Perception differs from reality when it comes to 'Net filmmakers

If the Internet is supposed to be the new “Star Search” of the 21st century, then Hollywood’s a very tough critic.

Two years after entertainment Netcasters first opened their doors, aspiring filmmakers are finding a tough time using the Web as a way to break into the biz.

While there have been a handful of success stories, the reality is that the 18-year-old aspiring filmmaker in Iowa directing short films about his family’s cows or the perky waitress-wannabe-actress who serves burgers in Chicago and stars in a Web-based “Charlie’s Angels” spoof haven’t been discovered.

And it may be awhile before they are, if ever.

Industryites may be celebrating the entertainment industry’s newfound love for technology, but Hollywood is set in its ways of conducting business. Pitch meetings and VCRs still rule; email, for some, is considered rocket science.

And consider this: Despite all the pomp and circumstance showered upon them, the filmmakers behind “George Lucas In Love” don’t attribute their sudden burst of fame to the Web.

Helmer Joe Nussbaum says that while being exposed on MediaTrip.com helped build buzz and while selling the short on Amazon.com helped make history, sending out copies of the film to producers and agents on traditional VHS tapes was the real reason he has been offered three feature films to direct — DreamWorks’ “Almost Romantic,” MGM’s “Special” and Imagine Entertainment’s “How to Eat Fried Worms.” (All but the last project have been killed.)

The tapes were also the reason he landed more high-profile jobs to direct commercials for Nike, ESPN and Kellogg’s, says Nussbaum, who is repped by Endeavor and Bender-Spink.

Success has followed other “Lucas” alums, as well, but again because of the tapes. Joseph Levy, who served as executive producer, has taken over as head of new media at Bandeira Entertainment, while cinematographer Eric Hayse and composer Deborah Lurie have landed representation at the Gersh Agency and Blue Focus, respectively.

“We’ve gotten the work and representation because people saw ‘George Lucas in Love,'” says Nussbaum, “but not because people saw it on the Web.”

The same is true for David Garrett and Jason Ward, the scribes behind “Sunday’s Game,” a warped short film about a group of elderly women who come together to gossip, reminisce and play Russian roulette.

The perception has long been that the film’s viewership at iFilm.com built the careers of the duo. Not necessarily. Although one of the most popular shorts on iFilm, videotapes of the pic blanketed Hollywood’s agencies and production studios much like “Lucas in Love.” The duo also already had agents and managers, including Pure Arts, on their side.

Yet if the Web wants to take credit for their success, so be it. Garrett and Ward, former co-editors at National Lampoon, are on a roll: They recently signed on to pen three films, “First Job” and an untitled possible directing assignment for DreamWorks-based producers Tom Pollack and Ivan Reitman, as well as the comedy “Monty” for Universal-based producer Bob Simonds. The combined value of the deals exceeds $1 million.

The duo’s “Corky Romano,” which stemmed from an original pitch and character that the scribes offered Disney, began lensing in Los Angeles in early August with Chris Kattan.

Yet the exposure received from being seen on the Web hasn’t hurt.

After “Sunday’s Game” was shown on iFilm, Garrett and Ward quickly landed a two-pilot development deal at Fox, where their comedy “Parts Unknown” is moving forward.

Equally for Nussbaum, “Lucas in Love” has not only become MediaTrip’s most successful short film but the Web’s biggest selling short as well, unloading over 15,000 VHS editions on Amazon. A DVD has also been released.

“The Web definitely helped,” Nussbaum says. “It’s done an incredible job keeping me in the consciousness of Hollywood. It’s extended the shelf life of the short. In a business where everyone asks what are you doing now, you can say, ‘Hey I directed a film that’s selling a lot on Amazon.com.’ Had we not put it on the Web, the shelf life would have been much shorter. Tens of thousands of people now own it because it was on the Web.”

And tens of thousands of new filmmakers are pinning their hopes on having their work seen online by a Hollywood exec.

The reason: A little three-minute movie called “405: The Movie.”

Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt, the filmmakers behind the special f/x-heavy short about an airliner landing atop a car on Los Angeles’ favorite freeway, were quickly snatched up by Creative Artists Agency and commercial production and management house A Band Apart for representation after the short’s buzz and high-concept attracted over 2 million viewers online at iFilm and their own Web site.

The duo, whose day job at the start of the year was creating visual f/x for “The X-Files” and “Star Trek: Voyager,” produced “405” with a budget of $300, using home computers. They spent two days shooting and three months editing at night after work. The short went online in June.

Although Branit and Hunt have yet to land a major directing gig, they are currently working as freelance special-f/x creators.

Had the duo not gone the route of the Web, “405” would have made the rounds at film festivals, a move that could have taken a year without much exposure. With the Web, the short was available around the world in seconds.

“They were able to go the other route — from the Web to offline,” Nussbaum says. “They could become the poster boys for going in that direction. There’s no reason that it can’t be done that way. If we had been more into the Internet, we would have put our film on the Web and then sent out the 300 tapes. But the reason MediaTrip wanted to make us the centerpiece on their site was based on the short and the response it got around town, which validated it.”

MediaTrip’s success with “Lucas in Love” has encouraged the company to expand its efforts when it comes to giving tyros a chance at fame and fortune.

The dot-com, through close ties with Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios, already has awarded roles to aspiring actresses in the upcoming “Tomcats,” and cast several speaking and nonspeaking roles for actors and actresses for “The New Guy,” all with the help of votes from Netizens through separate online contests.

Similarly, Hypnotic.com, through a deal with Universal Studios, is offering roles in upcoming high-profile projects, including “American Pie 2″ to two virtual unknowns.

Of thousands of headshot submissions, 28 were chosen by Universal’s feature casting department for Netizens to vote on. Two winners will receive nonspeaking roles as extras.

“There’s going to be an interest in what happens to their careers,” says Jeremy Bernard, CEO of Hypnotic, formerly ReelShorts.com.

Hypnotic is also in the midst of judging its Million Dollar Festival, where five filmmakers will be chosen from 25 finalists (determined by votes from Netizens who watch the films online) to submit a screenplay or treatment along with their short film to be judged.

The winner is then given the opportunity to direct a script, with Universal and Hypnotic producing. The studio will release the feature in theaters; Hypnotic will handle television rights. The winner will be announced at the Sundance Film Festival.

“It’s not going to be just the winner that benefits from this,” Bernard says. “Not only will the other four finalists benefit, but the other 20 finalists will receive exposure. It’s inevitable that they’ll get attention from the other studios. There’s a ton of great filmmakers out there that don’t have the opportunity to get seen by the right people and get their big break.

“There’s a lot of great people out there that need to be cultivated. That’s what we do. It’s our job to find the best filmmakers, to discover new talent. You have to start somewhere. Our role is to find them and bring them to Universal.”

Little will likely change until a filmmaker like Nussbaum, whether he was truly discovered on the Web or not, directs a film that ends up surprising the industry like “The Sixth Sense” or “The Blair Witch Project.” The adage is always that people don’t really care unless it starts making money. Same is true when it comes to Internet-based filmmakers.

“One hundred percent of what we did was a reel,” Nussbaum says. “We were following in the footsteps of what so many people before us had done.”

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