Can The Net Free Film From Hollywood's Clutches?

The persistent myth of the Internet, despite its near-complete commercialization, is that it remains a diverse, inexpensive and largely egalitarian creative space. The obverse myth of the film industry is that its preoccupation with profit inhibits all but the most banal forms of creativity, even in the seemingly fertile territory of independent, non-Hollywood cinema.

If we accept that all myths are in some sense true, what are we to make of the recent efforts by would-be Web moguls to turn the Internet into a film distribution apparatus? Should burgeoning auteurs and their potential audiences (the rest of us) prepare for radical innovations in filmmaking and movie-going based on this new business model, or should we just expect the same old thing on a smaller scale?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is a little of both.

More surprising are the ways in which the current batch of Internet film sites mimic the values of their Hollywood brethren — and, increasingly, rely on industry capital and cachet to survive. This troubling relationship has the unfortunate side effect of undermining the diversity, amateur enthusiasm and slapdash spontaneity that make the Web such a promising film venue in the first place.

Because truly independent movies boast a similar enthusiasm and spontaneity, it stands to reason that film and the Internet would be a match made in heaven. For now, though, the two forms don't converge on anything like a large scale. For much of the world, where analog telephone-line connections to computers with slower modems, older processors and limited RAM are the norm, watching even the shortest digitized film on a Web site can be a lesson in tedium. Like other forms of entertainment disseminated over the Internet, movies are best enjoyed by a small, select group of broadband-equipped aficionados — some of whom have the capital and connections to launch filmmaking careers.

What the Web-as-movie-theater lacks in watchability, the theory goes, it makes up for in visibility. On Internet film sites of every stripe, works that might otherwise never be released are given the kind of exposure that could take years — not to mention phenomenally good fortune — to achieve through traditional means. This is particularly true for artists who aren't working in filmmaking meccas like Los Angeles and New York, or who otherwise lack the proximity to career-boosting industry contacts. Indeed, short films from all over Europe make up a significant portion of many U.S. sites, while the English site getoutthere and Ireland's Midnight Pictures bypass the North American bottleneck altogether.

But as any homegrown filmmaker (or Webmaster) can tell you, visibility is effective only when an audience can find your work. That's where film sites have shown the greatest promise. Distribution sites like AtomFilms solicit and post short films and work to secure licensing deals for the shorts they exhibit with U.S. and European cable networks, video distributors, airlines, and other lucrative outlets. Other sites, such as The New Venue, serve primarily as exhibitors and eschew agency functions. The biggest enticement to new talent, perhaps, is that most sites pay for the films they post: the independent-film news service indieWIRE reports that filmmakers can make between $500 and $2000 for each film they sell to a site and anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of ancillary sales.

Coming to a 1-inch by 1-inch Box Near You: AtomFilms

This is also where the process loses some of its "art for art's sake" altruism, however, even without the benefit of Hollywood influence. The more sites pay for the works they exhibit and market, the more creative control artists are likely to have to concede. Many, if not most, sites require filmmakers to sign over all distribution and exhibition rights to their films, provided they agree to buy them at all. Some sites, such as MediaTrip, offer more generous contracts, but none guarantees that the shorts they post will be vigorously marketed or even prominently displayed on their homepages.

As with other film distribution ventures, the risks taken by filmmakers can be enormous. "I've been very candid with [filmmakers] when they ask me about specific companies," says Eugene Hernandez, editor-in-chief and cofounder of indieWIRE. "I think now more than ever they need to be very careful about where they go, who they work with, who they give their rights to and for how much money. Because there's no guarantee the company they sign with today will be functioning tomorrow or in the next few weeks."

He can say that again. Around this time last year, film sites began getting serious attention from movie industry executives and investors eager to explore the cinematic potential of the medium — and, undoubtedly, cash in on the Internet boom. Quick profits and a "New Economy"-obsessed press provided the lure, and established sites began to reap the rewards of their newfound notoriety while new ones were announced with a fanfare that bordered on hysteria.

Foremost among these was Pop.com, a much-ballyhooed enterprise funded by film industry heavyweights DreamWorks, Imagine Entertainment and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. For better or worse, Pop.com promised to bring Hollywood know-how to Internet film with an ambitious, multi-layered site focused on distribution, exhibition and development of original works by new filmmakers. Thanks in part to the frenzy stirred up by Pop.com's publicity machine, the Web film space became fair game for investment by studios and venture capitalists alike.

