Everyone's a star.com
Auteurs everywhere are trying to break into show biz by doing it themselves -- and putting it online. Now they just have to get you to watch
By ROMESH RATNESAR and JOEL STEIN
The two enormously fake-breasted European women in thong bikinis are invisible to Tom Winkler. He is lying on a chaise longue by the overflowing pool at the Mondrian hotel, picking at the papaya from his $12.50 fruit plate. Remembering to return a call to his actress girlfriend, he pulls out his stainless-steel cell phone. What Winkler needs is a personal assistant.
It's been a monster few months, what with all the meetings he has been taking. Winkler has talked to Brillstein-Grey, the producers of the Mafia TV series The Sopranos, about creating a new television show; hung with actor-turned- director Ron Howard in the Grinch's cave on the set of How the Grinch Stole Christmas; and listened to a pitch from some folks at Universal who are interested in having him make a film based on his characters. Also, Adam Sandler just slipped him a small role in his next picture. How did Winkler, a struggling 35-year-old freelance animator, get here? One word: doodie. For the past 18 months, Winkler has been running a website called Doodie.com that features a daily 10-second cartoon of a character defecating. There isn't any sound to these cartoons. The art isn't astounding. The technology is the computer equivalent of a flip-book. And the ideas are immature, even for poop jokes. But Winkler's 450 doodie sketches have attracted everyone's attention. The world has been deprived of graphic potty-humor animation because animation was expensive, he says of the dark, pre-doodie days. Sitting up on his chaise lounge, he pops open the notebook computer from which, in just a few hours, he will send a brand-new diarrhea-plagued bunny hopping along the information superhighway.
The amount of traffic on Doodie.com-9.5 million visits a month-rivals that of the Warner Bros.-run website Entertaindom.com. Which is why Entertaindom signed Winkler to make The Peeper, a short cartoon about a Peeping Tom starring Sandler that is the Internet's biggest hit to date. As long as I do it every day and it's good, people will come to see it, and if the studios have crap on their site, no one will come, Winkler says. You cannot begin to imagine how much Winkler laughs after the word crap.
Entertainment execs turn to potty humor only when they are scared. And they are. Technology has made it possible for anyone with minimal geek skills and lots of free time to make his or her own movies, TV shows, albums, books and even radio programs at the merest fraction of what it cost only a few years ago. It has suddenly become cheap to create your own entertainment and cheaper still to distribute it online. It's the do-it-yourself dream, and it's seizing the imagination of thousands of auteurs - amateur and professional alike - yearning for a mass-market way to express themselves.
As might be expected, the movement is biggest in the U.S., home of the most innovative wired talent. It's home, as well, to the likes of Stephen King, who brought mass respectability to online publishing in March by premiering his most recent story, Riding the Bullet, exclusively on the Net. The experiment caused a near meltdown of the computers that served the book up to more than 500,000 people the first day, but it proved a point: the middleman is endangered. If you're unknown, you can avoid the middleman by using the Net to get discovered and attain stardom. And if you're already a star, you can avoid the middleman by using the Net to keep most of the money yourself. It's like putting a nickel into the world's biggest slot machine, isn't it? said King. It's a long-shot bet, and the profits are still mainly in the hands of the big media companies. But the entertainment space is attracting lots of gamblers.
Do-it-yourself fever is catching on in Asia, potentially the world's biggest Internet market. In Japan, mystery novelists Yumehito Inoue, Takemaru Abiko and Kiyoshi Kasai joined forces last December to form E-Novels
(www.e-novels.net). The site offers short mystery novels and book reviews by 13 writers in a downloadable format. E-Novels sells about 500 books a month, a number the partners hope will take off as Japanese get more comfortable ordering online. If electronic publishing is going to become big, it's necessary for us writers to pave the way, says Inoue. Others are getting in on the action. Popular novelist Ryu Murakami has created Tokyo Decadence (www.t-decadence.com), a site that lets members (it costs $14 to join for six months) read his serialized online novels The Mask Club and Topaz, which are lavishly enhanced with music, photos, narration and video images, which are occasionally X-rated.
