They're spinning their own Web Video on the cheap

Times Staff Writer

The SCREEN ACTORS GUILD and television and film producers see eye to eye about hardly anything these days, yet on one thing they can agree: The Web is the battleground.

Talks between SAG and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers have ground to a halt, and a possible work stoppage looms. But as the parties caucus with their lawyers and negotiators over next steps, production on the very thing that divides them -- entertainment created for new media platforms -- continues at a fever clip across town.

The filmmakers may be twentysomething nobodies toiling in their backyards with store-bought cameras and a single floodlight. They might be experienced professionals with several dozen skilled crew members. Some are financed by media giants such as Microsoft and Disney. A few are funded by no-interest loans from Mom and Dad.

What these content creators hold in common is a belief that these made-for-Internet series -- a few minutes of often distinctive, frequently risque, storytelling -- represent Hollywood's future, even if many of these mini movies may never be seen on anything larger than a mobile phone.

For the actors, the pay is often peanuts -- just a couple of hundred dollars, if anything at all, for a day's labor. Yet the potential creative rewards and professional exposure can, in many performers' minds, make up for the financial sacrifice, particularly because several Web shorts have been developed into television series. Writer-director Marshall Herskovitz's "Quarterlife," for example, moved from the Internet to NBC (where it quickly flopped).

"I don't know what's going to happen with this thing -- I really don't," said Rand Holdren, who stars in "Get Ripped," an upcoming Internet series by 60Frames about a creepily intense personal trainer. "You need other work to make ends meet . . . but my agent said, 'It's a Sunday. What else are you going to do?' "

The financiers say they have to keep costs low because it's unclear how many of these shows will turn a profit, or whether they will be seen by more than a few insomniac Web surfers. But some of the more inspired videos and series -- actor Will Ferrell's “The Landlord” or ad writers Troy Hitch and Matt Bledsoe's “You Suck at Photoshop” -- can attract 5 million views or more, an audience comparable to one for a modest network TV hit.

The United Talent Agency started UTA Online almost two years ago not only to sign Internet artists but also to help develop a sustainable business. "Our goal," said UTA Online’s Jason Nadler, "is to make sure there's a marketplace on the Web for these people to make money, not to build farm teams for another medium."

Although SAG says more than 600 Web episodes have been produced under the guild's new Internet/Online agreement -- “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” with Neil Patrick Harris among them -- a large number of series are made without union contracts. Indeed, as the fractious SAG talks and the 100-day screenwriters' strike make obvious, no one can agree on what this new medium is worth and how it should be covered.

Because you can now watch almost any Web short free, very few people seem to be making material profits on these stories -- yet. Twenty-two-year-old Web auteur David Lehre has been able to make ends meet in part by winning more than $100,000 in various Web movie contests.

In many ways, it is the Wild West all over again. "It's like we are in California 100 years ago, with a movie camera and a tent setting up on the side of a river," said Christopher Kubasik, who is writing and producing potential Internet series for ABC/Disney's Stage 9 Digital Media and Michael Eisner's Internet company, Tornante, "saying, 'OK, what are we going to shoot today?' "

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Bare-bones operation

Some movie sets spare no expense. James Gunn's "Humanzee!" production spared almost every single one. The writer-director of the horror film "Slither" and a screenwriter on the two "Scooby-Doo" movies, Gunn on a recent late night was making his darkly comic short in his Studio City house. There were no lighting trucks, catering crews or camera cranes -- just a handful of friends and collaborators working really fast, under the radar.

"It's the kind of shoot where you need a permit," Gunn said. "But we don't have one."

In just three days of production (a lifetime in the made-for-Internet world), Gunn was writing, directing and costarring in one of the first of a series of comic Web movies produced by Microsoft for its Xbox video-game console.

When Gunn finished working in his own house, he moved the shoot to the home of his brother Sean, who was costarring in the film as the titular half human-half primate. The total cost for the seven-minute story about the crossbreed with terrible manners: around $10,000, about what a Hollywood mogul spends for a one-night stay at the Cannes Film Festival.

"One of the great selling points of working for next to nothing is that you can really have an opportunity to bring your vision to the screen, without any interference," said Peter Safran, a former talent manager who launched the Safran Digital Group to finance, produce and distribute Web-oriented entertainment.

When Safran assembled his slate of eight Xbox mini movies (which will premiere on the game's live platform this year), he was able to attract a murderers' row of genre filmmakers eager to work in the new medium, including James Wan and Leigh Whannell ("Saw"), David Slade ("30 Days of Night") and Andrew Douglas ("The Amityville Horror").

"You are all able to go to the limit, to be more extreme in anything you can do than in television or film. What I am really interested in is new media. What's fun for me is to create stories and do things that have never been done before," Gunn said. “Humanzee” is based on a blog entry Gunn wrote months ago. "It's my personal fantasy to have a humanzee son." But like many, Gunn, a member of SAG, appeared in "Humanzee" without using SAG's Internet contract, even though the guild says its members are prohibited from doing so and can be disciplined (and possibly kicked out of the union) for performing such work.

"I didn't realize that," Gunn said. "But I'm totally willing to go into whatever situation they come up with for the Internet."

