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CollegeHumor expanding from Web to film

Hoping to follow in the footsteps of National Lampoon, the digital-comedy company CollegeHumor Media is taking a stab at the film business.

The firm has signed on to make a movie about thirtysomething underachievers called “Coffee Town,” buying a script from former “Arrested Development” writer-producer Brad Copeland and hiring him to direct it. The low-budget movie, which will star a group of up-and-coming actors, is being financed by CollegeHumor and aims to begin shooting in February in Los Angeles.

Although known primarily for its slapstick Web videos across a network of sites, CollegeHumor has been branching out to other platforms. The company, which is owned by the Barry Diller-led IAC, had a short-lived MTV show and also has spun off several books.

The goal with “Coffee Town,” CollegeHumor co-founder Ricky Van Veen said, is to take advantage of the firm’s in-house talent as well as capitalize on its brand.

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“We think we can leverage what we’ve done into longer things, including features and TV shows,” Van Veen said. “There’s a market for high-quality long-form content that can go directly to consumers, and we’re well-positioned to do that.”

He cited a paid Web special from Louis C.K. that has gained attention in the digital world. The comedian made his one-man show from New York’s Beacon Theater available for download at a cost of $5; in the first several weeks, he received nearly 200,000 downloads.

Van Veen said there have been no decisions on whether to distribute “Coffee Town” online. The movie does not yet have traditional theatrical distribution. It is expected to seek that, and other models are being considered as well.

The film will star Glenn Howerton (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), Steve Little ( “Eastbound & Down”) and Ben Schwartz (“House of Lies”) as friends who hang out at a cafe, with singer Josh Groban playing a barista. “It’s a little like ‘Cheers,’” Copeland said. “They go about their day, but they always end up in the same place.”

For about a decade, beginning in the mid-1970s, Diller served as chairman and chief executive of Paramount, where on his watch the company released blockbuster films such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” He later ran Fox, overseeing both the film and television studios until 1992. But he has often said since then that he doesn’t like the risks or general business model of the movie business.

Van Veen, however, said this may be changing. “Barry is led by curiosity,” he said. “When there weren’t a lot of new relevant things in the film business, he wasn’t as interested in pursuing them. But that’s changed with so many new distribution models.”

Through a network of sites that includes CollegeHumor.com, Jest.com and SportsPickle.com, CollegeHumor often scores more than 15 million monthly views, according to ratings service Nielsen Online. But it has had to fight for mind-share in Hollywood with competitor Funny or Die. That company has spawned a TBS reality series and “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie,” a comedy set to premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The model for both companies’ efforts is National Lampoon, the magazine brand that spun off film franchises such as “Vacation” in the 1980s. The task is made more difficult in the modern era, as thousands of niche sites fragment the audience. But Van Veen said he believed that this was a hurdle CollegeHumor could overcome.

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“It’s all about quality,” he said. “Justin Bieber started on YouTube and then went to big labels. If what you have is good, people will love you no matter where you are.”

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com


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