Monday, November 13, 2006

The New York Times
Printer Friendly Format Sponsored By


November 12, 2006

The Online Auteurs

1. Some people were clowns at the kitchen table and in Mrs. Gadjodnick’s third-grade class — they’ve been funny all their lives — and without making a big thing out of it, they’ve always believed that the world could use them up there on the silver screen. But there was all that junk you had to do to become a star — get your head shot, learn to act, move to L.A., get a job reading scripts at I.C.M., do nude improv, sprinkle crystal meth into your Diet Coke every morning for 10 years while auditioning for Burger King commercials and writing fake “Friends” episodes while having your breasts or bald spot surgically replanted. The specter of the casting couch, the security guard at the gate of the Paramount lot, the shame of confessing your ambitions to your family, were enough to keep you from throwing your life away.

But thankfully, those days are over! Now you can shoot a movie on your cellphone, transfer it to your computer and post it on YouTube three minutes later. It’s instantaneous, it’s free, it’s idiot-proof. There was a time, not long ago, when, if you wanted to edit your homemade movie, you’d need two VHS players or a pair of scissors. You could add a soundtrack by walking your VHS cassette over to that friend with a $50,000 Avid editing system. Then you could mail that homemade movie to a few hundred film festivals around the world, or save the postage and throw it in the garbage. Now who needs film festivals? YouTube videos are viewed 100 million times a day.

For Kent Nichols and Douglas Sarine, the question was, What can you do in a squalid West Hollywood apartment with one camera, two guys and a ninja? Nichols, who is 30, and Sarine, who is 33, met six years ago while taking improv-comedy classes at the Second City Training Center in Los Angeles. They began collaborating on short films soon after, and in 2003 won a national make-a-movie-quick contest called the 48-Hour Film Project. But they never even considered making a serious film.

“Going the Sundance Festival route is insane,” Nichols told me recently. “There are thousands of submissions, and maybe 5 or 10 get distribution deals who aren’t already established filmmakers. Even the ones that do well at the festival don’t necessarily get a deal unless Naomi Watts is in it, pushing herself in a new direction.”

While they were taking classes at Second City, Nichols had a day job in an improvisational children’s theater group and Sarine made a living as a paralegal and dog walker. Still, every weekend, they and a dozen of their classmates were out shooting their own films, with Nichols directing, holding the camera, editing, checking the sound. Their experiments were under five minutes long, and they made about 40 of them. Nichols sent the best one to a film festival for high school and college students. He wondered what to do with the other 39, and he thought it might involve the Internet.

Then, last year, YouTube came along. And as it grew, filmmakers who became popular on the site suddenly had the world’s attention, though most had no idea what to do with it. Nichols was already a fan of Homestar Runner and Penny-Arcade, cartoon sites that had millions of views a month. These sites sold DVDs and merchandise, thriving beneath the Hollywood radar. They had avoided the hassles of mainstream media, but they were still making a profit, running real companies with salaried employees. “And I thought, Well, O.K., that makes sense,” Nichols said. “That’s when we put together our plan.”

Nichols and Sarine created a show called “Ask a Ninja.” There are now 28 four-minute episodes, and many have been viewed on YouTube more than 300,000 times. “Ask a Ninja” is done in a simple Q. & A. format: an often-apologetic guy in a ninja suit who sounds as if he grew up in the Bronx fields questions from his non-ninja audience about summer jobs, what to take for a head cold, a ninja’s feelings on George Clooney, his least favorite way to kill a person. (“That’s easy. Wait, did you say least? My least favorite way to kill a person? Man, that’s tricky, because I like the killing. I tell you what I really don’t like. I don’t like when someone dies right before I’m going to kill them. . . . It’s just not fulfilling. . . . It’s like shopping for a toilet. How much satisfaction are you ever going to get at the end of the day?”)

Before shooting an episode, Sarine will comb through the hundreds of e-mail messages the ninja gets from his fans, pick a few and sit down with Nichols to write. Then the ninja (who seems to be Sarine himself, though he won’t confirm it) will don all-black garb and start slicing and dicing and goofing around.

When I spoke to Nichols last month, he said that he and Sarine felt as if they were getting close to the big time. “We’ve been doing the show with shoestring and bubble gum, but we just got agents and managers,” he said. “We’re going to meet our business manager in the next hour. We’ve been surviving, but now we need to set ourselves up for success.” On askaninja.com, Nichols and Sarine now sell “Ninja” ringtones, “Ninja” hats and T-shirts with “I Look Forward to Killing You Soon” across the front. A DVD is being released this month, Nichols told me, in an attempt to “monetize” the “Ninja” concept. Nichols throws around the word “monetize” the way a ninja throws around a ninja throwing star.

