See the next post for the Gill article and my comments.
Web TV is a hit. So where’s the big money?
Reyhan Harmanci, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2008
Clockwise from upper left: Crystal Young, Yousef Abu-Tale… Vlad Baranovsky (left) and his brother Yuri (center) crea… Cast from the web telecast “The Burg.” Photo by Zandy Man… Ask A Ninja. Photo courtesy of Scott Manning & Associates More…
With an average monthly viewership of 1.5 million people, “Break a Leg,” the Internet video series about the making of a sitcom in San Francisco, is ahead of its time. Brothers Yuri and Vlad Baranovsky the 24- and 30-year-old co-creators of the show, along with co-producers Justin Morrison, 25, and Dashiell Reinhardt, 25, have created something out of nothing. Without a business plan, industry connections or television experience, they’ve won over critics and attracted ardent fans. They’ve also distinguished their show through high production values: They use multiple locations and a cast of more than 10 actors and release new material weekly.
“Break a Leg,” though, is no cash cow. Even with a YouTube partnership, contest winnings from Internet video clearinghouse Metacafe and other recognitions, “Break a Leg” has grossed about $2,500 for two years’ work.
“We’re in a funny place,” admitted director-producer-star Yuri Baranovsky. “I don’t know how many people get how much work it is to make this.”
“Break a Leg” embodies the key contradictions of the brave new world of online video entertainment. It’s easier and cheaper than ever for individuals to produce their own work and put it up for global audiences – on sites like YouTube, Revver, Veoh and My Damn Channel – but it’s almost impossible to make a living outside of the established TV and film industry. While media analysts agree that the future of television will be online – the number of viewers who access video via the Web is expected to nearly quadruple by 2013 to at least 1 billion, according to a new study from ABI Research – no one knows what form Internet TV will take or how it will make money.
But that doesn’t mean people aren’t trying to strike gold. During the past few years, as the press has rushed to cover the few breakout stars of the form – “LonelyGirl15,” “Ask a Ninja,” “The Burg,” “The Guild” – entertainment goliaths have rushed to create online studios, such as Michael Eisner’s Vuguru, Fox-owned MySpaceTV and Disney-ABC’s Stage 9.
No good revenue model
Creative types, such as local writer Julianne Balmain, believe that there’s a place for shows tailored to the Internet viewing experience. Her series, “Engaged,” produced with Purple Truck Media, will premiere later this summer and feature 5-minute segments.
“A lot of people have seen this moment as a transitional phase. We’ve watched Hollywood struggle with made-for-Web episodes,” she said. However, “there’s really not a good revenue model. We’re kind of groping in the dark, figuring out how we are going to fund this.”
One of the problems facing Web TV is that audiences are accustomed to free content on the Internet. The delay in Web advertising standards has made selling ads across platforms almost impossible: That is, since a show like “Break a Leg” can be watched on MySpace, YouTube, Breakaleg.tv, etc., ideally an advertiser would buy ads to show on all sites. But since sites use different metrics to measure viewing, there are no ad-pricing guidelines. And big advertisers are holding onto their pocketbooks and waiting.
While it makes sense for some traditional media companies with edgy brand profiles to back new online ventures, most companies have no interest in investing in unknown online video.
“What’s really happening in online video is that there are millions, or thousands, of unproven works, produced by someone you don’t know,” said James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research. “It’s a Wild West video experience out there.”
Kathleen Grace and Thom Woodley, for example, the creative team behind the Internet sitcom “The Burg” about people in their 20s in trendy Brooklyn, made one of the first scripted online shows in 2006 and got Motorola to sponsor a nine-episode run. Yet the show fell victim to the uncertain rules of online content: The money from Motorola enabled them to pay their actors at a union-negotiated fee, but when that money ran out they couldn’t afford to make any more episodes with their SAG card-carrying stars.
“Thom and I both made literally about $500 from the Motorola sponsorship,” Grace said. The exposure from “The Burg” did land the team another Internet show, financed by Vuguru, called “The All-for-Nots,” which follows a fictional band around the country.
Even with the headaches, working online allows for much freedom. “A plus is that we can actually do it,” Woodley said. “When we’re on our game, we can come up with an idea, the next day shoot it, the next day edit it and the next week it’s online. If we were working in TV, we couldn’t turn around content that fast.”
The downside, Grace said, is that “Thom still has a day job and, as of next week, I’ll be unemployed. For me, that’s the nature of being freelance. But still.”
