Filmmakers flock to the Net

The booming demand for online video has Hollywood hopefuls focusing their ambitions on bringing short films to the Web.

Smooth-talking film distributors nearly robbed Kelly Schwarze of his love for moviemaking, he says. The Hollywood system offered him too many broken promises and too little creative freedom. So he asked himself, "Why not try the Web?"

"Hollywood would tell us that you have to have this amount of sex and this amount (of) violence to sell a story," said Schwarze, the president of Vision Dynamics Entertainment, a Las Vegas-based production company. "By distributing our short films on iTunes (as video podcasts), we don't have to be so formulaic...We make the kind of films we want to see."

Schwarze is among a growing number of filmmakers and animators who once concentrated on feature-length films but are now telling much shorter stories on the Web. Insiders say that a mass migration of storytelling talent could someday put the Internet in a position to compete with television and theaters for the public's entertainment dollars.

The Net's appeal to moviemakers has its roots in the rise of broadband adoption, technology upgrades in Internet video and white-hot demand for online films and user-created clips.

"In the last year, something really exciting has happened," said Jason Reitman, director of the feature film 'Thank You for Smoking.' "Apple's iTunes (video store) came out. People started e-mailing video clips to one another. We saw the launch of MySpace video, Atom Entertainment's, and YouTube. We saw this and said 'Holy s---, we have a new channel.'"

Reitman, the son of "Ghostbusters" director Ivan Reitman, began his career in 1998 making short films. In 2000, he made his Internet debut when Atom Entertainment licensed his short "In God We Trust."

"Filmmakers want to say things, and all too often they are forced to say certain things that conform to a Hollywood revenue stream," said Reitman, 28. "Short films come from the heart."

That's the kind of appeal that will help the Web become something more than a minor league system for the studios, said Scott Roesch, the general manager of Atom Films, the video arm of Atom Entertainment. Atom Entertainment aggregates and showcases games, short films and animations on the Web.

"You'll see people doing short films and people doing features specifically for the Net, as opposed to people using it as a stepping-stone," Roesch said.

Other notables to hop to the Web are animator Adam Philips and Canadian independent filmmaker Jeff Macpherson.

Macpherson is the creator of Tikibar TV, one of the most popular video podcasts on Apple's iTunes. The comedy, which is shot in Macpherson's apartment, features a doctor who prescribes cocktails to help his patients solve their problems. The series helped Macpherson strike financing deals for his podcasting efforts and generated studio interest in one of his feature-length films, according to a January story in Canada's National Post newspaper.

"Podcasting has (created) new interest in me as a filmmaker," Macpherson told the Post.

Phillips, a former Disney animator, is now working almost exclusively in Flash animation for the Net. "Bitey of Brackenwood," a short animated comedy about a half-man, half-animal creature named Bitey, has been viewed more than a million times on, a site dedicated to displaying Flash animation and games.

Neither Macpherson nor Phillips responded to interview requests.

The trick to surviving on the Web is learning to entertain people in a much shorter time, Schwarze said. He and his eight-person production staff are trying to trim their stories down to a minute. To keep costs down, Schwarze's movies, which include "Digital Desolation" and "The Creature from the Beige Berber," are made in less than a day. The longest film runs about 4 minutes, but he's still experimenting with the format. Schwarze has even come up with a name for his new shorts: smidgets.

The process is much more fun than what his team used to do, he said. Schwarze's production company, Vision Dynamics Entertainment, tried for five years to scratch out a profit by selling B-movies to Hollywood. He tangled with film distributors who would try to beat him out of money and others who were uninterested in any material unless it followed a proven storytelling format.

"My staff was depressed," Schwarze said. "There came a point when we had to ask ourselves how long would we keep losing money and keep trying something that wasn't working. That's the definition of crazy, isn't it?"

When it comes to making money, Schwarze said he hopes his short films will win some notoriety for Vision Dynamics. The runaway success on iTunes of TV shows like "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" has him wondering if he can't one day sell clips to the public or sell advertising.

Web historians might say that this isn't the first time the Web was supposed to supplant Hollywood.

Six years ago, a wave of companies struck out to supply Web audiences with video clips and short films. But the technology wasn't up to the task and supplied jerky, unclear footage. Besides that, too few Internet users accessed the Web with high-speed connections. Most of the companies perished in the dot-com collapse.

Though the technology is far superior now, and more people are watching, Reitman has his doubts about whether individual filmmakers can generate big revenue online.

He said the problem is that even short films cost money. He also noted that Hollywood has an established revenue model for one simple reason: That model works. What the rise of Internet video actually does present, he said, is an unprecedented opportunity for talented people to display that talent.

"I love short stories, but I don't think this is a get-rich-quick scheme," Reitman said.

Nevertheless, when video was first invented, they talked about how the next Spielberg would be an amateur home moviemaker, he added. "Now we know the next Spielberg is going to upload his movie to the Web, and it's going to be e-mailed around the world, and all of a sudden this kid will have a household name. It's very exciting."

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