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Paramount bets big on Web serials

Tom Lesinski, president of Paramount Digital Entertainment, is bullish on Web video and believes the platform is an untapped goldmine for the big studios.

Austin Highsmith (left) and Ryan Doom, members of the cast of "Circle of Eight," a slick-looking Web-based show from Paramount Digital Entertainment.
Paramount Digital Entertainment

The story begins with an attractive young woman moving into a mottled and murky Los Angeles apartment building, where all her neighbors are either beautiful or look like gnomes.

A viewer doesn't have wait long before "Circle of Eight," a Web-series from Paramount Digital Entertainment, fills up fast with supernatural events and dead bodies. "Circle" debuted Tuesday on MySpace.

Remember the glory days of online video, when amateur-made fare, such as the "Lonelygirl15" series, were the rage? Consider that Web video's silent era. It's all about professionally created content now.

YouTube is out trying to sign licensing deals for long-form movies and TV shows. Hulu offers the full-length TV shows from backers NBC Universal and News Corp., as well as other top studios and networks.

But no one seems to know is whether there is any money in Web-only content. There hasn't been a made-for-online show that has successfully built a wide following--at least by Hollywood's standards. Paramount, which plans to release a slate of Web-video series, obviously spent big money--by Web standards--to produce "Circle of Eight." Will the studio get its money back?

"I think the people who tell you that it can't be done have a different strategy than us," said Thomas Lesinski, president of Paramount Digital. "Our goal is to create professional content that is supported by digital distribution...I can't give you the budget (for Circle of Eight) but I can tell you that it was not inexpensive. (Others have tried this) but they weren't high-production value, scripted shows. We think it will be interesting to prove the platform can support high-quality."

As one of the top six Hollywood film studios, Paramount has the kind of advertiser relationships that most amateurs or small productions will never have. Mountain Dew, Adobe, and Blockbuster are some of the sponsors of "Circle of Eight." Expect plenty of product placements in the accompanying social-gaming segments.

The first three episodes debuted on Tuesday and the next two will appear on November 3.