“Hollywood has tried to court us,” Nichols told me, “but Hollywood doesn’t understand that once you’ve self-distributed to a mass audience — and we’ve got an audience larger than a lot of cable shows — and they offer you $2,000 per episode, we’re like, ‘What are you talking about?’ We already have an established fan base. We can’t sign the idea away for low money. With 20 million-plus downloads over the last year, and a strong brand and a strong Web site, that’s crazy.”

He said he wasn’t sure what kind of money they might make once things really get going. “Millions of dollars, definitely,” he said. “That’s well within the realm. If you sell 100,000 DVD’s independently, that’s two million bucks. So when you’ve got low overhead, that’s a lot, for me.”

2. “Le Montage” is a nine-minute-long film made by two brothers from New Jersey and their two college buddies. It’s about a boy who falls in love and keeps getting trapped in movie-montage clich├ęs. It’s nice to look at and really funny. I’ve watched it about 375 times, and the whack-a-mole scene still kills me.

“We’d all been making films since we were kids,” Marc Gilbar, an advertising copywriter, told me. “And then YouTube appeared, and it almost became this competitive thing, to make something better than what was on there, you know, ‘Let’s play this game, it’ll be fun.’ Most of what’s on YouTube is peoples’ cats falling off the table.”

Aaron Greenberg, who edited “Le Montage,” works as an associate producer on the NBC sitcom “My Name Is Earl.” He said that they made “Le Montage” with the best production quality possible, but they weren’t sure that YouTube’s audience cared about things like production values. “We just hope that that’s what wins out,” he said, “the desire to see something like what we did rather than the desire to see somebody get hit in the crotch.”

If you’ve spent any time browsing YouTube, you may be one of the six zillion people who’ve watched that “crazy dog” growling at his own foot. But you also may have found stuff that was intentionally designed to make you laugh. Some of it, posted in violation of copyright, is from the pros, like a clip of Andy Dick playing “Daphne Aguilera” in a scene from his cable TV show, getting picked up by a stagehand by the straps of his red bikini and bounced up and down like a yo-yo. (Search for anything you’ve ever laughed at — “Benny Hill,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Anchorman” — and YouTube will cough up dozens of short clips uploaded by somebody somewhere.)

Not all of the homemade stuff is bad — some of it is fantastic — but if you’ve ever been to an open-mike night, you know the feeling of wanting to look away while fighting the impulse to witness a flop, and what you see on YouTube is, at times, similarly terrible and also fascinating: sketch comedy shows, episodic sitcoms, puppet monologues, 12-second pratfalls, cartoons, fake music videos. It’s as if the entire world just realized, sometime in the past three months, that it was time to stop telling jokes into a mop handle. Their movies shine a light on something innocent, unguarded and absurd. These films tend to take place in peoples’ bedrooms amid junk falling out of the closet and piles of dirty clothes.

Somewhere between a messy bedroom and Hollywood, Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda found a grocery store in Madison, Wis. That’s where they shot the first four episodes of “Chad Vader, Day Shift Manager,” the story of Darth’s less successful brother, who runs a supermarket in the Midwest. “We just asked, and they said sure,” said Sloan, who does Chad’s voice by talking through a piece of PVC pipe. Sloan says that in the YouTube era, being in the middle of Wisconsin works perfectly. “I think we’re in our element here. We’ve got our own connections, our own opportunities that someone who lives in L.A. or New York wouldn’t have. We can get things done and thrive here because it’s our turf.”

The most recent episode of “Chad Vader” had its premiere on “Good Morning America.” “I guess we’ve circumvented the system, which is good,” Sloan said. On the other hand, he works in a bookstore and was hoping some Hollywood deal might come through soon— there have been meetings — because in February the bookstore is cutting back, and he’s on the list to be canned.

3. “The Show With Ze Frank” is a three-minute daily video blog, and mostly what you see is an extreme close-up of the face, eyes, nose and pimples of Ze Frank, who lives in Brooklyn and is 34. What he’s doing is not going to translate to a movie screen or even to the Independent Film Channel. But he’s somewhat hilarious, especially when he gets on a roll. As opposed to some of the other auteurs I spoke to, Frank is not exactly salivating for mass appeal. He already had one viral explosion, back in 2001, when he posted footage of himself doing 10 funny dances to Madonna’s “Justify My Love” and accidentally got 20 million hits on his online birthday-party invitation. It would be wrong to say that he’s shunning the world’s attention, but at the same time his shtick, dweeby, insiderish and crabby, is just too weird to catch fire the way someone’s cat falling off the table might.


