Re-vamped Grouper offers original series, clips

At its best, user-generated video may be amusing, but it’s not a business, at least by the standards of a Hollywood major.

Sony Pictures is relaunching today the Internet video-sharing site Grouper, which it bought last year, as Crackle.com, an entertainment site stocked with original series and clips.

The newly minted Netco aims to serve as a haven for up-and-comers by offering a host of contests and competitions to allow newcomers to get their spec material in front of execs from various Sony Pictures divisions and through deals the site has cut with partners like the Improv comedy club chain.

Grouper averaged about 25 million unique viewers per month in its previous incarnation as a site designed to allow friends and family members to share photos and vids.

Josh Felser, founder of Grouper and co-prexy of the Sausalito, Calif.-based Crackle, said the makeover from user-generated video to more polished-looking entertainment fare had been contemplated even before Sony bought the site last August.

User-generated vid has its place on the Web, but “it’s not a business for us,” Felser said. “The content is rarely exclusive, and it’s hard to monetize,” he said, noting that advertisers demand far more certainty on the type of content before they’ll spent big bucks on ad buys.

The new Crackle will offer up numerous channels of original fare, with an emphasis on animation and comedy, such as fresh installments of the live-action comedy “Mr. Deity,” which has been featured on Grouper since March. Like other purveyors of original Web content, Crackle is also focused on syndicating its content on its proprietary vid player to partners ranging from AOL to social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and hi5. Crackle also is hatching plans to get its content front and center on Sony’s PlayStation 3, which hits the sweet spot of Crackle’s target demo.

Crackle has a development and acquisitions team of 15 editors who canvas up-and-coming creatives and spec submissions for new material to either license or develop with an eye toward series production. Felser said most of the material the site features costs between $2,000 to $20,000 to produce and generally runs no more than five minutes per clip or episode.

Crackle has no plans to distribute Sony-produced movies and TV series, though it will be a handy partner for the studio on Web-centric offshoots such as the Firehouse channel linked to the Sony-produced FX drama “Rescue Me.”

To distinguish itself, Crackle aims to tubthump its Sony parentage by holding quarterly contests to select the best submissions in various categories. Winners will receive a cash prize and a trip to Sony’s studios for a pitch meeting and the chance to further develop their spec material with execs at the appropriate division, including Columbia Pictures, Sony Imageworks and Sony Pictures Animation.

On the animation side, Sony Pictures plans to select one short a year to develop on a pro level for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release. In the comedy heat, winners will be flown to Improv clubs in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago to get a 15-minute standup slot or the chance to develop projects through the Improv Comedy Lab.

“We’re going to be giving people cash to help them develop their content and access to the people who can help them take their ideas to the next level,” Felser said.

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