SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
Hollywood Webbies have edge over studios in staking out Internet territory
PAM DIXON 07-Nov-1999 Sunday
The World Wide Web could just as well be called the Wild Wild West. The most recent turf war in this new digital territory is being waged by major Hollywood studios vs. a growing posse of smaller but well-funded, Internet-savvy upstarts.
Make no mistake: It’s an evenly matched battle, because on the Web, being e-hip counts more than having big studio bucks.
In the past six to 12 months, dozens of non-studio entertainment sites have established a formidable presence on the Web, mostly centering on streaming digitized films to Web viewers.
Five years ago, the Internet was seen as too slow and too difficult a medium to challenge established film-viewing habits. But every day, broadband (or very fast) access to the Web is increasing, changing the old equation.
As companies install fast lines such as cable modems at an accelerated pace, viewing film over the Web has become a viable option quickly reaching critical mass. The question of what to do with the looming specter of high-quality film and video entertainment on the Web has become a hot Hollywood issue.
“For the first time in history, you have powerful filmmaking tools available to the masses,” says Bart Cheever, a Kearny Mesa High School and San Diego State University graduate who is one of the notable pioneers of film on the Web. “They have full access to sophisticated special effects and editing tools. Now they also have the ability to cheaply produce and distribute films over the Internet.”
Others agree with Cheever’s analysis. “It’s analogous to what happened to music in the ’80s, when for the first time the technology allowed people to make home music videos,” says Andrew Hindes, editor in chief of IFilm Network, a major new presence in the digital entertainment scene.
“A whole new layer of people started making music videos, and as a result, you saw all of the independent labels popping up. Now, the same thing is happening with film.”
Hindes, like others, believes the Internet gives all filmmakers the ability to bring entertainment to niche audiences that big studios overlook, and that many filmmakers can’t afford to bring films to.
“For instance, if you have a film you want to release theatrically, even the smallest art-house release costs $50,000 per city,” Hindes says. “With the Internet, the model is a little different. People come to the Net as opposed to you bringing them in; it’s worldwide and not localized; you’re able to increase the audience for something that would otherwise be a very specialized niche audience.
“Suddenly, you have the strength of numbers. That’s one way the Net will provide entertainment that isn’t going to be in the megaplex.”
To date, the primary hotbeds of Web entertainment activity have been online music sites such as MP3.com. But now, such sites as IFilm, D.Film, BinaryTheatre, and WireBreak are providing high-quality streamed (or watchable right from the Web) digital video. Much of the video is in the short-film format, with films typically ranging from two to seven minutes. Some of the sites also host full-length feature films that people can watch online or download to a DVD and watch on their VCRs.
The `Bunny’ hop
It’s not just unknown filmmakers who are interested in film on the Web. So, for instance, is filmmaker Chris Wedge, writer and director of “Bunny,” the 1998 Academy Award winner for Best Animated Short Film.
Wedge, who also worked on “Fight Club” and “Star Trek: Insurrection,” streamed “Bunny” independently before the Academy Awards. For two amazing weeks last March, the seven-minute animated film streamed continuously on the Web. Globix, the company that hosted the streaming effort, says the film was viewed by 28,000 people.
Wedge, who is co-founder of Blue Sky Studios, notes that without the streaming, very few people would have ever seen the film prior to the awards ceremony.
“The exciting thing about the whole world of streaming is that a healthy distribution network doesn’t currently exist for indie films and short animation,” Wedge says. “Film distribution is set up for release through major studios. Just as the Internet is democratizing publishing, it is probably going to do the same for filmmaking.”
Up until this year, the big studios have been ignoring film-related Net activity. But with such digital films as “Bunny” and new Net players such as IFilm gaining extraordinary momentum, the studios have started thinking differently.
“D.Film was asked to do the first-ever digital showcase at Cannes this year,” says Cheever, the founder of D.Film. “It really took that to break through to the traditional film industry. Now they’re all calling and asking how they can make money from this.”
To wit, at D.Film’s Los Angeles showing two weeks ago, Michael Ovitz, the one-time president of Walt Disney Co. and founder of the Hollywood talent agency Creative Artists Agency, showed up to hobnob in the unlikely company of geeks, special-effects artists and other digital cognoscenti. Cheever says this was the first time other than at Cannes that Hollywood’s elite made the effort to show up.
Putting the exclamation point on Hollywood’s attitude shift was the Oct. 25 announcement that DreamWorks SKG and Imagine Entertainment were joining forces to make their grand entrance to the Internet age. A DreamWorks representative confirmed that the site is set to launch in the spring of 2000, and will be an independent digital film company focused on producing and broadcasting “original Internet-only programming.”
The site, POP.com, will host a mix of live action and animation films, video on demand and live Web events, among other things. Like the already-established film sites such as D.Film, most POP.com features will consist of one- to six-minute episodic streaming video segments.
But the new venture, despite the participants’ good reputation and big dollars, faces the hard lessons that await the other big studios. The issue is that the edgy, new smaller sites are founded and run by people who are steeped in Internet culture, and that counts more than DreamWorks and Imagine Entertainment may be anticipating.
“Just because big names in film and TV decide to spend some of their riches on Web initiatives, they still need to prove they can be as creative in a new medium,” says Mark Hardie, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, a leading Internet research and analysis company. “You need a different set of skills for this; you need a different way of thinking; you need to have grown up on the Web and have an inbred understanding of what Webbies do. “I don’t think they have a better position on the starting line than anyone else.”
That’s gold to the ears of such companies as IFilm and WireBreak. “I believe there is a new opportunity to create a new market for entertainment with the Internet,” says David Wertheimer, CEO of WireBreak.com and a former Paramount executive. During his tenure at Paramount, he launched 31 Web sites and has learned a thing or two about how the Web community works.
“At WireBreak, we work with established filmmakers and young filmmakers who are looking for a different kind of vehicle to express their ideas. Because we produce nothing but content for the Web, we know a lot about content that streams well.”
Meanwhile, Webbies watch and wait for the studios to catch up. “We watch for blockbusters every year in theaters, and we usually get one or two,” says Hardie. “But there’s nothing from these same creatives on the Web.” Not yet, at least.
Pam Dixon’s column about technology and the arts appears the first Sunday of each month.
PUBLICATION: SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE