Filmmakers may do well from demise of dot-coms

HOLLYWOOD — POP fizzled and DEN is done, but what happened to the programming acquired or created by these once high-profile entertainment Web sites?

The initial perception is that the demise of a dot-com means the death of any project affiliated with the site.

Yet filmmakers are proving to be the winners in the Internet content-creation game, winning back rights to their films or Webisodes from failed sites.

While shorts were never designed as real money-makers, the Net has proven a gold mine for filmmakers, who are now able to sell their short films to a struggling Web site, take back the rights after it shutters, then sell the projects to another destination over and over again.

More money is always a good thing, but more viewings by Netizens also mean more exposure for upcoming talent.

“Short films were always calling cards to begin with and they’re still calling cards,” says Lisa Lindo, an agent at ACME Talent & Literary. “No one’s in the business to make short films. They want to direct films or TV projects. Short films, whether they are aired on the Web or not, showcase their talent.”

Overall, POP had more than 100 short films and a dozen Webisodic programs it was planning to bow when it launched, including “Ron Howard’s Dreams,” featuring animated dream sequences by Steven Spielberg, Noah Wyle, Matthew McConaughey and Drew Barrymore.

More than half of POP’s acquired films went back to the filmmakers. The other half — mostly comedies — will appear on CountingDown.com through a POP-branded channel.

“If (DreamWorks co-founder) Jeffrey Katzenberg is still behind keeping the POP brand alive, he’ll show what the company acquired and produced and try to find some way to make money from it,” says one former high-level POP.com employee.

The story is different at DEN, where most of the programming never made it onto the Gen-Y site.

Trapped in Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings, DEN is waiting for the greenlight to sell off its library of hours of content, which it spent tens of millions of dollars to produce inhouse.

“Some 80% of the intellectual property at DEN never saw the light of day,” says the exec. “There’s a lot of good stuff that never made it onto the site. It was like a Christmas tree that only had 10% of the ornaments put on it.”

“Many sites like POP are giving back the films they licensed from filmmakers,” says Lindo, who has helped clients sell programming to sites Voxxy.com, Z.com, Hypnotic.com and Icebox.com.

“On the other hand, the films the sites produced are being kept for their own libraries to sell on their own. They made it. It’s their baby.”

For example, Lindo clients Taz Goldstein and Robert Moniot sold the 20-minute live-action short “The Dancing Cow” to POP for $2,000 at Sundance. The pic was the first to sell to the Netcaster, even with other sites offering thousands more for the short.

POP swap

However, when POP, spearheaded by DreamWorks and Imagine Entertainment, failed to launch, Lindo swooped in to make sure the rights reverted to the filmmakers.

The three-minute short “Dare,” created by helmer Campbell Graham, also sold to POP, which was then contracted to produce three additional Webisodes.

This time, POP held onto the entire series, since it spent as much as $2,000 for the first short and an additional $9,000 to $15,000 for the other episodes, which were shot in London.

Internet content syndicator Mondo Media sold its animated Web strip “Happy Tree Friends” to POP in the spring, giving the Netcaster firstrun rights, consisting of a month’s window of exclusivity.

After that time, the property would have returned to Mondo to syndicate to other Web sites, which is a typical deal point for Mondo.

Mondo says it was fairly compensated as part of the POP deal — it sells packages of 13-26 episodes for $500 each — and received the program back in its hands.

“There was a payment schedule and they paid for whatever shows that we delivered to them,” says John Evershed, CEO of San Francisco-based Mondo Media.

One week after POP announced its closure in September, Mondo found another buyer for “Happy Tree Friends” in iCast.com, which wanted 24 episodes. Again, Mondo received its typical window of exclusivity, as part of the deal.

“We were delighted that iCast saw the same value in ‘Happy Tree Friends,’ ” Evershed says.

While critics were mixed on DEN’s mostly live-action shows, including “Tales from the East Side,” “Redemption High,” “Fear of the Punk Planet,” “Aggronation” and “Frat Ratz,” a former high-level executive at the Santa Monica-based company says Netizens were shown very little of the site’s programming.

Everything that was created included not just the show, but interactive elements, games and features such as extra interviews with show characters or cast members.

DEN may be a downer

Although some industryites say DEN produced content that could have easily crossed over to a cabler such as MTV, some say that the history of the company’s three letters tarnish any salable programming the site ever had.

Yet DEN’s initials may not necessarily be a deal breaker.

The company only months ago successfully auctioned off a warehouse filled with computer hardware, office equipment, even several Ford cars.

“I don’t think that the people who bought the desks or computers hesitated about buying them because they were at DEN,” says the DEN exec. “When Ben Affleck is standing in line to get DEN’s assets, it shows people will buy anything.

“Imagine if the Fox network had its plug pulled. There would be six episodes of this, five episodes of that. That’s the same with DEN. I think people will discover there are a lot of bargains to pick up.”

So far, filmmakers aren’t having to fight for their rights with dot-coms.

But horror stories are bound to emerge.

Dealmakers warn that when inking a content deal with a Netcaster, filmmakers should consider:

  • Getting an agent or manager to broker deals, so that they don’t sign their programming away forever.

  • Ink a non-exclusive deal or get something in writing that says if the site doesn’t air the program or even if the site doesn’t launch by a certain date, the filmmaker gets the project back.

  • Demand marketing or advertising. Sites are paying very little upfront for programming. And since filmmakers are licensing their films to sites for much less than what they shot the project for, they should demand as much as possible, including premier placement of the project on the Web site, banner ads, billboards, etc.

  • Include language for the reversion of rights, calling for the return of the project to the filmmaker after a period of exclusivity on the site.

“The important thing is to draft language in contracts protecting yourself if a site doesn’t go live when they say they will,” Mondo’s Evershed says. “You can make a deal for a show in March, and then in November the site hasn’t launched and they are still sitting on your shows.”

That doesn’t help the filmmaker or the syndicator.

When a show goes live two or three months later than planned, a content creator suffers because they are expecting to receive revenues that come in later than anticipated. Creators want to prove that they are performing, that the content they created is up and live, not sitting on someone’s computer.

For Mondo, the longer a Netco waits to launch, the longer they also have to wait to get the content back to syndicate to other sites.

“Filmmakers need to be smart about sending their projects to a Web site,” Lindo says, suggesting that no matter what happens to a short piece of entertainment content, Internet projects should still be viewed as promotional material to land filmmakers traditional TV and film deals.

(Tim Swanson contributed to this report).

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