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Indies and the Internet

As the majors hold off, independent outfits brave Web trail

HOLLYWOOD – When it comes to Hollywood’s marriage with the ‘Net, especially on the film side, the Web way is still an indie player’s game.

Eyed as one of the newest windows to distribute video-based content, such as feature-length films or TV shows, the Internet has yet to entice the major studios to unload their libraries online.

Yet smaller indie studios seem willing to test the digital waters with distribution deals.

Most recently, Miramax Films, the biggest indie of them all, pacted with pay-per-view Netcaster Sightsound.com to make 12 of its pics available for rent via downloads to a computer hard drive before the end of the year. Whether Miramax gems such as “The English Patient,” “The Cider House Rules” or “Shakespeare in Love” will be one of the pics is doubtful, however.

But Miramax is positioning itself just in case viewing pics on the Web happens to take off. Potential wins could far outweigh the potential losses.

“As use of the Internet is rapidly expanding, Sightsound.com has provided us with an excellent opportunity to try this new medium for distribution of our films,” Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein said cautiously when its deal was announced.

Miramax’s move could be the step forward Netcasters have been hoping for by Hollywood, providing the lead for others to follow. At least that’s what Pennsylvania-based Sightsound is hoping for.

“While others just talk about their future distribution methods, we applaud Miramax for being a trendsetter,” says Scott Sander, CEO and prexy of Sightsound.com.

On the production side, Franchise Pictures (“The Whole Nine Yards,” “Battlefield Earth”) in March inked a five-year-deal with Sightsound to broadcast 35 yet-to-be determined pics. The pact gives Sightsound exclusive worldwide Internet rights to titles from Franchise’s library; Netizens will pay a fee per pic.

Deal marked producer and Franchise chairman-CEO Elie Samaha and prexy Andrew Stevens’ entrance into the digital distrib game.

“The future of our business is clearly tied to the power of the Internet,” Samaha said at the time of the deal’s announcement.

Future pics that may or not be released on Sightsound as part of the deal include “The Art of War,” starring Wesley Snipes; “Angel Eyes,” with Jennifer Lopez, “Get Carter,” starring Sylvester Stallone; and “The Pledge,” with Jack Nicholson.

Sightsound, itself, bowed its own $3 million pic “Quantum Project” on May 5, a 45-minute sci-fi pic starring Stephen Dorff, John Cleese and Fay Masterson under the helm of production designer Eugenio Zanetti (“The Haunting”). Metafilmics (“What Dreams May Come”) produced.

Sightsound will charge $2.95 for rentals, and $20 to download and own the pic on a computer hard drive.

Artisan Entertainment teamed with Sightsound for an exclusive Internet broadcast of “Pi,” but opted not to continue its relationship after the event only attracted 100 viewers.

Artisan has since pacted with video-on-demand service Intertainer for the digital production and distribution of five pics, each costing about $500,000 (Intertainer gets Internet rights to the pics after Artisan shows them theatrically).

Under terms of the deal, the pics will be showcased on Intertainer’s cable TV- and Internet-based service, soon to roll out on various cable set-top boxes nationwide.

Artisan has also invested an undisclosed figure in In-fopost.com, a Web-based marketplace for downloadable content.

Trimark Pictures is readying to take off the covers on Cinemanow.com, the com-pany’s own Netcasting operation that will show 250 to 300 of the studio’s pics, including the “Leprechaun” and “Warlock,” series, and highbrow pics like “Eve’s Bayou” and Gregg Araki’s “Doom Generation” as well as others acquired for the site.

Similar to Artisan, Trimark was one of the first Hollywood players to test the Netcasting waters by teaming up with Broadcast.com. Trimark let the deal expire and opted to create its own venture and focus on generating its own dot-com dollars. Company has a deal to be the exclusive online provider of pics for streaming-media company Vidnet.

Right now, results in viewership numbers and revenues are few and varied. Big bucks have yet to be made from distributing a pic online as audiences still aren’t clamoring to view pics on a computer monitor: Their televisions still work, their DVD players provide crisper pictures and sound, and movie theaters sell the better popcorn.

Cinemanow plans to make the trip to Cannes and sell its services to attendees. It also made a big splash at the recent Yahoo! Internet Life Film Festival.

And for the few Hollywood players that have attempted to play on the Web, the losses aren’t business-threatening. Netcasters are begging for content and aren’t likely to charge studios exorbitant online distrib fees. So far, revenues are still mostly dependent on advertising, but Sightsound.com and Intertainer’s model of charging fees for pics could change that.

Among Netcasters, few besides AtomFilms have been able to build a business and generate profits by distribbing short films offline on video, airlines or cable channels. And now, the Seattle-based company is sending 25 shorts to handheld devices similar to PalmPilots that use Microsoft’s PocketPC operating system. Thirty-second advertisements will run in front of each full-color short.

If the shorts prove successful on handheld devices and financially lucrative, the move could prompt the major studios to follow suit and turn it into a more open window to distrib pics than the Internet.

“We see these devices as entertainment devices,” says Adam Flick, online content czar for AtomFilms. “And we see them as a way to change the way people will be entertained on the go. We will drive the sales of these devices by offering a great experience on the content side. Plus you get all of the other benefits.”

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