Many look online for break, but it's getting crowded

When he graduated from Yale and moved to Los Angeles in 2008, Doug Lieblich thought that creating a Web series could help him land a job in television. Instead, he ended up making a TV pilot through 20th Century Fox’s Inkubation program for young writers — which resulted in his getting a writing gig on a Web series.

Like many showbiz newcomers, Lieblich had thought of the Internet as a nontraditional road to a traditional job. But his success story (on CW’s Web series “Gallerina”) points out that there are no longer any road maps in a quickly changing job market.

Showbiz never offered traditional career paths in the way that, for example, the insurance industry or retail did. But even the familiar routes of the last few decades are shrinking or disappearing. And while the Web provides a good start for many newcomers, many industry veterans are crowding that scene, meaning more competition to get noticed.

In short, the economic downturn and the digital revolution have created a world of confusion, frustration and opportunities for job-seekers, and the path to success seems to be to follow Lieblich’s example: Have a plan, but be prepared to alter it.

A few years ago, Web-only content seemed like a last-resort choice for showbizzers. However, the old routes are closing up. “There just aren’t as many traditional assistant jobs as there used to be,” says Peter Heller, assistant dean of development and industry relations at UCLA. “That was really a way that everybody started.”

In addition, on-the-lot production deals have declined 46% since 2000, while independent financing has dried up significantly since its mid-2000s heyday. As of April, the six major studios had 158 deals with producers or production companies, compared with an all-time high of 292 in 2000 (Variety, April 29-May 5, 2012).

With more people turning to the Web for entertainment, the number of digital content companies has increased dramatically over the past two years. A few established names, like Will Ferrell and Seth Green, create content exclusively for the Internet, and they have been joined by others. Last month, Tom Hanks debuted his dystopian series “Electric City” on Yahoo!, just days before Jerry Seinfeld’s premiere episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” uploaded to YouTube’s Crackle channel.

UCLA recently began a course to teach students how to create content targeted for the Web, and Heller often points students toward the social networking, new media and branded content space, areas where people are developing material for emerging platforms like cell phones or iPads. “I think students need to look at those areas as different ways of using the same skills,” he says.

Joe Pichirallo, an undergraduate dean at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, says that the traditional ways of distributing or conveying stories are changing drastically. “But at the same time,” he adds, “whether you’re doing a reality television show, a cable television show or a big-budget movie, it still all comes back to you and your skill set.”

Pichirallo says that while NYU strives to give filmmaking students an education that can include producing their own student pics — the university emphasizes storytelling ability first and foremost, even while encouraging students to look at digital media and emerging platforms.

“What can I stay to a parent who’s going to be spending all this money?” he says. “The ability to tell stories and communicate thoughts, ideas and emotions is essential to whatever profession you’re in.”

But the kinds of stories many filmmaking students want to tell, Pichirallo adds, don’t always complement the increasing appetite for commercial, tentpole fare — especially in the independent world in which many might have traditionally found themselves soon after graduation.

Because of that, Pichirallo says he encourages students to look at opportunities in television. With dozens of new cable channels sprouting up in recent years, many networks are making a big splash into original programming, often edgy and dark, to distinguish a channel’s brand as well as to attract viewers. Reality television may also be filling a hole left by the decrease in more typical entry-level, apprenticeship jobs which often served as a gateway into the business.

“The irony is that right now … if you want to do something in the dramatic vein, you have a higher chance of getting something like that made in television,” he says, noting the advice applies particularly to reality TV.

“I’m going to give serious consideration to adding some courses on that, because my students are more likely to get hired on a reality TV show than on a feature film,” he says. “Something like that can be a training ground while you’re waiting to make your more Sundance-(type) feature.”

Adds UCLA’s Heller: “There never was a (single) career path in the entertainment industry. But I think there are several general areas where (you can) start to see some kind of a trend.”

The bad news is that the increase in competition makes its harder for someone breaking in to get a project noticed. The good news is that more competition has also meant more paid jobs online, especially from original Web content companies like Maker Studios and Machinima.

“One of the reasons we started our company (is) to drive new audiences to people we think are talented,” says Ben Donovan, a Maker co-founder. Maker started with just a handful of staffers in 2009, according to Donovan, and has since grown to more than 100 employees in production alone. Donovan says those jobs aren’t all going to veteran industryites, but to fresh talent as well. “We’ve definitely provided … a lot of jobs to young people who are already great at what they do or are honing their craft,” he says.

Maker has attracted established industry talent as well. Former “South Park” scribe Glasgow Phillips heads its animation department, while former “SNL” producer Samantha Scharff runs development. The shingle also has partnerships with talent including Snoop Dogg, Bobby Lee and Andy Milonakis.

More production shingles are turning to Web content as a cost-effective way to create material that could eventually end up on other platforms.

That’s CW’s plan for “Gallerina” along with a handful of other Web-based shows it announced at this year’s upfronts.

The network knows many of its viewers consume its product online. In fact, during the upfronts, Rick Haskins, exec veep of marketing and digital programming at CW, said that 18% of all in-season consumption of CW series occurs on a combination of CWTV.com; Hulu Plus, which shares the next-day window with CW’s website; and the free component of Hulu, which gets episodes one week after the TV airdate.

All of this helps lend legitimacy to an increasingly competitive space, one that may be training more and more future filmmakers.

While Lieblich calls the Internet an excellent place for young writers, he also notes, the Web is saturated with topnotch content. “Unlike any of the other projects I’ve done, (“Gallerina”) is actually going (to be) for public consumption,” says Lieblich. But still, there’s an industry wariness about the new medium. “I think a lot of people treat the Web as the neglected cousin in the attic eating fish heads,” he concludes. “(But it’s) an excellent place for young writers.”

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