Web prod’n spikes but will it pay off?

Production activity for online growing at a fast clip

Netflix’s announcement of the Feb. 1 premiere date for its David Fincher-Kevin Spacey drama “House of Cards” is sure to bring more attention to the gold rush of investment in wholly original scripted content made for Internet platforms.

Aside from Netflix’s high-profile gambles, with “Cards” and the revival of “Arrested Development,” the dollars committed to these made-fors are not huge, but industry pros’ production activity for the Web is growing at a fast clip.

YouTube primed this pump considerably by passing out seed money to Hollywood creatives as part of its push to launch 100 dedicated channels offering original content. The Internet behemoth is so enamored with its powers of creation that on Sunday, YouTube content boss Robert Kyncl unveiled in a blog post plans to add more than 50 more channels and expand its focus beyond the U.S. to France, the U.K. and Germany. YouTube also intends to spend more than $200 million just to market its myriad channels in the coming year, according to the New York Times. You can do that when your parent company’s stock hasn’t closed below $500 in more than a year.

Zeroing in on scripted content, I remain extremely skeptical about the prospects for made-for-Internet productions from a business perspective. Setting aside the creative opportunities, which are considerable, the path to profitability seems to focus on using the Web as an incubator to pique network and studio interest in developing a property as a traditional TV show or film. Think Cartoon Network and “Annoying Orange” or CBS and “S*** My Dad Says.” Comedy Central added fuel to the fire on Monday by ordering a pilot based on the Web skein “Broad City.”

Because I am such a skeptic, I reached out to two established filmmakers who have thrown themselves into the new-media world order, Jon Avnet and Rodrigo Garcia. The pair spearhead the YouTube channel Wigs, which has served up an impressive array of scripted skeins and shorts since it bowed in May. After more than a year of developing content, most of it served up over three to 10 episodes running 6 to 10 minutes apiece, Avnet and Garcia have seen the future, and it is now.

“We are the studio. We are the network. We are the producers and the writers and the directors,” Garcia said. “And we are the completion bonds,” Avnet added.

With seed money provided by YouTube, the pair rented studio space in Culver City and reached out to industry friends and associates to get projects going. The response has been overwhelming, even from creatives who have no shortage of higher-paying gigs. Marta Kauffman, Neil LaBute, Scott Turow, Mitch Albom, Lesli Linka Glatter, Jennifer Garner, Maura Tierney, Jason O’Mara, Jena Malone and Julia Stiles are among those who’ve worked on Wigs productions.

Avnet and Garcia have had a number of calls from traditional biz outlets interesting in pursuing development deals for Wigs properties. That may happen over time, Avnet says, but that’s not the endgame. For now, they’re more intrigued by the interest from advertisers in doing more expansive deals with Wigs that would allow them to expand the scope of their activities.

“Just from a learning point of view, it’s been very instructive to learn how to write and direct for this format,” Garcia said. “I don’t think the whole enterprise (of scripted Internet content) will be a bust. If it’s not Wigs, there’ll be someone who finally breaks through on this new platform. This is going to stick.”

Avnet and Garcia are also quick to note that Wigs productions are all done under new media-specific guild contracts — a point that was important to them in proving the legitimacy of the platform.

“Creating a new model for production and challenging your assumptions about what things cost — that keeps you nimble,” Avnet says. “As the industry tries to figure out how movies are going to be made and financed in the future, the things that YouTube is doing right now may be a big part of it in the next five years.”

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