An online news-parody site is turning heads in South Korea. Kim Moon Jong, a 33-year-old college dropout who had fallen in love with the Internet, figured news was the best avenue. But not just any news. In May 1999 he and six friends hunkered down in a crowded office in downtown Seoul and launched XNEWS (www.xnews.co.kr). The site plays off current events with parodies that are naughty and sometimes clever. In a spoof of a real-life sex scandal involving a former Korean Defense Minister and a vampy lobbyist, xnews told its story with flash animation showing a woman taking off her clothes to win the bidding for a weapons contract. Honesty is the key to appealing to our viewers, says Kim. The traditional papers cannot say what people believe without proof, but we can reflect what the public believes. Just to show they're really, truly not Establishment types, Kim & Co. dye their hair different colors. This is a way to state that we are professionals with originality, says Kim.
The Internet is also spawning a revolution in the music business. New technologies are making it ever easier for new acts to put music files on the Net for easy downloading. Until a year ago Kathy Fisher and her husband Ron Wasserman, a pop duo that calls itself Fisher, were just another band on the verge. Last spring a friend told Wasserman to check out this MP3 thing-referring to the digital-music format that allows people to swap their favorite tunes online. Wasserman went to the website MP3.com, converted three songs he had written and recorded with Fisher into the format and uploaded them. People could then come to the site and download the songs for free. Within 10 months, their songs were downloaded 1 million times, making Fisher the most downloaded band on the Net. The duo recently signed a handsome record deal.
In Asia, James Fong, a 34-year-old American who has lived in Hong Kong for seven years, set up AsiaMix.com, with the goal of making it the premier site for musicians from all over Asia to release their music and be appreciated by both fans and talent scouts. Already, says Fong, seven artists have been signed by local music labels. It's partly a response to a uniquely Asian problem: a lack of performing venues. With real estate so expensive, bands don't have many outlets to perform, says Fong. But that doesn't mean there aren't any bands. And there are people like me who don't want to listen only to Canto-pop. Since its inception, AsiaMix.com has been a free site, but from June 1, it will start charging for digital downloads (the revenue will be split with the artists).
It's happening all over the world. Remo Fernandes, one of India's best-known pop singers, offered Cyber Viber exclusively on the Net via MP3. Fernandes released the song on Fabmart.com, an online music store. Within a month, listeners had downloaded 16,000 copies. Remo, who lives in the rural elegance of Goa, says he loves the flexibility of the Net. I recorded and released a single when inspiration hit me, he says. I didn't have to wait to have eight songs before an album could be released. Plus he didn't have a record company monitoring his work and evaluating if the music was sufficiently commercial. I had complete creative run!
Books, films, music ... Josh Harris founded an entire web-entertainment network, Pseudo.com. The gold rush is coming to a close, he says, and the last piece of the puzzle is what we do. Pseudo works the fringe, offering up a slew of shows, giving a creative outlet to anyone from a woman having sex on a plane to a naked, one-toothed, 80-year-old man dancing. This stuff-all jerky and spastic in a tiny 8-cm by 8-cm box on your computer screen makes public-access cable TV look cerebral and slick. But who cares? It's a global talent show, and you never know who's watching out there or whether, like Winkler, you'll end up being discovered. Harris, a multimillionaire after founding (and selling) the consulting firm Jupiter Communications, has left the day-to-day operations of Pseudo to produce a show for the Web. It's a knock-off of MTV's The Real World, based on his downtown art friends and his alter ego, a scary, clown like cult leader named Luvvy. Harris, of course, hopes eventually to get this on prime-time network television. Harris is out of his gourd.
A lot is happening online. The problem, of course, is getting yourself noticed. The best avenue is viral marketing which works if your stuff gets people so excited that they e-mail it to two friends, who each in turn e-mail it to two friends, who each then e-mail it to two more friends. This works particularly well for a new art form that's blossoming on the Net: sudden narrative. Like the early experiments in film, sudden narratives consist of quick visual bites that are perfect for today's limited technology and attention spans. Twenty-second-long cartoons like those on Doodie.com, or the one with the cabaret-singing alien doing I Will Survive who gets killed by a falling disco ball in - now get e-mailed around the way Seinfeld jokes were once exchanged at the water cooler.