‘‘ASK A NINJA’’ Kent Nichols (at top) and Douglas Sarine (at bottom) combined their improv experience and created a Web-only video series in which a nameless ninja (center) dispenses advice to viewers in four-minute segments. Episodes of the show have been viewed more than 20 million times. Now Nichols and Sarine are looking for a way to ‘‘monetize’’ ‘‘Ask a Ninja,’’ selling hats, T-shirts, ringtones and the like.

It’s difficult to explain exactly what it is that Frank is doing. Most days he just riffs on the news. Inevitably, though, while he’s talking, something goes wrong, either inside his head or in your attempt to resist the logic of what he’s working toward, so that as you watch, you get the creeping feeling that you’ve just woken up to meet the last sane lunatic alive.

In August, when DNA tests refuted John Karr’s claim that he had killed JonBenet Ramsey, Frank tried to explain Karr’s bizarre behavior using marketing terminology: “For a brand to be successful, its emotional aftertaste has to be stronger than the more general brands that are associated with it. Your grandma, unless your grandma is Grandma Moses, isn’t as strong as the general brand ‘grandma.’ But ‘grandma’ is a stronger brand than the more general brand ‘old people.’ That’s why you can sell cookies using the general brand ‘Grandma’s Cookies’ but would have a hard time selling ‘Old People’s Cookies.’ ” Karr had already been branded a pedophile, and once you get hooked up with that particular brand, it’s hard to shake, Frank explained. So why not benefit from an affiliation with the more powerful creepy-pedophile brand of JonBenet? “He got a business-class flight out of it,” Frank concluded, “and the overall brand experience now includes his weird head.”

Frank is a big, handsome lug, arrogant, nerdy, defeated and short-tempered. A few weeks after his John Karr riff, he blew a fuse and decided to avoid the headlines and instead spent the whole week on his show being “happy” — singing, dancing, dressing his vacuum cleaner in funny clothes, smearing peanut butter and jelly on his face. The subtext of his John Karr speech was that the qualifications for mass popularity are getting really slushy, and there’s no wrong or right way to get the world’s attention anymore. If you just do something that people will remember, it sometimes seems, that’s enough. So in late August, he staged a fake cooking show. Standing in a kitchen, in a long apron, perspiring a little, he offered tips on how to drill holes in various fruits so that they might be worn on your fingers. Or in the case of larger fruits, turned into bowling balls.

Frank told me: “I don’t write these shows. I just say them. But I’ve usually said everything 15 times. While I’m doing it, all the extraneous garbage comes out.” He went on to say: “I should point out that in the traditional sense, I’m not good at any of these things I do on the show. I can’t write a book about political science. I’m writing microsongs that keep you engaged for 45 seconds and leave you with an annoying zinger. I can do physical comedy, but I’ve never done it with anyone else.”

Frank grew up in Albany, the oldest of four. A standout neuroscience student at Brown (his father, a distinguished molecular biologist, was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences), he opted out of a Ph.D. in favor of his band, which fell apart in 1999. He eventually went to work in advertising.

Over a typical week, “The Show” is seen more than 200,000 times, and several hundred viewers post comments in Ze Frank’s forums. It seems that he’s reading every word. Unlike a film or TV audience, Frank’s viewers have a chance to connect right in the middle of the project, and he seems almost maniacal about his loyalty to them. “I think we may have experienced the last generation of actors who can be disconnected from their audience,” Frank says. He asks for show-theme suggestions and answers questions politely, and his need to include whomever is watching sometimes feels like a lifeline to keep him from drowning. He cites this ongoing conversation with the viewer as one reason that he refuses to post his show on YouTube.

“For me, the show itself is far less interesting than everything around it. And if you stick it on YouTube, out of context, it loses all the inside jokes, all the responses, the history of what led up to that show. The framing gets lost. Also, you can’t make money off of YouTube. Unless you are YouTube.”

YouTube sells ad space, but contributors are paid nothing. And Frank is perfectly happy with the revenue from the small ads on his Web site. He says he makes about as much from a single text ad as “an entry-level hooker in Washington, D.C.

There’s no telling where Frank or YouTube will be a year down the road. Maybe giant corporations will push the little YouTubers off the screen. Maybe Frank will go broke or crazy doing three-minute pop-culture riffs. In the meantime he’s putting his whole self into it, every day, and he has our attention. And he’s not alone. A lot of unfamous people are trying to find their voices.

“We’re going through this really interesting period right now in terms of expression on the Internet,” Frank told me in September. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, and we were sitting in the dark basement of a Starbucks on Court Street in Brooklyn. “We’re having this revelation, this sense that everything’s changed. We have this new way of expressing ourselves, of releasing emotions, like, wait a minute, maybe we are all entertainers. But it’s still hard to pull off. We all have to work at it every day, and some are going to be better at this than others. Some are going to get hurt, and some are going to thrive.”