HOLLYWOOD — Before the Internet economy flatlined, the Web was hailed as revolutionary force in two respects: It was both a new venue for entertainment viewing and an electronic talent scout. With content sites all but gone, the latter option seems to be the most viable, using the Web to incubate the ideas of unknown talent and put them before the ever-roaming eye of Hollywood. In the past year, as many showbiz traditionalists have written off the Web entirely, five projects have been plucked from cyberspace with designs on developing them into feature films.
All five pic projects have their genesis in either online contests or cartoons. Four of the five are either close to or already in production, and — barring the biz’s usual glitches and bugs — will be coming to a theater near you sooner than later.
“Undercover Brother” (picked up from UrbanEntertainment.com in May 2000) — The first project picked up off the Internet, Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment paid $2 million in May 2001 for the film rights to this animated Web series created by scribe John Ridley (“Three Kings”).
Webisodes follow mild-mannered Anton Jackson, a black man who secretly fights for the Brotherhood against the white establishment.
The script, penned by Ridley, generated good buzz around town.
“Being part of a new wave of developing properties online isn’t enough to get the attention of the studio anymore,” Urban Entertainment co-topper Michael Jenkinson says. “It helps to have talent attached that the studios are interested in working with.”
Developed into a live-action film helmed by Malcolm Lee (“The Best Man”), the pic started production in late March and stars Eddie Griffen, Dave Chappelle, Neil Patrick Harris and Denise Richards.
Brian Grazer will produce along with Urban Entertainment’s Jenkinson and Damon Lee. Pic is skedded for release in 2002.
“Lil’ Pimp” (picked up from MediaTrip.com in August) — Last August, Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios purchased animated series “Lil’ Pimp” from creators Mark Brooks and Peter Gilstrap, who created the Net toon about a nine-year-old freckled faced boy who hustles prostitutes with his pimping pals.
Brooks and Gilstrap are now scripting, helming and producing the Flash-animated feature on which 10 animators started production in March at Lil’ Pimp Prods in Santa Monica. Pic is skedded to hit theaters in 2002.
“Lil’ Pimp” will be the first theatrically released feature to be animated using Macromedia’s Flash software, a decision which left many wondering how the images, originally intended to be viewed on a computer monitor, would translate to the silver screen.
“We’ve done some 35 mm tests,” explains Brooks. “The animation looks a little chunky, but will end up looking similar to ‘South Park.’ ”
Series, picked up from MediaTrip.com, the Web site that handles online marketing for Revolution’s pics, figures to get an “R” rating, which may limit the pic’s theatrical play.
“Cameron’s Line” (contest winner, picked up in January) — At the Sundance Film Fest last January, 36-year-old David Von Ancken won Hypnotic.com‘s Million Dollar Film Festival in which Universal and the Web ponying up a collective $1 million to help a novice lense a feature film.
“It will be a long time before the Internet can be used to reliably harness talent,” Hypnotic CEO Jeremy Bernard says. “The contest offers a framework and a timeline. It’s a good way to bundle everything together and sell it to sponsors.”
Von Ancken is busy writing the script, which centers how the lives of four characters — a bike messenger, a mailroom clerk, a TV reporter and cab driver — are changed after a major earthquake in Manhattan.
Pic will be produced by Propaganda Films and distribbed by Universal.
Script is due to U in June, and casting will start this summer, with the cameras slated to roll in the early fall. A tentative theatrical release has been set for spring 2002.
Hypnotic will launch a second Million Dollar Film Fest this fall.
“Stolen Summer” (contest winner, picked up in March) — Project Greenlight, an online screenwriting contest hosted by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s entertainment Netco LivePlanet, Miramax and HBO, handed 31-year-old production assistant Pete Jones $1 million to direct and produce his screenplay.
At the same time, Miramax Television is documenting the making of the movie for a 13-episode series slated to air on HBO in early next year. Pic is being produced by Affleck, Damon, Live Planet’s Chris Moore, Jeff Balis and Sean Bailey as well as Billy Campbell, prexy of Miramax TV.
According to Moore, “Miramax has increased the budget significantly because the script attracted a great cast and deserved more money.”
In pre-production, “Stolen Summer” began casting in late April, with Aidan Quinn signing on to star, Kevin Pollak in a supporting role and Brian Dennehy making a cameo in the pic, which centers on a Irish-Catholic father forced to evaluate his beliefs when his son befriends a Jewish boy.
The 25-day shoot starts May 18 in Chicago. Miramax will distrib the pic with a tentative theatrical release set for early 2002.
Project Greenlight will hold its second screenwriting contest next fall.
“7th Portal” (picked up from StanLeeMedia.com in June 2000) — While the four films in active development come from Netcos that are still alive and kicking, this one comes from a company that was among the rash of failed Netcos. It has been back-burnered by producer Mark Canton.
Canton (“Angel Eyes”) inked a deal with comic book icon Stan Lee in June to develop a live-action version of animated Web series “Portal” which featured Internet geeks as superheros who save the world.
Canton had planned to take the series from StanLeeMedia.com to Warner Bros., where he has an exclusive production pact.
But since the collapse of the Netco, the project seems to have languished in development hell. Canton declined to comment on the status of the property, but insiders say it’s not a priority for the producer.
(Marc Graser contributed to this report.)