A lot of the best artistic energy these days is going into the short film-a form that the Oscars recognize but the public doesn't. That's changing online. All the buying at the Sundance Film Festival this year was done not by the big studios but by websites that show short, downloadable films, hoping to be the online Miramax or, better yet, to be bought by Miramax. Throughout the weeklong event in January, AtomFilms.com drove a slow-moving RV equipped with a television for aspiring directors to use to screen their short films, in the hope of getting purchased by the site. Bad films were dropped off at the end of Main Street, like some chase-scene version of The Gong Show.
AtomFilms shows movies like the parody Saving Ryan's Privates free on the Internet but hopes to distribute them everywhere. That's the beauty of digital media: content can be diced up and repackaged in any conceivable way and shown anywhere, from airplanes to elevators. In the future, there will be no boredom. But there will be plenty of competition for your eyeballs. AtomFilms' main rival, the six-month-old iFilm.com, puts up just about every movie that comes in - about five a day. With 500 movies on the site, iFilm can boast at least one breakthrough. Dave Garrett and Jason Ward made the nine-minute comedy Sunday's Game, in which five old ladies gather around a bridge table and gab about their infirmities while passing around a gun in a game of Russian roulette that gets funnier and funnier as the blood stains more and more of the tablecloth. Last month they got a TV development deal from Fox. This is what happens when you people refuse to watch that half-hour version of Ally McBeal.
Fox is willing to take these kinds of chances because it's nervous about the rumors of old media's demise. Also, there's a limit to how many times they can show The Simpsons every day. It's too late for the studios to panic. They've already lost, says director Francis Ford Coppola, whose Zoetrope.com allows filmmakers to read scripts, get feedback, hire directors and show their work. The minute artists don't need the studios, they'll abandon them. Of course, for now, the big studios still have the stars, the production pizazz and the marketing muscle that bring in big profits. Few indies can compete with that. But some stars are already starting to eye the door.
The cheapness of digital video allowed Ethan Hawke to shoot The Last Word on Paradise, a feature starring his bankable buddies Uma Thurman, Marisa Tomei, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Zahn and Robert Sean Leonard. He calls it the best creative experience of his career, which may not sound like much, but his excitement is very convincing. There's no excuse for young filmmakers not to make a movie. Anyone can make a movie the way anyone can sculpt or write a book or paint,he says. The James Joyces have not yet begun to work on film because they're not the guys who want to sit around and work with executives.
They may not be fun to sit with, but these aren't the kind of people who give up their seats. Within a few months, DreamWorks and Imagine Entertainment plan to introduce Pop.com. They say they want to keep the Web's indie feel, and the below-$10,000 price tag for less-than-six-minute episodes allows the studio to take chances on ideas like this: a talk show where the host slams a shot of tequila before asking each of his six questions.
Even the ideas from Pop co-founder Ron Howard are edgy: he's considering a regular two-minute show called Smoking Break that follows characters standing around outside on a smoking break. And this idea: an animation of a celebrity's real dreams, accompanied by professional analysis. I first looked into public-access television when I was doing Happy Days in the late '70s, and I didn't have time, he confesses. Now, without the constant pressure of figuring out how to deliver lines like Sit on It, he has the time.
Howard and his more than 50 online competitors are eyeing the one place we, the most overentertained culture ever, are still bored: the office. Likewise the producers Brillstein-Grey and 3 Arts are set to roll out Z.com, a site that has signed Oliver Stone (Nixon, J.F.K.), producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon, Top Gun) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Magic Johnson). Among Z.com's acquisitions is a six-minute pilot for a claymation series called Rotten Fruit, about an English band whose members curse at one another. You don't need much of an idea for a six-minute show. But for that idea, the writers got $10,000 and a slew of stock options. For clients who want to do something different and keep ownership, it's an incredible opportunity, says the writers' agent, Peter Micelli of CAA, one of many agents who began pushing Web deals a few months ago.
For years Hollywood giants ignored the Internet because it didn't accomplish their artistic goal: namely, making money. But they were roused out of slumber this winter, when America Online announced plans to buy Time Warner (which owns this magazine, many cable outlets and possibly a small part of your soul). As if guys like Hawke running around with video cameras weren't scary enough, now they had to worry about those thick, broadband cables carrying big entertainment to PCs on demand. Even more threatening is the probability that AOL, by far the biggest Internet player that sends monthly bills to its customers, will charge micro fees to use the Web to watch movies or listen to music. That means it will be able to do something that many have tried to do online: make money, possibly tons of it, by selling content.