TV is the goal
Although the road from Internet shows to the big leagues is littered with failures, every day brings an announcement from offshoots of major studios about new online video programming. Vuguru premiered a 50-part online series called “Foreign Body” in late May, designed to promote a new Robin Cook thriller about medical tourism; and NBC will begin hosting the Rosario Dawson sci-fi Web series “Gemini Division” in July. “LonelyGirl15” producers landed a contract with CBS in May to produce online content.
“Break a Leg” began on a whim. In March 2006, while working on an indie film in San Francisco called “Life Noir,” Yuri and Vlad Baranovsky heard about a contest on MySpace to make a five-minute pilot for a TV show. With help from their “Life Noir” friends, the brothers from Kiev, Ukraine, managed to pull together a short episode.
“Break a Leg” draws heavily from “Arrested Development” – it’s about a misfit cast and crew making a TV show set in San Francisco. While they didn’t win the MySpace prize, YouTube put the Baranovskys’ work on its home page. The brothers whipped up another script, and then another. “Break a Leg” now has nine finished episodes with the season continuing through October.
For established Hollywood figures, moving back and forth between the Internet and broadcast TV or film is becoming more common. Will Ferrell’s Funnyor Die.com has signed a deal to produce 10 half-hour blocks of programming for HBO. ABC is promoting the Web series “In the Motherhood,” starring Chelsea Handler and Jenny McCarthy, to midseason sitcom status. “305,” a parody of last summer’s movie “300,” is selling itself as the first online short to become a feature film.
Webisodes are relatively cheap for the established studios to make. “Foreign Body” cost Vuguru $10,000 an episode, while an episode of a single-camera, half-hour network comedy runs between $1.6 million and $2 million, according to Chris Albrecht from NewTeeVee.com. (“Break a Leg” costs its creators roughly $500 an episode.)
Still, the future of Internet shows remains uncertain.
“There’s still no evidence that the Web format will be a dominant rather than supplementary format,” said analyst McQuivey, who pointed out that 18 percent of Internet viewers are now connecting their computers to TV monitors, eliminating the need to produce video for computers. “Will this new visual language morph back into the established language of television? What is the long-term role of these short-form shows?”
Yuri Baranovsky, for one, has no desire to limit himself to online video work. He sees “Break a Leg” as his calling card to the television industry and its hard-to-reach executives. “It’s like we’re at the door of success, knocking, and we should be let in,” he said, laughing. “Someone, open that stupid door!”
Get more: See a list of some other popular Web shows. E3
*The viewership numbers cited here are approximate and were reported by the series’ creators.
What: A 2006 Internet video series about a teenage girl named Bree who made confessions before a Webcam. Several months into the series, Bree was unmasked as an actress (Jessica Rose), whose words were scripted by the show’s creators, Miles Beckett and Greg Goodfried.
Viewers*: More than 100 million views in total, with 200,000 to 500,000 views per episode.
Cost: Not available, but the creators say it was done on the cheap, shot with a $130 camera.
Sponsors: LonelyGirl15 was a pioneer in product integration, scoring deals with Hershey’s, Twentieth Century Fox and others. It even featured a character written to promote Neutrogena.
And now? The series continues, though without Bree. The creators have launched a series spin-off, “Kate Modern,” and have signed a development deal for online video projects with CBS.
Break a Leg
What: A 2006 Internet video series about the making of a TV sitcom in San Francisco, created by Yuri and Vlad Baranovsky.
Viewers*: 1.5 million monthly visits.
Cost: $500 per episode.
Sponsors: Holiday Inn Express paid for a four-month run from July to October 2008.
And now: The series continues, with an October season finale.
What: A 2006 Internet video series about hipster life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, created by Kathleen Grace and Thom Woodley.
Viewers*: Initially 10,000 viewers; now 5 million viewers.
Cost: Initially $1,000 an episode, but costs skyrocketed after the cast became members of the Screen Actors Guild.
Sponsors: Motorola sponsored a nine-episode mini season in June 2007.
And now?: The show is on hiatus, due to lack of funding. Grace and Woodley have produced the Web series “The All-for-Nots” for Michael Eisner’s Vuguru.
Ask A Ninja
What: A 2005 Internet video series featuring a ninja who answers absurd e-mailed questions, created by comedians Kent Nichols and Douglas Sarine.
Viewers*: 2.7 million monthly viewers.
Cost: $7,000 per episode.
Sponsors: Microsoft, Toshiba, Doritos, EA, GM and Google, among others.
And now?: The series continues. Its creators have written a book, “The Ninja Handbook,” and are working on a feature film, a remake of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.”
Other popular shows:
“The Guild” ( www.watchtheguild.com), “Young American Bodies” ( www.ifc.com/youngamericanbodies), “iChannel” ( www.connectwithi.com), “We Need Girlfriends” ( www.weneedgirlfriends.tv).