people and young people. I don't think it really means there's a fine division."

Big Fantastic, the Santa Monica-based Internet video collective behind "Prom Queen," first caught Eisner's attention with their self-funded video podcast "Sam Has 7 Friends," the flagship vehicle for their 80-episode, 90-second format. The Valley-based murder mystery about a struggling actress finished with a strategically open-ended resolution in December.

"Like a lot of things in my life, I was attracted to the content," Eisner said. Internet entertainment, he finds, "is not that different than the beginnings of the Movie of the Week that Barry Diller and I were toying with in the '60s.... We were dealing with a new form in an old platform. Here's a new form in a new platform."

As technological hurdles are cleared, Eisner thinks the Internet will become a primary platform.

"Actors realize they can get discovered here," he said. "Is it better to do off-Broadway theater in New York or an Internet show based in L.A. that gets 8, 12 million views and opens the eyes of agents and TV producers?"

Although the financing for "Prom Queen" is fancy, you wouldn't know it from visiting the set at Valencia's College of the Canyons. On a Saturday in April, the shoot buzzed with the scrappy, hustler energy of a low-budget student movie. Production designer Helen Harwell's appropriately cheesed-out prom set with silver drapes, balloons and a disco ball was cobbled together from loans from vendors Harwell knows in the industry, she said. The nonunion actors, palpably giddy about being on a set -- any set -- joked around in tuxes and strappy dresses.

Big Fantastic's four director-writer-editor hybrids, Chris Hampel, Chris McCaleb, Ryan Wise and Douglas Cheney, all in their late 20s and early 30s, were multitasking to the extreme. Wise and his assistant director lighted the next scene, the crowning of the prom queen. Hampel and McCaleb, former assistant editors for "Miami Vice" director Michael Mann, were outside shooting video for one of the character's MySpace blogs. Cheney, tucked away in a classroom piled with clothes and makeup, was editing an episode on his Mac using Final Cut Pro.

Working with a 10-person skeleton crew, "Prom Queen" is all about running fast. The shoot knocked out four episodes in 12 hours. Filming from a 1 1/2 -page script per episode (whittled from a whopping three to four pages), they often take an episode from script to screen in five to six days, Hampel said. Each of the Big Fantastic members, who met at Washington State University, write and direct 20 episodes and maintain several MySpace pages for the characters.

"We want messages left from character to character on MySpace. We want to hit that viral energy," Hampel said. "It's about what we like to see on the Internet.... YouTube is filled with images like skateboards to the face, girls jumping on their beds. We want things to pop to the camera."

"Prom Queen" is loaded with of-the-minute high school behavior gleaned from Hampel's recordings of his teen brothers and their friends. Plots are heavy on texting, instant-messaging, updating MySpace pages, and recording video diaries with a hand-held recorder.

As an artistic experience, "Prom Queen" doesn't break many rules. The dialogue runs from smartly glib to perfunctory. The displayed rebellion is safe enough for Hot Topic. But to the show's credit, "Prom Queen" doesn't run from teen sex, though it's mostly rendered in soapy, steamy overtones.

Sticking with the basics

BUT for all the tech savvy, mall-princess mentality and backseat relations, "Prom Queen" is still concerned with story continuity and character development. And perhaps surprisingly, it decently hangs together as a feature, bound by its dedication to the cliffhanger-a-minute style.

"You have to get people to watch more than one episode, so it's important that it works as a whole," Eisner said. "You start to understand the characters with the accumulation."

Hampel won't divulge how much Eisner invested in "Prom Queen," but he'll play ballpark: " 'Sam' was done for a little less than $50,000. We got more than that, but not much more."

"These guys are the most fiscally responsible people I've ever worked with," Eisner said. "We're going to make at least one or two more shows with them."

Eisner's support of Big Fantastic officially qualifies as a big break, but so far, Hampel said, "no one's upgraded their lives. We're just paying our rent."

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