Big Names Change the Online Game

December 1st, 2008 by Alec McNayr

We were lucky enough to interview some big names for our latest Script Magazine article (originally appearing in the Nov/Dec 2008 issue). We originally wanted to investigate celebrities’ foray into online media, and how it was damaging the opportunities for more independent fare, but found that everyone (no matter their pay grade, celebrity, or background) was approaching the web as a vehicle for doing better work, more honest work, and creating content they could be proud of.

We found three distinct stories from three groups at different places in the entertainment world: the team behind FM78.tv (Justine Bateman, Jill Kushner, Peter Murrieta, and Alan Sereboff), a trio of SNL staffers behind Crackle’s The Line (Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and Simon Rich), and the up-and-coming, Teen Wolf-mocking sketch comedy group Summer of Tears (Rob Kerkovich and Todd Waldman).

Big Names Change the Online Game

Celebrities and TV Writers are Raising the Quality of Online Entertainment

By Robert Gustafson and Alec McNayr

In this early era of online entertainment, established talent from traditional media have steered clear of the web. With rare exceptions like Will Ferrell’s The Landlord, celebrity forays into creating online content have been limited by potential union ramifications, a lack of payoff, or perhaps just a lack of time.

However, the WGA writer’s strike changed everything. Not only was the online content at the center of the conflict, but the entire creative workforce took a break from their TV writers’ rooms and movie sets. Many writers, directors, and actors used their free time to create something for the web, even if just concepts, stories, or scripts.

And now, months later, there’s been a tremendous upswing in the number of online shows backed by TV and film talent:

  • Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog, created by Joss Whedon and starring Neil Patrick Harris, topped the TV download list on iTunes.
  • Get Ripped debuted from How I Met Your Mother writer Gloria Calderon Kellett.
  • Saturday Night Live alumni Tim Meadows and David Spade appeared in Carpet Bros.
  • NBC launched Gemini Division, a sci-fi series starring Rosario Dawson.
  • MTV announced a new web series $5 Cover from Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer.

The once-level playing field is slowly being tipped in favor of a more well-known model, where recognizable talent pulls in viewers, and in turn, the attention of would-be sponsors. While the internet isn’t likely to lure big budget names like Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg, the once relatively open market could cramp up quickly. Should independent producers cry foul? Or should they appreciate the legitimacy these “professionals” bring to the online media world?

We talked to three groups currently shepherding online projects, each with different levels of celebrity, experience, and resources—and each holding a different relationship with the traditional world of entertainment: one is trying to break free of it, one trying to rise up in it, and one trying to break into it.

Creating the Sweetest Entertainment Online

“What type of online show would you do if you couldn’t do a video blog? No backyards, no shaky cameras. Are you going to be okay doing a lesser job just because it’s delivered online?”

Changing the definition of “the best entertainment available online” is at the heart of Justine Bateman’s aspirations. Perhaps best known for her acting work on the 80’s sitcom Family Ties, Bateman has joined forces with a team of experienced industry professionals to form FM78, a production company with online comedy Candy, Inc. as its first project.

Together with Emmy-award winning writer Jill Kushner, Wizards of Waverly Place executive producer Peter Murrieta, and feature writer Alan Sereboff, Bateman is part of a talented team looking to produce their own series. “Instead of taking our scripts to ABC or HBO,” she says, “we’re looking for an advertising sponsor to pay for a regular production budget; we’ll distribute it ourselves, and do a bunch of traditional press.”


FM78.tv’s Peter Murrieta, Justine Bateman, and Jill Kushner.

After meeting Bateman on the picket lines during the WGA writer’s strike, Murrieta is perhaps most excited about FM78’s opportunity to continue the creative process he loves without the burden of corporate politics. “I tell you, even after having sold a show in traditional markets, there’s not as much freedom in this business now,” he says, “but the creative model—how you make television—with a room full of smart people figuring out where to go, still works.”

The group’s first project, Candy, Inc. centers on an unwilling heiress to a fictional candy company, played by Bateman. The series already has commitments from name talent, including actors Jeff Garlin and Judd Nelson and director Steve Pink.

Originally a 22-minute pilot screenplay by Bateman, the FM78 members collaborated on a Candy, Inc. rewrite and have developed it into a three-hour comedy mini-series. “We’ll deliver one episode a week, at about 8-10 minutes each,” says Bateman. At the time of press, the team was working towards signing a show sponsor—a real-life candy company—as an organic fit into the show concept.

“The show’s about someone pursuing an authentic life and the comedy comes form the human element of peoples’ dreams to do things that they’re not good at,” explains Murrieta, “There’s a feeling in America that you can make it if you just dream really hard – but it takes hard work, too.”

And so, Candy, Inc.’s premise seems a good approximation for what FM78 is trying to do: work hard to establish a higher caliber of content. They’re escaping the confines of traditional media by beating them at their own game—by using established actors and working writers—not for their own sake, but to improve the viewing experience for audiences online.

“Overall, the audience hasn’t been getting the best entertainment the last ten years or so,” decries Bateman, “Everyone in this business should be showing audiences the most entertaining, most creative programming out there. It should come out of Hollywood, because that’s what we say we do for a living. It’s a creative Renaissance, and the audience is going to benefit the most, which is what we’re excited about.”

SNLers Find Themselves ‘In Line’

In 1999, Bill Hader was so excited for the premiere of Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace that he got in line early. Really early. Days early.

