Crackle takes crack at scripted series

Sony arm enlists 'Whisperer,' 'Sons' scribes

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Crackle is getting into scripted longform original series, looking to carve a space in the growing arena of digitally streamed original content alongside Netflix.

The digital-only video network has begun signing established TV writers and producers — including the creators of CBS series “Ghost Whisperer” — to script deals in anticipation of rolling out its first half-hour show later this year.

Projects being considered include:

• “Monster Heist,” a series from the “Whisperer” writer-producer team of Kim Moses and Ian Sander that focuses on a crew of thieves who happen to not be human;

• an untitled anthology series that tells paranormal stories in the vein of “The X-Files,” from Chris Collins, a producer on FX series “Sons of Anarchy”;

• and “Strand Street,” the tale of a rookie undercover cop who infiltrates a gang in his childhood town, from “Heroes” star Milo Ventimiglia.

Sony is looking to put Crackle’s first half-hour series into production this summer with an eye on a release as early as the fall.

Crackle has subsisted to date on a mix of short-form originals along with hundreds of TV series and movies from the Sony library. But Eric Berger, exec VP of digital networks at Sony Pictures Television, believes the time was right to invest in longform scripted productions that would make a better fit in the Crackle lineup alongside the likes of “Seinfeld” episodes and theatricals like “The Da Vinci Code” and “Ghostbusters.”

“Short-form episodes had their role on sites like YouTube and other places as the market was developing,” he said. “But we think we can create something longer with real talent behind it that can sit side by side with our great library.”

It’s been a transformative year for Crackle, which has graduated from being a Web- and mobile-based brand to an app on a bevy of new platforms including Google TV, Roku, Apple’s iPad and Sony’s own connected devices including the Playstation gaming console and Bravia TV sets. The free app has tallied 1.8 million downloads worldwide since debuting mid-April, on the way to becoming the top entertainment app in Apple’s App Store in the U.S., U.K. and Australia.

The move to longform programming is indicative not only of Crackle’s maturation since being launched by Sony four years ago but of the entire category of digital streaming services. Last month, Netflix announced its own foray into scripted original series with the Kevin Spacey drama “House of Cards” expected next year, and YouTube and Microsoft’s XBox are exploring that territory as well.

They’re all betting that viewers are more accustomed to streaming or downloading longform programming, in stark contrast to the multi-minute time limits that were standard online just a few years ago. Crackle itself was a purveyor of “minisodes,” which condensed episodes of Sony-owned series like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Diff’rent Strokes” into five-minute bites.

More recently, Crackle has concentrated its original-programming efforts on scripted short-form series; the bulk of the revenues for these came on the backend when episodes were stitched together into 90-minute films sold to DVD and international markets.Sony will keep the new series on par with budgets for those 90-minute productions, which cost about $1 million each. It’s a lower-cost model than what Netflix is pursuing with “Cards,” and the series will be limited to orders of just four to six episodes, though additional seasons could be ordered.

While Crackle still has some more short-form originals in its pipeline, that aspect of its business will be phased out as the focus switches to long form. The backend will still be the linchpin of Crackle’s new model, with series that will be ready-made for resale to everything from iTunes to Netflix to cable video-on-demand.

Like everything on Crackle, the series will be free to stream but with commercial breaks akin to TV ad loads. Crackle could elect to sell exclusive sponsorships of series to marketers, but will not pursue branded-entertainment deals.

Many of the short and long-form serials that have been launched by myriad dotcoms in recent years have let Madison Avenue dictate the creative in exchange for the dollars required to finance those productions — an arrangement some critics have noted has stunted the growth of the genre.