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'Ooh, la la'

The YOUNG women in skimpy French maid outfits jumping on the hotel bed easily could have been mistaken for the star attraction of a bachelor party. Actually, the five models and actresses frolicking inside the Beverly Wilshire Hotel were acting under the direction of Tim Street, a former television promotions executive. "Top, bottom, top, bottom," Street said, coaching his performers on how best to duel with toy light sabers. "Now, can you do that while you slowly rotate around the bed?"

Street's French Maid TV creates short videos -- mostly free of dialogue besides "Ooh, la la" -- that promote new technology products and websites. His recent two-day production was designed to drum up interest in mDialog, a high-resolution video service.

For about $10,000, Street can write, produce, cast, direct and edit his racy (but nonexplicit) two-minute shorts. Everything is done on a budget: The light sabers were bought at Target, and Street used a pillow to prop up one of his cameras next to the bed.

"If you're looking for traction on the Internet, you need to start with spectacle, and then go for a story," Street said as his performers, who were receiving $200 a day for their work, hopped off the bed for a lunch of Subway sandwiches.

One of Street's regulars is Laura Niles, who has appeared in about half a dozen French Maid shorts. With a number of recent small roles in tiny films such as "Dire Wolf," Niles is trying to branch out from television commercials and modeling; she recently landed a guest spot on Showtime's "Californication."

"I am trying to work on other parts of my career that pay more money," she said. "But I definitely got a lot of exposure from French Maid TV. One of the episodes got about 5 million views."

Niles has been appearing in other Internet shorts, including "Victoria's Turn,"Laura Niles which, unlike French Maid TV, was made under the SAG contract.

If French Maid TV is viral video's mid-budget production, 60Frames’ "Get Ripped" is perhaps its "Cleopatra." At the short's Culver City gym location, there were even director's chairs for the writer, director, producer and script supervisor. With a crew of 28, the "Get Ripped" production looks as much like a TV sitcom as an upstart Internet series.

In one 12-hour day, director Fred Schroeder would shoot four three-minute episodes from a script adapted from "How I Met Your Mother" TV writer Gloria Kellett's play. With Kellett, Holdren (who is in the upcoming sequel "Into the Blue 2") and Schroeder, "Get Ripped" features more established professionals than most Web series; the three said they were attracted to making the show because it's unlike anything they would ever get to do on television.

"Since they are working for a fraction of what they would normally get, why put them through the wringer?" said Dave Koga, the creative director for 60Frames, which has made more than 100 episodes in 24 series.

There's no sponsorship deal in place yet for "Get Ripped," which debuts Wednesday, but 60Frames hopes a fitness product would eventually sponsor the series to cover its production costs, which total about $20,000 per episode. "We're not paying film or television money," said Brent Weinstein, a former talent agent who founded 60Frames last year. "But it's money that only unreasonable people would scoff at."

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A Web channel

It's HARD to imagine that a series about a bitter man narrating his mouse clicks could become a hit, but that's precisely what Rob Barnett's production of "You Suck at Photoshop" is.

Barnett, a former senior executive at CBS Radio, MTV and VH1, launched My Damn Channel a year ago. The website showcases several comic series and follows an economic model that rewards creators for bringing Barnett ideas: He won't give script suggestions, he'll pay for the show and its marketing and distribution, and after recouping his average production costs of about $7,000 an episode, everyone splits the revenue.

"The deal is, basically: I'm not going to tell you what to do and I'll fund your work," he said, adding he was confident his Web channel would turn a profit by 2009.

Barnett's creator-is-king model has landed him not only "Photoshop" but also the dating comedy series “Wainy Days,” both of which recently won top Webby Awards.

David Wain, the creator and star of "Wainy Days," was recently alternating between cutting his Universal Pictures feature “Role Models” and making the latest episode of "Wainy Days," whose guest stars have included Elizabeth Banks, Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd.

Wain said attracting top-notch actors has been surprisingly easy. "It's a minimal time commitment," he said, "and you get to do things that you don't usually get to do."

Hayden Black has neither the stunning models of French Maid TV nor the financial backing of "Wainy Days." Most days, the former television marketing producer simply props a camera on the bedside table in his Burbank home, throws on a T-shirt and a hat and performs a quick monologue as Abigail, a somewhat lonely 13-year-old girl who, thanks to a fictional medical condition, looks a lot like a middle-aged man. It can take less than an hour for Black to write, perform and post new episodes of his “Abigail’s X-Rated Teen Diary,” but the episodes are a minor Web sensation.

What they are not yet is profitable, and Black, like some of his peers, worries that union contracts, which among other things require payments into guild pension and health funds, might put the brakes on many Internet productions -- including his more ambitious and popular series about a television news broadcast, “Goodnight Burbank.”

When the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists closed its deal with producers in early July, AFTRA -- following the lead of the directors and screenwriters unions -- agreed that some Web productions would be exempt from union jurisdiction. Those exempt shows included shows costing less than $15,000 a minute and those that didn't employ a single professional actor. But SAG (which has bitterly fought AFTRA) believes that if even a few series are exemptbelieves, "that actually encourages the construction of a nonunion labor force," said Mark Friedlander, SAG's director for new media.

"We are trying to get the whole industry and all of our members to realize that this is important," Friedlander said. "And we don't think there's anything in our contract that will cause any of these productions not to be made."

But while the movie business waits to see how the SAG drama is resolved and postpones almost all movie starts, Web creators aren't killing time. For them, and their mini-movies, the future is now.

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john.horn@latimes.com

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