In offices that once housed Google, four computer geeks pursue their quest for a killer mobile app.
Their technology incubator, with its angular, modern furniture and shared kitchen and conference rooms, would be recognizable to any Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
But this start-up space was found in Silicon Beach. The Santa Monica offices provided the backdrop for “Betas,” one of 14 series pilots put into production by Amazon Studios, the production arm of Amazon.com.
The show, which will also film at a house in Encino and other locations around L.A., is the latest in a wave of digital productions that have taken off in recent years, as YouTube, Yahoo, AOL, Hulu and others have invested millions of dollars in developing original programming for the Web. Most of the new digital shows are produced locally.
Location filming for Web-based productions generated 1,633 production days in Los Angeles last year, up 46% over 2011. Web-based media now accounts for about 10% of all television production activity, according to FilmL.A. Inc., the nonprofit group that handles permits for the city and the county.
These digital productions have evolved from short episodes to full-length television productions like “Betas,” which have crew sizes and budgets that are in some cases comparable to conventional television shows’.
“These are first-class TV productions,” Amazon Studios Director Roy Price said. “The whole concept of a Web series is going to fade away.”
Since launching its studios in 2010, Amazon has been amassing a library of content to help it compete with Netflix, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to add movies such as “The Hunger Games” and “Iron Man 2" to its online streaming service, and to secure exclusive Web rights to such popular shows as PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” FX’s “Justified” and CBS’ forthcoming “Under the Dome.”
Amazon’s television-length original pilots, such as “Betas,” will be available for free through Amazon Instant Video in the U.S. and its Lovefilm subscription service in Britain and Germany. The retailer will invite customers to watch the pilots and offer feedback, which will help determine which ones to make into full-season productions that will appear later on its Prime Instant Video subscription service.
It’s a risky play for the Seattle-based online retailer, known more for selling books and DVDs than bankrolling Hollywood-style productions. Amazon is playing catch-up to the dominant online video subscription service, Netflix, which recently debuted “House of Cards,” the political drama starring Kevin Spacey. It also plans a Gothic horror series, “Hemlock Grove,” which premieres April 19, followed in May by new episodes of rebooted Fox series “Arrested Development” and a new dramatic comedy, “Orange Is the New Black,” from “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan.
Price said the technology giant was able to attract well-known actors, directors and producers by committing television-size budgets to the pilots — not the more constrained budgets typical of Web series.
Michael Lehmann, a director whose credits include the cult classic film “Heathers,” HBO’s “True Blood,” Showtime’s “Dexter” and FX’s “American Horror Story,” is producing and directing “Betas,” which wraps production this week in Los Angeles, with a cast led by Ed Begley Jr.
Another pilot, “Alpha House,” which follows four senators living in a rented house in Washington, D.C., is written by Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Trudeau, creator of the “Doonesbury” comic strip, and features actor John Goodman. Actress Bebe Neuwirth stars in “Browsers,” a musical comedy about four young people as they start their first jobs at a news website, from “The Daily Show’s” Emmy-winning comedy writer David Javerbaum.
“You can tell if your material is not getting attention, not getting a reaction from the type of people you’d like to react,” Price said. “So it’s reassuring to have people like John Goodman [and] Bebe Neuwirth.”
Among the animation pilots under development is “Creative Galaxy,” a children’s series designed to foster creative thinking through crafts, story, music and dance, developed by Angela Santomero, creator of the Emmy-nominated series “Blue’s Clues.”
The most recently announced pilot, “Zombieland,” is based on the Columbia Pictures movie of the same name. Written by the feature film’s Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, it follows four survivors who outwit the zombies and try to find a place to call home.
Price said Amazon shot “Betas” and “Browsers” in Los Angeles, in part, to accommodate the Hollywood talent.
“Most interior locations look the same no matter where you are,” Price said. “There are certain advantages to shooting in L.A. because there are a lot of directors there, and actors. You don’t have to fly everybody in, put everybody up.”
Amazon is in search of a signature original series that will define the service, in the same way that the critically acclaimed drama “Mad Men” helped give a new identity to the AMC cable network. The company has mined its data to determine what type of entertainment will most likely resonate with its subscribers.
“You can observe what people take to and have historically enjoyed on Amazon, what is out there in the marketplace and see if it feels like there is an opportunity that is a little bit underserved,” Price said. “In the fullness of time, we’ll expand into multiple genres. But it did seem that comedy and children’s programming were a good place to start.”
Where the cameras roll: Sample of neighborhoods with permitted TV, film and commercial shoots scheduled this week. Permits are subject to last-minute changes. Sources: FilmL.A. Inc., cities of Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Rancho Palos Verdes and Santa Clarita. Thomas Suh Lauder / Los Angeles Times