Jurgen Wolff’s New Media Bulls-Eye Report

Two questions

Two questions keep coming up about the new media: “What is it?” and: “Can we make any money from it?” For the purposes of this article, the answer to the first question is: original content that is distributed mainly via the internet or mobile phones. The answer to the second question, as it applies to writers, is: “Yes, probably a little now and a lot more later.”

 

Big Business Looks to Little Screens

The new media have attracted a lot of people who wouldn’t be interested if there were no potential for profit. This includes former Disney chief, Michael Eisner, whose investment firm recently announced the founding of a web-based studio called Vuguru. They issued a statement saying they intend to present “high-quality, story-driven content for the Internet.” Their first series, Prom Queen, is a mystery-drama comprised of 80 episodes, each 90 seconds long, for a teen audience. It will be on the Vuguru website and Veoh and YouTube, the ElleGirl site, and via mobile phones. They have lined up sponsors that include Fiji Water and Teleflora.

Another new media provider is GoTV Networks, which supply original programming for mobiles to the major U.S. wireless carriers. This is no small-time operation: they have 100 full-time employees and a 40,000 square-foot studio, and produce about 300 different short-form programmes a month, many of them focusing on music and sports.

Similarly, Sprint (one of the top mobile phone service providers in the U.S.) opened its own 10,000-square-foot mobile TV studio in Manhattan, in conjunction with sports agency IMG. They now produce about 150 hours of new programming per week. Most of it relates to news and sports, but where sports leads, comedy and drama usually are not far behind.

Here in the UK, one pioneer is Monkey Magazine, billed as the world’s first weekly free digital men’s magazine. So far the content is mostly photos of semi-nude young women and links to YouTube videos of “Jackass” type stunts. However, the publishers say it is already in profit, so it may well pave the way for other online magazines that will feature original, paid-for video content.

Advertising agencies are getting in on the act, hiring writers to generate scripts for videos for their clients. I was recently commissioned by an international ad agency to write a 60-second short on behalf of their client, a major computer manufacturer. They requested a comedy spot that could go viral. Then they proceeded to take out all the elements that could possibly make it outrageous and funny enough to motivate people to pass it along to their friends—but their cheque did clear.

John Moshay, head of business development for interactive advertising agency Whitman Hart, told The New York Times, “The marketplace is just beginning to ramp up its demand for [writing] talent like this.”

 

Hardy Pioneers Show the Way

There are also individuals and small companies who have found ways to make the new media pay. “Prom Queen” is produced in conjunction with web video company Big Fantastic, a group of writers, directors, and producers dedicated to telling stories via the new media. They were the team behind the Sam Has 7 Friends, a daily video podcast which followed the path of a fictional aspiring actress named Samantha Breslow. The hook was that the viewers knew from the start that after 80 episodes she would be killed by one of the seven, and they could look at profiles, search for clues, swap opinions on the forum, and so forth. As well as bringing Big Fantastic on board for Prom Queen, Eisner bought the rights to Sam and has an option to produce a sequel.

It’s not yet happening in great numbers, but there are people who are making money from web sites that pay for user-generated content. One is Roy Raphaeli, a magician who has posted 30 brief video clips of his tricks on Metacafe, a site that pays video creators based on how much traffic their work attracts. So far, Raphaeli has made about £7000 (his most popular video has been viewed 1.4 million times).

Canadian martial-arts expert Joe Eigo has earned £12,500 with clips showing him doing amazing high-kicks and flips, and artist Brendan McConnell has made £5000 with his painting demonstrations.

In the arena of scripted programmes, Kent Nichols, who co-created a series of comedy videos called Ask a Ninja, earned more than £10,000 from Revver, a revenue-sharing site, last year and now has a more lucrative advertising contract with another company.

Steven Starr, Revver’s founder/CEO, told Animation World magazine that a content creator with a clip that goes viral can make £500 a week on their site. He said, “It can be a way of making a living, and a good living.”

Other sites that pay for content include Blip.tv, Brightcove, Cruxy, AtomFilms, and DivX Stage6. Some share revenue from ads, others allow the creators to charge a small fee for viewing their programme and take a commission. The same is true of mobile phone content distributors such as Bango and Peperoni.

FemantleMedia are soliciting original content for their mobile phone distribution deal with Sprint. Details are on the AtomicWedgieTV.com site, and while the release they make you sign when you submit clips says only that they will “negotiate a fair and reasonable compensation for [its] use,” I have it on good authority that their rates of compensation are quite good for this kind of material.

Animated fare is very popular on the Internet, and deals are being made in that realm. For instance, the management/production firm Gotham Group has signed a first-look deal with Yahoo! for original animated content. Gotham’s Ellen Goldsmith-Vein told Variety, “The Internet is the only place where you can make a real business out of animated shorts, which is exciting for the talent we work with.”

A word of warning: it’s important to read the fine print when submitting material to sites that pay, as well as to contests. You must be aware of what rights you are giving them. One recent contest claimed non-exclusive rights to exploit all the entries as they saw fit, not just the winner—not acceptable!

 

Is There a Hyphen in Your Future?

At the moment, there is very little market for scripts for online productions; most of the programmes are written, directed, and produced by the same person, and offered in the form of a digital video file. If you’ve always wanted to have complete control, this is the time to seize the day. Get out your digital video camera and learn a simple editing programme and you’re on your way.

If you don’t want to be a one-man or one-woman band, Big Fantastic can provide a good role model: get together a few people with diverse skills and make videos on a co-op basis. There is never any shortage of actors wanting to work while they wait for something bigger to come along.

 

The Special Demands of New Media

While all the traditional story-telling skills apply to writing, writers and directors also have to take into account the special characteristics of the new media.

Speaking about producing material for mobile phones, David Bluhm, chairman-CEO of GoTV networks, told “Variety,” “The first thought is, these are small TVs—but they aren’t. The mobile platform is a whole different animal. The story arcs have to be shorter, because people don’t know how long they have before a call comes in or their bus comes.”

Naturally there are also limitations relating to picture size and quality. Citing an example from sports, Bluhm pointed out, “You can’t show something like a tee shot in golf. These phones are getting better, but let’s be realistic—you’d never see the ball.” While the quality of online video is better, some similar restrictions apply.

To set itself apart from what’s available on conventional television, new media shows need to have a hook, and often that will be an element of interactivity. Complimenting the Big Fantastic team, Michael Eisner said, “They have an ability to create a hands-on style of filmmaking that generates network-calibre content but with the kind of intimacy and interactivity web audiences crave.”

 

The Ground Floor

Returning to our original question, it’s plain that there are already ways to make money from new media, especially if you are prepared to be a writer-director-producer. At the moment, the financial returns are low, but there is a lot of potential to get in on the ground floor of an exciting new field. It has been given a vote of confidence by some of Hollywood’s top talent agencies as well.

United Talent Agency has created a department devoted to finding up-and-coming creators of Internet content, especially video, with a view to getting them work in Web-based advertising and entertainment. The William Morris Agency also has a digital media division but that one is devoted to helping existing clients find work in the new media.

The New York Times reported that the three UTA agents assigned to this area “have cut six-figure deals with major media portals and signed a handful of clients whose web-based serials, recurring comedy features, and short digital films have drawn one-time downloads in the millions.” Their new clients include the creators of Ask a Ninja.

When agents become interested in a field, you just know that the big money can’t be far behind.

(Note: Parts of this report appear in Scriptwriter Magazine)

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