| | Hollywood Clicks on the Work of Web Auteurs
EVEN as David Lehre’s “MySpace: The Movie,” an 11-minute parody of the social-networking Web site, spawned a high-profile feeding frenzy, some of the Hollywood agents, managers and lawyers who were clamoring to represent him didn’t know much about who he was, what he did or what they would do if they got him. But they wanted him anyway.
“It’s their fear of not being a part of it,” said Scott Vener, Mr. Lehre’s manager, who first discovered him on the video-sharing Web site YouTube, where “MySpace” became an Internet phenomenon.
Their fears were justified in at least one respect. Calls about Mr. Lehre didn’t start really rolling in to Mr. Vener’s office at the Schiff Company in Beverly Hills until reports about “MySpace: The Movie” appeared in the old media, and talent agents aren’t going to get rich chasing artists who are already being widely celebrated. If Mr. Lehre proves to be a harbinger of things to come, talent agents will have to become Internet literate, or hire people who are.
Some people say that the film industry has more to fear than just being late to the party. If the Net begins spawning films — and not simply helping to market or deliver them, as has happened to date — studios’ grip on the business of putting pictures on screens may be challenged.
“Their nightmare is a direct feed from moviemaker to audience,” said Walter Kirn, a frequent contributor to The New York Times who has been serializing his novel “The Unbinding” on www.slate.com and saw one of his other novels, “Thumbsucker,” adapted to the big screen. “Their only trump cards are that they are pools of capital for making expensive things. Otherwise they are cut out of the action.”
Geoffrey Gilmore, director of the Sundance Film Festival, said: “We are probably at a period of greater change than we have had in the past 50 years. The industry is scared about what they should make and how they should deliver it. What’s the next step? Where’s the development coming from?”
“MySpace: The Movie” first appeared on YouTube on Jan. 31 and since then has had millions of hits, enough viewers to rival big-budget films or TV shows. Mr. Lehre, who is 21 and lived at his parents’ home in Washington, Mich., when he created the video, shot it there with friends. He scored the music himself so he wouldn’t have to deal with copyright issues, designed the graphics and Googled any technical questions he had. This development and distribution process makes even independent films, with their retinue of maxed-out credit cards and frenzied film festivals, look positively mainstream in comparison.
The Net is particularly conducive to short-form comedy — skits, parodies, satires, even stand-up acts — because surfers tend to look at video in small increments. But so far television, especially cable, has been more receptive than the feature film world to these possibilities. Mr. Lehre signed with Fox and will produce a sketch-oriented television show that is set in his hometown and features his friends.
Recently, Carson Daly Productions signed Brooke Brodack, a 20-year-old receptionist who lives in Massachusetts, to a production deal after her video diaries, comic shorts and music parodies attracted a wide following on YouTube. Andy Milonakis, star of his own show on MTV2, got his start on the Net, as did Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, whose “Tom Goes to the Mayor” is on the Cartoon Network. Mike Rizzo, an agent at International Creative Management, which represents Mr. Lehre, said that established comedians are taking a hard look at what’s available on the Net.
And despite their youth and inexperience, some of these video bloggers, or vloggers, have already made the jump from TV to film. In addition to his television contract, Mr. Lehre has a film deal with Fox in the works, Mr. Vener said. Andy Samberg, a former member of the Net comedy troupe the Lonely Island, is a regular on “Saturday Night Live” and has signed to appear in Paramount’s film “Hot Rod.”
Whether the Internet will ever become a seed bed for full-length movies remains to be seen. The independent filmmaker Joe Swanberg (“Kissing on the Mouth,” “LOL”), who was hired by Nervevideo.com to create what he describes as an “indie soap opera for the Web” called “Young American Bodies,” said the Net is the wrong place to watch a conventional narrative of conventional length.
“I have a hard time focusing on the computer screen for 90 minutes,” Mr. Swanberg, 25, said. “A feature film isn’t interactive. I think a theater is still the best venue for that.”
Yet Web users have already shown that they can bend a movie to their tastes. The most obvious instance has been New Line Cinema’s coming film “Snakes on a Plane,” which was the subject of endless Internet interest, mostly spoofing the title and its self-evident premise. New Line decided to play to this audience by incorporating some of its ideas, requiring a week of reshoots and a change in ratings from PG-13 to R.
“We really got to service the fans,” said “Snakes” director David Ellis. “Decisions are usually made by guys 50, 60 years old. They only know during test screenings. If you can get it out early, you can deliver what they want.”
Still, to let the audience feel genuinely in charge of the phenomenon, Mr. Ellis and New Line had to sacrifice prerogatives that directors and movie companies normally hold dear. “The worst thing we can do is take it over,” New Line’s marketing chief, Russell Schwartz, said of trying to control the “Snakes” Web boom.
These new horizons are not to everyone’s liking. Pointing to the precedent of “American Idol,” Mr. Gilmore said, “If you were told a decade ago that a TV show would determine the next major pop star, would you believe it? I have a fear of the tyranny of mass taste.” Mr. Gilmore also wondered what sort of “filtering mechanisms” would evolve on the Internet, if any. Of course what makes the Web attractive is that there are no gatekeepers — managers, agents, studio executives, or film-festival programmers — to get past. But that’s also what makes finding truly satisfying entertainment difficult. On YouTube alone tens of thousands of videos are posted every day.
Another basic question is how many of the new Web-based talents will stay on the Internet exclusively. Mr. Swanberg, for one, said he doesn’t care where his work is shown. But he noted that his two feature films, which were screened at the South by Southwest festival, were seen by far fewer people than his “Young American Bodies.”
Mr. Kirn predicted that “all of the zoo animals are going to get out.” He continued, “The question is whether they will be paid,” because the Net so far has offered virtually unlimited freedom but very limited rewards.
As Hollywood scrambles to tap the Web’s creative energy, one obvious — and to some people ominous — possibility is that the film industry will find a way to co-opt its major outposts. The entertainment business tried to do that once before, toward the end of the dot-com boom, when Hollywood executives and talent tried to start Web sites like the ill-fated Pop.com, which found little success in its attempt to distribute short films over the Internet.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation has already purchased MySpace in order to get in on the action, and other media entities are aligning themselves with popular Web sites. Mr. Rizzo said that these giants would dominate the Internet in much the same way they’ve taken over the cable business, though it isn’t clear that owning Web sites would position them to make blockbusters.
“Is buying MySpace the answer to that?” asked John Cooper, director of programming at Sundance. “Culture is content driven, not medium driven.”
Yet Mr. Kirn insisted that the medium would leave a deep imprint on any entertainment that it generates. “The Net is a self-consciously anti-authoritarian audience,” he said. “They are spit-ballers, defacers, vandals, skeptics. It’s a class without a teacher. The movies that will succeed on it will have those properties.”
“The Net is going to unleash a hybrid talent and a hybrid sensibility,” he said. “What it needs is an Orson Welles, an unclassifiable polymath. It will reward someone with that kind of talent. Whether Hollywood can contain and absorb and dominate those energies will decide its fate.”