Now a repertory player on Saturday Night Live, Hader used his experience in sci-fi fandom to inspire the new web series The Line, co-written by SNL writer Simon Rich and directed by SNL head writer Seth Meyers.

The series takes place in front of a movie theatre in New York, as Hader and a line of fans wait for the opening of the fictional sci-fi film Futurespace. Hader and Rich developed the concept and scripts during the WGA writers strike, and because the online series was produced by Broadway Video (which also produces SNL), they were able to use the exhaustive resources of their regular employer’s cast and crew. “We wanted to do more than just a sketch,” said Rich, “we wanted to make it as epic, comically, as the movie the characters were lining up to see.”

Meyers, who made his directorial debut with The Line, was appreciative for the opportunity to work with such high-level talent. “When you work with the SNL costuming department, for example, you get a wealth of experience and fabrics.”

The trio didn’t claim to watch much online content, mostly due to the aggressive work schedules necessary to work on Saturday Night Live. For them, The Line wasn’t a career-changing move towards exclusively producing online content, but rather an opportunity to create something other than their normal television work. “The Internet is a vast wilderness,” mused Meyers, “it can be very beautiful, but there are a lot of pitfalls out there. It’s hard to know what’s worth investing your time in right now.”

The series, distributed by Sony-owned Crackle.com, is a great example of the opportunities working writers and actors have outside their traditional entertainment “day jobs.” Hader, Rich, and Meyers are hard-working, talented creators already intertwined with one of the world’s most recognizable comedy brands. For them, perhaps creating shows for the web should be more of a side project than participating in an industry-wide movement.

Rich summarizes, “At the end of the day, it’s just amazing to see talented people shoot and produce something that you write. It’s a great feeling.”

Laughter through the “Tears”

In some ways, Los Angeles-based comedy troupe Summer of Tears isn’t much different than most comedy troupes these days. The seven-member group originally met in college, perform regularly in small comedy clubs, and have a YouTube account.

But unlike most other groups, they’ve been able to leverage their online presence to boost their standing in the traditional world of entertainment. For them, the web has been a stepping stone to bigger contacts and opportunities.

In 2006, the group took their sketch show (including some of their videos) to the Aspen Comedy Festival and won the award for Best Sketch Show. Now, with their videos online, they can further expand their audience, including agents and development execs. “We’re using online distribution as another way to get out there. You used to have to do a comedy show in Hollywood,” says Rob Kerkovich, one of the group’s writer-performers, “and now you can just e-mail an executive a link.”

Through such connections, Kerkovich and co-writer Todd Waldman recently sold a feature script to Paramount Vantage. It’s the beginning of a dream fulfilled: to write professionally in the world of entertainment, made possible by an enhanced presence online. “In 2005, we were writing a lot of sketches for our live shows, and after seeing the success of [SNL digital short video] Lazy Sunday and the advent of YouTube, we realized we should be shooting more as well.”

Through the years, the group has honed their comedic viewpoints online. “We’re redesigning our site right now using Vimeo, and I’m looking back through our first videos,” says Kerkovich, “they’re funny, but they’re not in the same ballpark of what we’re doing now. Our sound is better, our camerawork is better.”

Even with their slow and steady entry into the entertainment business, the group’s goal is clear. Kerkovich explains, “We’re establishing a ‘Summer of Tears’ brand. If we had our way, we’d be like Monty Python; whether it was TV or a movie, you knew what you were going to get.”

Advice for the Future

“Gone are the days where the studios will be your entertainment mommies and daddies,” says Bateman, “If someone wants to be in the ‘future of entertainment,’ they have to be able to do two or more of the following things: act, direct, write, produce, build a web site, use Final Cut Pro, have contacts with ad agencies, do publicity, or get an online community excited. You have to be an absolute creative multi-tasker.”

No matter your aspirations or current place in the world of entertainment, the web is morphing into a medium that can meet your needs. While the roles of creative responsibilities may be shifting, the role of hard work remains central. Summer of Tears’ Kerkovich expands, “We have a work ethic that we don’t see in many other people. You have to have that. You might be one of those lucky people where something hits the first try, but odds are it won’t happen that way.”

SNL’s Meyers agrees: “Write and write a lot, and get your material on its feet in front of an audience. You’ll see what it actually sounds and looks like. That’s the fastest way to know if it works or not.”

The rewards are big for those that can follow through online. FM78’s Jill Kushner states, “You don’t have to go through the right people at the right studios to get your work seen anymore. The internet can be your vehicle.” Murrieta follows, “I think you have to be a punk. You do whatever it takes to get it done. Part of being a punk is just doing it because you love it.”

Bateman admits that it’s personal craft and artistry—and not celebrity or riches—that will truly satisfy. “If you’re talented, make something beautiful whether you’re getting 10 dollars or 10 million,” she says, “The question is: what can you do with what you have?”


Posted in Comedy, Content, Online, Writing | 1 Comment »
  1. One Response to “Big Names Change the Online Game”

  2. By Justin Edwards on Dec 24, 2008

    “Franco and Billy”

    I was in a shorts contest against these guys a couple years ago and they’ve spent years working up the online web video world and I didn’t know if you had heard of them?

    They still stay in touch with me occasionally and keep me up to date with what they’re doing – they’re poster boys for IFC now here:

    http://www.ifc.com/gethit

    A decently funny How-To series for making viral videos.

    They won the shorts contest (I was runner-up) and went to Australia and made shorts there as a reward. Instead of Australia I moved to LA and got a job at Pepperdine…

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