"Two and a half years ago, nobody in traditional media would take film on the Web seriously," says Jason Wishnow, founder of The New Venue, "whereas one year ago, everybody from [the] traditional media was trying to get a piece of the pie."

By the spring, of course, the Internet bandwagon proved to be significantly less stable than originally hoped for, and the high-profile enthusiasm for Pop.com and other film sites turned to panicky skepticism.

"The people and financiers involved in [Pop.com] really saw an opportunity to make ... a successful investment that would end up being, I suspect, traded publicly," says Hernandez. "The [Internet film] industry just wasn't ready for that."

That's putting it mildly. In September, Pop.com fizzled before it ever saw the light of day, leaving 70 employees jobless and dozens of films in distribution limbo. (The rights to half of the site's acquisitions have since returned to their creators, while the other half will appear on CountingDown.com.) The plug was also pulled on "content programmer" Digital Entertainment Network (or DEN), which filed for bankruptcy, laid off over 100 workers and left up to 80 percent of its films unreleased. Pseudo Programs, in the meantime, failed to impress investors or viewers with its coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions and shortly thereafter gave its entire 170-member staff the ax. More recently, entertainment site iCAST shut its doors and laid off over 70 employees, leaving newly acquired film site Shortbuzz adrift. The list goes on.

All of which seems part and parcel for the dot-com woes that have dominated the media since April. In this respect, the most newsworthy difference is a superficial one: Some of the investors who naively gambled on moderately successful, untested Web businesses were familiar Hollywood studios rather than anonymous venture capitalists. Hernandez faults Hollywood "for jumping on the bandwagon very quickly a year ago, and in some cases blindly diving in and thinking there was a quick buck to be made." He believes that their lack of foresight "has probably taken the [Internet film] industry back even further than where it started from."

Wishnow places some of the blame on the sites themselves. "[I]t's no surprise that companies like DEN and iCAST and Pop would fail, because right now there is no money to be made from film on the Web," he says. "These companies were investing exorbitant amounts of money in get-rich-quick schemes and popularity contests, buying public recognition as they went along."

Inevitably, this spending delirium was at the expense of the struggling filmmakers who had relinquished control of their works to failed sites. "Some filmmakers signed on [to Pop.com] over the course of a year, and their work has been tied up in a site that never launched," says Hernandez. "For a filmmaker who puts what little money they have into making a short film in the hope of either getting it out there or in some way building a career, a year can be a long time." As a result, "the creative community has developed a greater skepticism of this industry."

That skepticism may deepen in light of surviving distribution sites' efforts to reinvent themselves after the crash. Dramatic shifts in focus and a frenzy of acquisitions and partnerships have kept IFILM (helmed by former Fox Television executive Kevin Wendle), Creative Planet, and Eveo up and running, but less as film distributors or exhibitors and more as online resource portals for producers, distributors, and — only incidentally — filmmakers. These business-to-business, or "B2B", sites provide links to services like Script Shark, a feedback site for screenwriters; Hollywood Creative Directory, an industry contact list; and In Hollywood, a database of films and television shows currently in development.

B2B or Not B2B: IFILMpro Helps You Get in Touch With Your Inner Mogul

While some of these sites continue to post films, it is their subscription-driven B2B services that promise to keep them afloat and, with luck, provide returns for their remaining investors. To Wishnow, that's just business as usual. "From the get-go, IFILM and Eveo intended to turn a profit," he says, "and their business models — or, more accurately, their metamorphosing multiple business models — reflect that."

Despite the fact that sites like ReelPlay.com (a business-to-business powerhouse whose clients include New Line Cinema and Lions Gate) continue to attract investors while "pure" exhibition sites like his struggle to survive, Wishnow — who started The New Venue with a grant from Stanford University — remains upbeat. "[T]he smaller film sites that continue to ... show high quality, innovative content, will prevail," he maintains. Silicon Alley Reporter editor and CEO Jason Calacanis, whose magazine has tracked some of the more painful film-site failures, gave a less sunny forecast at a recent Internet film panel discussion: "If you're doing B2C [business-to-consumer, the exhibition model], you're done."

The B2B sites may stand a marginally better chance of surviving than distribution or exhibition ones, but few film sites in any category seem anxious to live up to the openness and flexibility of the Internet, let alone provide viable creative outlets for non-commercial filmmakers. There are genuine exceptions, but as earnest and well-meaning as rhetoric about "develop[ing] the talent and work of emerging artists" (Hypnotic) or "bringing a compelling new brand of entertainment ... to viewers" (AtomFilms) may be, the sell-to-be-seen/be-seen-to-sell ethic that drives most sites is not that different from the bottom-line mentality of the Hollywood establishment. It is no surprise, then, that most of the films they exhibit are so strikingly similar to what's playing at your local multiplex.

