Intertainer and Artisan Entertainment Enter Into Digital Production and Distribution Pact
BY JON HEALEY
Mercury News Staff Writer
Filmmaker Tim Burton is known for taking audiences to forbidding but
strangely beautiful worlds, like the Penguin's icy lair in "Batman
Now Burton and a growing number of Tinseltown artists and dealmakers are
taking Hollywood onto the wild and fickle Internet -- not just to hype their
movies and TV shows, but also to create original programming for the new
San Francisco-based Shockwave.com plans to announce today that Burton will
develop a series of short cartoons for the site, starting this spring. The
animated stories, which will available free, will give Burton a launching
pad for characters that could later appear on the big screen.
Also this spring, Robin Williams is set to debut a half-hour comedy show
exclusively for Audible.com. And "Seinfeld'' co-creator Larry David is one
of several TV and film veterans producing original animation for startup
Even the studios are getting into the act: Artisan Entertainment, maker of
"The Blair Witch Project,'' has struck a five-picture deal with
Intertainer, a company that delivers music and video entertainment digitally
through high-speed phone or cable connections.
Artist and studios "look at the content that's on the Web today, and they
say, `We could do better than that,' '' said Icebox.com chief executive
Steve Stanford, a former Hollywood agent. "We don't necessarily get all the
tech stuff, but the medium has gotten to the point where it's not about
technology....It's about storytelling.''
The money-making allure of a dot-com doesn't hurt.
Rob Burgess, chief executive of Macromedia and Shockwave.com, recalls a
recent conversation with Brad Grey of Brillstein/Grey, a leading Hollywood
management and production company.
"With a big smile on his face, he said, `Rob, you just can't imagine the
rage down here in Hollywood,' '' Burgess said. " `We're the ones who are
used to being the ridiculously overpaid guys. Now you guys are. And
everybody's upset about it.' ''
The Internet also offers artists dramatically lower production costs, a
direct connection to the audience and a bigger cut of the profits -- a truly
magical combination. With upwards of $50 billion worth of music and video
entertainment that could be transported over the Internet, there's plenty of
motive to make it work.
Of course, there's no proof yet that entertainment on the Internet can draw
the kind of audience and dollars that TV and movies do. Nor do many American
homes have the high-speed Internet link needed to deliver the video quality
that people expect from Hollywood.
In addition, not everyone in Hollywood is convinced that the Internet is a
good place for entertainment, particularly not the 90-plus minutes of a
feature film. Even companies that like the idea of distributing films over
the Internet see it as a stepchild to theaters and VCRs.
For example, Artisan's deal with Intertainer gives Artisan the right to
release their jointly produced films in theaters and video stores before
Intertainer can distribute it electronically over a digital network. It
exerts this control even though Intertainer is putting up most of the money
to make the films, whose average budget is around $500,000.
"Artisan still believes in the theatrical release,'' said Amir Malin, the
company's president. That's because most filmgoers prefer the big-screen
Given the state of most people's Internet connections today, that's
understandable. It takes a lot of data to transmit a moving image, and the
typical dial-up modem can handle only a fraction of it. Even the new
high-speed Internet connections from phone and cable TV companies may not
have the capacity needed for full-screen, cinema-quality videos.
On the other hand, the potential audience for Internet-based entertainment
has skyrocketed over the past few years, with more than 50 percent of homes
now boasting a computer with an Internet account. Meanwhile, as high-speed
connections gradually spread to more homes, advances in digital technology
are steadily improving the quality of Internet video transmissions.
Moreover, the path from artist to audience is direct on the Internet. The
music industry is already feeling the impact, as Internet technologies like
MP3 let consumers download songs directly from artists.
Richard Baskin, chairman and co-chief executive of Intertainer, said the
company's founders left the Hollywood studio scene four years ago "when we
realized that the entire industry would change because all of the mechanisms
of distribution were changing and breaking down.'' Not only is it far less
expensive to shoot a movie in digital, he said, but filmmakers also save a
tremendous amount by cutting out the studio middleman and distributing their
The sticking point for Intertainer, like other new-media video services, is
that live-action movies need a high-capacity pipeline into homes.
High-quality animation, on the other hand, can be done today over a dial-up
Internet connection, which is one reason why artists like Burton and "South
Park'' creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have inked deals with
Burton will oversee a regular series of two- to five-minute cartoons based
on "Stain Boy,'' one of the misbegotten kids who populate his book of
illustrated poems, "The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories.''
"The great thing about this medium is the speed by which you can go from
idea to implementation,'' said Mike Simpson, a top motion-picture executive
at the William Morris Agency, which brought Burton to Shockwave.com. Unlike
TV, where episodes are filmed weeks in advance, the Internet lets Burton
respond quickly as the audience reacts to each new cartoon.
In addition, said Simpson, "we create an audience of people wanting to
watch Stain Boy in the short format, and then we move Stain Boy
to...television in a 30-minute show.''
The best thing -- at least for Burton and his William Morris agents -- is
that Burton will control the rights to Stain Boy and all the dolls, greeting
cards and games that are spun off from it, said Lewis Henderson, vice
president for new media at the agency. Unlike the Hollywood studios, which
generally hold 100 percent of the rights to film and TV characters,
Shockwave.com will merely get a share of the revenue from Stain Boy's
Oh, and yes, Burton is getting an undisclosed amount of Shockwave.com
equity. The director couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.
Like Shockwave.com, Icebox's focus is in animation, where winning ideas
frequently move from short cartoons to half-hour TV shows to feature-length
films. The Internet is "really an incubator for things that can go on to
traditional film and television, at economics that are substantially
better,'' Stanford said.
Stanford started a new media department at the International Creative
Management talent agency back in 1993, when the hot ideas in entertainment
were interactive TV and CD-ROMs. After an initial swell of enthusiasm,
however, Hollywood lost interest -- in part, Stanford said, because "they
didn't see anybody get rich in the CD-ROM business.''
That was before the Web was born, turning the Internet from a computer
programmer's playground into a mass-market phenomenon.
Hollywood's interest in the Web has been building ever since, although the
real momentum is just starting to gather. Some of the pioneering efforts at
original programming on the Web include Digital Entertainment Network, which
devised TV-style series for the Web, and Atom Films, which provided an
outlet for short films that had trouble finding an audience.
Now, Stanford said, "it's amazing the number of people in Hollywood who are
doing Internet things.....There are probably more that haven't been
announced than there have been.''
And to think, Baskin said, only four years ago his friends in Hollywood were
saying, "Oh those idiots, they quit the film business. What could they
possibly have been thinking?''
Contact Jon Healey at firstname.lastname@example.org
or at (323) 782-0173.