CollegeHumor jumps into film on its own terms with ‘Coffee Town’
NEW YORK — In its 14-year history, the website CollegeHumor has accrued 4.7 million subscribers, won 11 Webby awards and drawn more than 2 billion page views in becoming a leader of the digital comedy world.
But it has never attempted one of the entertainment industry’s most basic feats: producing and distributing a feature film.
That will change on Tuesday with the release of “Coffee Town,” an independent comedy with an assortment of popular young actors including Glenn Howerton (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) and Adrianne Palicki (“Friday Night Lights”) and a digital-centric rollout that will test the assumptions of the established film business.
For the low-budget (under-$1 million) film, CollegeHumor is eschewing a traditional theatrical release, instead marketing the film across its own site and social-media venues such as Tumblr — then making it available, for a fee, on iTunes, Amazon, PlayStation, cable video on-demand and other platforms. The hope is that CollegeHumor’s online smarts and profile can turn the movie into a hit without a theatrical release.
“We think that there are some movies that need to buy a lot of TV ads and be in 3,000 theaters to be successful,” said Ricky Van Veen, co-founder of CollegeHumor and a chief proponent of its feature-film experiment. “But something like ‘Coffee Town’ we believe can find an audience without those bells and whistles.”
Studios routinely spend tens of millions of dollars making a movie, and then nearly as much marketing it. Much of that total is allocated to reaching young consumers. But what if a company with a built-in audience can reach those viewers where they already are, and at a fraction of the cost? Would that simply be a paler imitation of what studios typically do? Or would it prove that shrewd targeting, at least for the right kind of movie, can level the playing field?
Van Veen, 32, is sitting in his Manhattan office overlooking the Hudson River. Novelty items and a sheet proclaiming the CollegeHumor “mission statement” dot the room, which is housed in the building of CollegeHumor’s parent company, Barry Diller’s IAC. Diller, the former Paramount and Fox chief, has been known for skepticism about the traditional movie business. But Van Veen helped convince him this was a risk worth taking, saying that a film created for a digital audience could be as nimble and popular as IAC properties such as online-dating application Tinder, reaching places where the young and Web-savvy interact.
“Coffee Town,” the company hopes, is ideal for finding that audience.
Written and directed by “Wild Hogs” and “Arrested Development” screenwriter Brad Copeland and shot in Santa Clarita, “Coffee Town” examines the life of a young Web manager (Howerton) who telecommutes from his local coffee shop. That’s also where he crushes on an attractive customer (Palicki), is visited by his off-kilter friends (Ben Schwartz and Steve Little) and has a running battle with a smarmy barista (Josh Groban).
The story is kicked into gear when Howerton’s character and his buddies catch wind of a plan to turn the coffee shop into an upscale bistro, prompting them to stage a fake crime to prevent the changeover.
“I guess the movie everyone was thinking of is ‘Office Space,’” said Howerton, who as one of the creators and stars of “Sunny” knows both the value and challenges of hand-made entertainment. “It’s about people who are good friends doing some not-so-good — but hopefully very funny — things.”
With its bawdy and free-associative banter among disparate male pals, “Coffee Town” won’t seem like an entirely new idea to fans of R-rated comedies such as “The Hangover” or “This Is the End.”
But filmmakers hope the quicksilver observations, coupled with the relatable subjects of white-collar grunt work and coffee-shop slacking, will help distinguish it. The movie also features several actors going against type: the frequently office-bound Schwartz (“House of Lies,” “Parks and Recreation”) as the world’s worst cop, and the likable Groban as an oily retail-store worker.
“I kind of love playing the jerk in film,” laughed Groban, who two summers ago similarly contradicted his public persona as an unctuous lawyer in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” “It allows you to exorcise your demons.”
Schwartz, 31, added that he thought the movie tapped into the universal experience of young professionals.
“I think there’s a feeling when you’re in your 30s that you’ve done a few things in your life but you haven’t yet become who you’re going to be. The movie tries to capture that,” he said.
Copeland said in an interview that he wrote the script because he had done a fair bit of writing from his local coffee shop in Sherman Oaks and observed the subculture of coffee-drinking and telecommuting up close, noting the funny and at times uneasy bonds customers had both with each other and employees.
He and Van Veen hope that the subject helps creates a viral effect of sorts. “It’s the kind of movie I hope people will hear about from their friends and want to discover it for themselves,” he said.
CollegeHumor has proved it can attract viewers with young-male comedy programming such as “Jake and Amir,” a long-running Web-short series about odd-couple friends.
But turning a 90-minute feature into a hit is exponentially more difficult. Audiences have yet to prove they’ll watch previously unknown entities, on comedy sites or anywhere else, in anything more than bite-size chunks.
Drawing media to films that don’t receive traditional theatrical openings can also be a challenge. (CollegeHumor will stage a series of theatrical special engagements in the coming weeks.) And though online upstarts frequently like to say they can be more efficient than the studios in their marketing, the splashy rotation of TV and outdoor ads is often critical even in spurring iTunes rentals or Amazon streams.
Van Veen says that sophisticated targeting measures, such as aiming ads at users who have clicked on similar comedy on CollegeHumor or who have Facebook likes for other work of the “Coffee Town” performers, can make up the difference, helping CollegeHumor reach as many people as the studios’ all-media broadsides.
He and Copeland also think they have a potent weapon in the film’s comedic set pieces and potentially quotable moments.
“It would be great if this became the kind of movie people watch on Comedy Central 10 years from now,” Copeland said. Then, realizing his statement contained a less-than-digital idea, added, “I guess a little traditional media isn’t bad.”
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