An emphasis on salability and bankability is bound to take its toll in imagination, as the quality of the films — or, to use the preferred reduction, "content" — posted on the sites reveals. Record-breaking works like IFILM's "405," which incorporates grandiose special effects to set up an unfunny joke about senior-citizen drivers, are clever and impressive in their way, but hardly groundbreaking.

More common are shorts inspired by, or that parody, existing feature films. "The Blair Witch Project" and George Lucas' "Star Wars" series top this list, so much so that AtomFilms has teamed with Lucasfilms Ltd. to launch "The Star Wars Fan Film Network." (A parody called "George Lucas in Love," in fact, helped ignite the film-site boom last year when it broke viewership records and put its sponsor, MediaTrip, in the news.) Far worse are sites like the breast-obsessed The Romp, home of the popular "Bikini Bandits" program, and Icebox.com, which hosts "Queer Duck" and the inflammatory, stereotype-driven Mr. Wong series. Titles in a similar vein include "Lil' Pimp" (MediaTrip) and "Forty and Shorty" (AtomFilms), a snarky cartoon about the residents of a ghetto and adjacent trailer park, financed in part by Paramount Pictures.

MediaTrip Heralds the Future of Film With — 'Lil' Pimp'?

"[T]hose are the programs that tend to got a lot of attention," according to Hernandez. "When Hollywood wants to write a story about what's happening online, they write about what Eric Eisner is doing at The Romp. ... So it looks like there's only one kind of entertainment out there online, and that's not the case. ... There's plenty of other examples of interesting things happening on sites like The Bit Screen or The New Venue, or even other things happening on IFILM or AtomFilms."

While that may be true, it isn't just industry journalists who highlight the derivative, sub-adolescent fare on these sites, it is the sites themselves, as even a cursory visit to many of them proves. Presumably, the prominence of such material guarantees more unique visits from a larger demographic (young and male) of Web viewers, but in the current doom-and-gloom atmosphere of Internet film it seems no less risky a strategy than touting the more challenging works available to watch.

Recent history only bears this out, according to Calacanis. Alluding to the reigning monarch of American syndicated television banality, United Paramount Network, he says that "DEN failed because they were trying to make bad UPN content. Nobody wants to watch bad UPN on a 1-inch by 1-inch box."

Hollywood, in the meantime, hasn't given up on Internet film distribution. The Wall Street Journal reports that Sony and Walt Disney Studios are working on individual projects to provide their feature films "on-demand" to viewers with high-speed Internet access, while Miramax-backed Web site Project Greenlight is staging a filmmaking contest and awarding the winner $1 million with which to produce a movie. According to The New York Times, the making of the film will be the subject of an HBO documentary, and the movie itself will be shown in theaters.

It would be a loss if the established film sites were eclipsed by such new projects: For all their Hollywood-in-miniature flaws, these sites provide a relatively affordable, potentially profitable and undeniably gratifying service for budding filmmakers. And, to be philosophical (and perhaps cynical) about it, there will be a film industry as long as there are people willing to pay to watch movies. Web film entrepreneurs and their sites are simply a nascent, transitional version of that industry.

But ignoring the wide-open creative potential of the Internet by duplicating a system known for exclusivity and avarice seems a missed opportunity of colossal proportions. It sets a precedent when small, new distribution operations begin hitching rides on Hollywood's coattails and only serves to narrow the margin between independent film and studio product even more drastically.

Put another way, perhaps it has become necessary to destroy Internet film in order to save it. Hernandez wonders if the failures of the more egregiously bankrolled sites "decrease the pressure ... so that some of the filmmakers who are interested in this space can be a little more adventurous and risk-taking, willing to try things and see what stands out. ... Then [Internet film] may have a distinction not as a way for someone to make a quick buck, but as a place where some really interesting work is happening."

Wishnow is guardedly optimistic. "The Internet was founded on a principle of egalitarianism, not corporatization," he says. "If Hollywood wants to approach it with a 'Let's find the next Blair Witch' mentality, then so be it. In the long run, that's good for the filmmakers so long as smaller, focused niche sites exist."

That, clearly, remains to be seen.

Mark Holcomb is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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