The best part of the new entertainment economics is that you don't have to commission people to give you content; in fact, it's hard to get them to stop. Especially the filmmakers. Boston-based Todd Verow, 29, has already released five digital features, including Shucking the Curve, which is about fashionable East Village junkies; he plans to make 10 more by the end of the year. Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos, two freelancing filmmakers, spent all of $900 in 1997 to shoot a digital-video movie called The Last Broadcast, which, like stunningly successful The Blair Witch Project, was a mockumentary horror movie involving a murder in the woods (in the future, it seems, Arboreal Murder Mockumentary will surpass Romantic Tearjerker as the most popular video-rental category).
Rather than shell out $60,000 to make a celluloid print of the movie so they could show it on theater projectors, Avalos and Weiler partnered with satellite firms to retrofit theaters in five cities to project the movie digitally-from hard drive straight to the big screen. That stunt made Avalos and Weiler, who live on an 80-hectare sod farm in rural Pennsylvania, the first to project a movie digitally in movie houses. They became instant icons of the film-geek crowd. They also became fairly rich. Through rentals and sales-and distribution in 20 countries-The Last Broadcast has grossed more than $1 million, making it, percentage-wise, one of the most profitable movies ever made, Avalos says.
Spurred by these success stories, would-be New York City auteur Devin Crowley, 32, joined an unprecedented swell of self-financed filmmakers at this year's Sundance Festival. Actually, he didn't get into Sundance. So he screened at No Dance, an all-digital video Sundance imitator held at a nearby mall. Crowley's movie, Show Me the Aliens!!!, was yet another mockumentary, this one about alien abductions.
Convinced that his movie would get picked up by a distributor that could get it into theatersif only he could reach one in - Crowley dressed his production crew in alien costumes and set about annoying everyone in town. The aliens accosted pedestrians; the aliens faked public brawls; the aliens disturbed screenings with staged abductions; they shoved flyers for their movie in strangers' pockets. By midweek Crowley's aliens decided to crash a party for the Independent Film Channel, smuggling in a monitor and two subfunctional speakers under a trench coat.
And then it happened:Crowley spotted celebrity film critic Roger Ebert. You're going to show it to me right now? Ebert, still in his coat, asked as two of the aliens thrust speakers on either side of his face. They started the trailer, but Ebert was far more concerned with the dwindling battery power of the digital camera he was using to record this spectacle for his own website. Finally, mercifully, the trailer ended. Ebert congratulated the happy aliens, who spent the next 15 minutes beaming. This is a new high, Ebert said under his breath as he walked away. Or a new low.
The next day the filmmakers' guerrilla-marketing tactics proved more successful: the audience that turned up to watch the movie nearly filled the dank screening room at No Dance. After a few promising minutes, though, SMTA!!! became a mess of dull, endless, off-color jokes. By the movie's climax, about a third of the audience had left, and those remaining (family? friends? people who were sexually probed by aliens?) weren't laughing. In the end, Crowley didn't win the award for best picture or best director. But the aliens did get the nod for Best Guerrilla Marketing.
Crowley returned to New York and went back to his iMac, trimming the movie down by dumping some of its clunkier gags. Two distributors who saw the film in Park City have expressed interest in it, he says, along with StreamSearch, a new Web company that wants to make SMTA!!! a pay-per-view feature film on the Web. It's a whole new playing field, Crowley says.
Right now Crowley doesn't have a job; he's living off savings and looking for a cheaper apartment. But that surely won't last long-not in these heady, anyone-can-do-it-himself times. Everyone in the world knows that pretty soon everything is going to be done through the Internet, including watching film, Crowley says. I guess we came in at a good time. A good time indeed. Because in a few more years, everyone will be so busy making movies, there won't be any audience left to watch them.
With reporting by Stella Kim/Seoul, Takashi Yokota/Tokyo, Wendy Kan/Hong Kong and Saritha Rai/Bangalore