Web video sites mined by talent scouts

Web video sites mined by talent scouts

By BRIAN BERGSTEIN and GARY GENTILE, AP Business Writers 7.20.2007

Voice-over work in Indiana wasn’t too lucrative, so Daniel Geduld
made a classic actor’s move: He headed for L.A. And like most Hollywood
dreamers, Geduld didn’t get hired for much.

So Geduld combined his creative talents with his abundance of free
time. He took footage from the 1980s "He-Man and the Masters of the
Universe" cartoons, re-edited it and redubbed it to make the evil
Skeletor and his cronies into a bumbling gang of losers. Geduld added
incongruously peppy jazz by Django Reinhardt, called his farce "The
Skeletor Show" and posted episodes on Google Inc.’s YouTube.

Geduld added his e-mail address to the credits, along with this line: "Please give me a job. I’m talented."

Actually, that was a joke. Geduld didn’t think much could come of it.

But he was underestimating how much the Internet has broadened the
ways people get discovered today, often for jobs in the entertainment
industry that didn’t exist until a few years ago.

Enough people liked "The Skeletor Show" that it got mentioned on
some popular blogs. Before long, several Web sites were paying Geduld
to do similar comedic "mash-ups" for them. Video portal Heavy.com hired
Geduld to be a voice for its new horror channel.

When he got the first e-mail inquiring about his services, Geduld,
30, was shocked. "Oh my God, this actually worked!" he thought. The
first few gigs paid only around $500. But now he’s making "enough to
support myself," and offers keep coming. A tech company asked if he’d
do promotional material. He got invited to a sci-fi convention.

"It just gets better and better," Geduld says. "I’m thinking of getting an agent."

One of Hollywood’s animating legends is the story of the ingenue who
got discovered by a studio honcho while she sipped a soda in a
drugstore. The myth spoke to the lightning-strike luck that making it
big generally took in a system controlled by a few big studios.

Now, the Web has blown things open. It is easier than ever to get
discovered. Web sites trying to develop into entertainment hubs are
hungry for people to write, shoot or star in new content, so its
representatives scan for talent in the piles of homemade videos on
MySpace, YouTube, Revver and personal blogs.

It’s certainly no secret that the Web can launch new faces. The
medium already has its tales of regular Janes who made it big, like
Lisa Donovan, who leaped from YouTube to the cast of Fox’s "MadTV," and
Brooke Brodack, a Net video character signed to a TV production deal by
Carson Daly. This is the vision that drove the creators of YouTube’s
"LonelyGirl15" faux-reality videos.

But the lesser-known story is of non-stars like Geduld, riding the
Web’s radical openness to find new kinds of online entertainment work.

Often these online jobs are with sites that may be a step above the
user-generated schlock of YouTube, but still are sorting out the
economics of attracting advertising. As a result, discovery sometimes
comes with modest trappings. And it often extends to people who
wouldn’t have made it through Hollywood’s old-school gatekeepers — or
even tried.

Consider the experience of Jessica Hagy, a 29-year-old freelance advertising copywriter in Ohio.

Last fall she started a blog that commented on the world through
clever diagrams. (You have to see it to get it — check out
http://indexed.blogspot.com) After brothers Gregg and Evan Spiridellis
encountered the blog in L.A., they e-mailed Hagy and eventually asked
her to produce diagrams for content debuting this fall on their growing
comedy site, JibJab.com. There aren’t big bucks involved, maybe a few
thousand, depending on how much advertising the segments attract.

"It just seems to be the new modus operandi for creative people,"
says Hagy, who has yet to meet the Spiridellis brothers in person.
"There are so many more people out there than you could find before.
… I was just a random kid in Columbus, Ohio. How was I supposed to
find anybody under the old way?"

This is not to say everyone who airs dumb stunts or lip-synchs on
YouTube has a chance of landing real work. Representatives of
professionally produced content sites who pore through user-generated
videos see more rough than diamonds. When there are decent finds,
competition can be intense.

Jason Marks, a former MTV executive who oversees programming and
development for Heavy.com, swears this story is true, and that similar
things happen several times a month:

A while back he came across a YouTube video of some young guys
"in their dorm room, flicking boogers on their wall." Marks was only
mildly amused, but he sensed there might be something in these kids, so
he figured he’d scope them out. Marks says he left a message for them —
and got his call returned by someone in a very prominent talent agency.

"They refer us to their agent!" Marks says. "I’m not even kidding, man."

In many ways, today’s talent search is a reprise of the height
of the dot-com boom. Then, sites such as AntEye, Icebox, Mediatrip and
Z.com cast themselves as "incubators" and served as scouts for film
studios and television networks, essentially producing low-cost pilots
and hoping for a hit.

That model has resurfaced. Last year, UTA, one of Hollywood’s
biggest talent agencies, launched an online division to scout for
people who could be in videos for ad agencies, Web sites and
traditional media outlets. While most agencies refuse unsolicited work,
UTA encourages online submissions.

Grouper.com, a site owned by Sony Corp., recently decided to
stop trying to make money from user-generated videos and will focus
instead, under the name Crackle, on scouting online prodigies for Sony.

But Steven Starr, a former talent agent who heads the Web video
site Revver, says what he sees emerging is "a creator economy online"
whereby the Internet will carve out its own slice of the action, rather
than just serving as a development league for TV and film.

"That will start to make it possible for any creator to develop
income and careers online and not just be fodder for large media
enterprises that are looking to move them off onto other platforms,"
Starr says.

Even if untapped talent is not necessarily easy to find, the
economics of Web entertainment startups dictates that they try hard to
do it. Old-school casting calls — and Hollywood’s union contracts —
wouldn’t work for digital media that comes together quickly and
relatively cheaply.

"Hollywood as it exists today was built to produce a relatively
small number of very large productions," says JibJab’s Gregg
Spiridellis. "The new studios … in digital are going to exist in a
way where they can produce a very large number of small productions. I
need to produce content at the price of the craft services table on a
television shoot."

Sometimes, online video can juice an entertainment career already in progress.

Nick Stevens had a decent life as a comedian in New York,
supporting himself with acting and writing gigs on TV and radio. But
things got more interesting after he launched a zero-budget video blog
in his living room. Called TownieNews.com, it features rants by
fictional Boston sports nut Paul "Fitzy" Fitzgerald.

Fitzy developed such an online following that a Boston TV
station, believing he was real, called to set up an interview. (Stevens
set the reporters straight.) The blog also got noticed by the people at
Heavy.com, who hired Stevens to host their regular "SportsCenter"
takeoff known as "The Burly Sports Show." Stevens plays himself, more
or less, but Fitzy appears as a character.

Stevens, 33, says he lives pretty well on what he gets paid to
do two of the online episodes every week — which sometimes amazes him.

"The guy who was buying his coffees with nickels and dimes in
2003 and having beans on toast for lunch is very thankful," he says.
"The Web is great. The single greatest distraction from employment is
also the single greatest enabler of employment."

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Bergstein reported from Boston. Gentile reported from Los Angeles.

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On the Net:

Geduld’s "Skeletor" episodes: http://tinyurl.com/2algzn

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