Where is Hollywood looking for new talent? Online
Where is Hollywood looking for new talent? Online
If you're undiscovered but Web savvy, the new school of the streaming video revolution may be your big break
By MELANIE McFARLAND
P-I TELEVISION CRITIC
For all of its efforts to seem authentic, "Frasier" only visited Seattle once in its 11-season run. Its production called Southern California home, where "Grey's Anatomy" currently resides. Few people care, however, because they make Seattle look like a city full of intellectuals and gorgeous doctors, where ferries cut across pristine waters and clouds dapple iridescent skies.
The view from "35th Street Mission" isn't nearly as pleasant, and if it ever becomes a hit, baristas might revolt. It follows a group of inept, self-absorbed clowns trying to run a coffee shop but, to satisfy their own desires, do things like slip drugs into people's drinks and report relatives to the police.
It is also a Northwest series in the truest sense, filmed in a Tacoma garage and cast locally. Chances are you've never heard of it, because "35th Street Mission" runs exclusively on the Web. You won't find it on YouTube.com, Revver.comor a television network's video-streaming channel, but on indieTV.tv, a site created and managed by "35th Street Mission" executive producers Kaywood Hopkins and Mike Manzano.
Hopkins, 33, is a self-taught producer who left Amazon a few years ago to start the site with Manzano, using their own funds. He will be the first to tell you that the show has room for improvement. The "35th Street Mission" cast and crew are learning as they go, studying series like "The Office" and "Seinfeld" for inspiration.
Hopkins co-created the site in that spirit, he said, to help burgeoning producers, directors and scribes master the basics by doing and giving them exposure along the way. YouTube? No thanks. Too many kittens on skateboards and other pointless distractions.
"I think it's terrific, more power to them," said Hopkins, "... but I want indieTV.tv to be about filmmakers improving themselves. They want to hone their craft, to put as much information about themselves out there, to have people watch so they can learn."
Welcome to the new school of the streaming video revolution, where self-taught talents cast their product into the vast sea of the Internet -- hoping, perhaps, that some Hollywood development executive happens to be fishing in their waters, but not banking on it.
The hooks and lines are out there, and making the transition from online talent to on-air star never seemed more attainable. In 2007, television networks will be increasingly looking at the Internet as the next frontier to be tamed and mined.
"It helps you get a flavor of what popular culture is talking about, which is also a smart thing for our folks to do," said Vivi Zigler, head of NBC's digital entertainment and new media department. "So it's not just for in front of the camera, but it gives you some writing talent."
So in theory, if you're undiscovered, talented and Web savvy, you might get your big shot without having to stray from home.
Two shining examples come from our own backyard: Gonzaga grads Joe Bereta and Luke Barats (baratsandbereta.com), a Spokane-based comedy duo whose Break and YouTube shorts earned them a six-figure development deal with NBC. Currently, they're attached to "This Is Culdusac," a pilot for NBC Universal Television Studio, according to Mediaweek.
That's part of the reason indieTV.tv has 150 shows from around 100 directors on its site, many of which should be considered works in progress. And this site is one among countless like it that have existed for years. Some trade in original shorts, others produce longer form series that look and feel like television series. Only funnier.
Chalk that up to the combination of the Internet's complete lack of creative restrictions and the indie ethic of striving for authenticity. But it could be something simpler: Kathleen Grace, the 28-year-old producer and director of the New York-based Internet sitcom "The Burg" (theburg.tv), said she and her 27-year-old co-director Thom Woodley started out wanting to do a series that would make their friends laugh.
Mission accomplished. "The Burg" has earned a dedicated following by satirizing the eccentricities of hipsters in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. Stepping on every aspect of what it means to be cool, each episode highlights underground bands and showcases local actors.
But again, you will not find it on YouTube, in spite of the site's potential for widening the audience exponentially, "We really like having 'The Burg' on our own site," Grace said, adding that the main problem is that of image clarity. "On YouTube it's very grainy and kind of disappointing."
Of course, YouTube has its benefits -- foremost being that it is a primary hunting ground for network development executives. Fox announced last week that Lisa Donovan, known to the site's fans as Lisa Nova, has joined the MADtv cast and will make her debut Feb. 17. In June 2006, Carson Daly signed Brooke "Brookers" Brodack to an 18-month development deal.
To the disappointment of its long-term users, the 2-year-old YouTube is no longer inspired amateur hour. Some of them looked at Google's $1.65 billion acquisition of the site last year as the beginning of the end of its rebellious era. The most popular content providers (e.g., "Ask a Ninja," "The Show with Ze Frank") now appear on Revver.com, where the resolution is cleaner and revenues are shared with creators.
During the summer of 2006, "Scrubs" creator and executive producer Bill Lawrence revived "Nobody's Watching," a sitcom The WB passed on in 2005, after the pilot leaked onto YouTube and garnered a surprising amount of attention.
He found the feedback on the site to be quite cogent and helpful -- a far better way of rooting out a show's flaws than traditional testing, where a group of strangers sit together in a room to evaluate pilots.
"The thing I really like about the Internet is that it's ruthless," he said. "If people don't like it, they absolutely crush it. ... It's not like people are looking to say, 'Hey, let's help this comedy writer out.' "
Ditching the ineffective elements weighing down the pilot, Lawrence and series stars Taran Killam and Paul Campbell (who play Derrick and Will, two guys with a love-hate relationship with television), produced new shorts and put them on a Web site, nobodyswatching.tv, but on YouTube, they became hits.
Recently NBC committed to airing a half-hour live special in March. (NBC Universal TV produced the original pilot.)
Nevertheless, the stars are careful not to get their hopes up too high, considering the peaks and valleys they've experienced. Within two years, "Nobody's Watching" was picked up, axed and resurrected, only to struggle in entertainment limbo, where it had to justify its existence. Campbell equated the experience to running blind.
"Even at millions of hits internationally, it's spread out pretty thin," he admitted. "That's a drop in the bucket when you're talking about trying to be a household name."
Killam added, "What I'm learning very quickly is that very few people are willing to take risks. ... It's not about, 'oh, we don't like these guys' or 'the content isn't there,' It's a numbers game."
That means ratings, and money. The industry has yet to figure out how to make money off Internet content, and executives remain wary of taking chances on talent that hasn't come up through traditional channels.
"I don't think you're going to have 35 new producers coming out of the Internet," said Stephen McPherson, ABC's president of entertainment. "But whenever there's a new medium, and you get people who are talented and they're trying new things, some of them are going to migrate."
Zigler has a more pragmatic view: Online producers hoping to get on television should think of their content as a digital resume. If she were trying to break into the business, she said, "I would hope that my site wasn't the only place (development executives) saw my work. I would also send it through the traditional way ... e-mailing a link to a piece of product you've already done that's up online is a pretty easy thing to do."
Fortunately, there are enough stories about dashed Hollywood dreams out there to make Hopkins, Woodley and Grace curb their expectations. "With every filmmaker, in the back of their mind, there's always some spark that someone's going to recognize their work on a grand scale," Hopkins said. "But if you always set your sights for that, you're going to be setting yourself up for failure and you're going to end up quitting in the next six months."
"It would be cool if Internet video led to a decentralization of the industry," Woodley said. "I'm not sure that'll happen, but it's cool to think about."