Breaking in online
The web is one giant episode of Star Search, the most grueling amateur night ever, and the longest casting couch on earth. It turns nobodies into stars (we kiss you, Mahir), and makes celebrities look like idiots (www.melaniegriffith.com). There are now websites that cater to every label-hungry speed-metal band, publisher-weary mystery author, and handheld-home-video whiz. The trouble is, there are already too many choices in digital Hollywood, from simply selling home-brewed CDs on Amazon to throwing your short film into an online popularity contest. Which means that even though the Web lets everyone in on the same news, data, and gossip as Hollywood pros, it doesn’t significantly increase anyone’s chances of becoming the next big thing. But, as you’ll see in the stories below, it can sometimes be a shortcut to success for a few talented souls who go to the right website at the right time. So before taking the Greyhound to Hollywood, see if you can’t kick-start your dream online instead.
So you’ve made a short film that will floor ’em, but you don’t know which floor to send it to, much less how to get it past an assistant’s rotating file. For the right film — and this site chooses carefully — IFILMpro can be the inside connection you don’t have. Filmmakers whose shorts get spotlighted on the site can end up with two-picture deals at Fox (like the writer and producer of Sunday’s Game did) or an MTV directing gig, and loads of publicity. Don’t be fooled into thinking there are Instant Message bidding wars going on here; most of the deals resulting from IFILMpro exposure still get done the old-fashioned way: in person. Still, the website does offer an impressive set of tools to help schmoes act like pros. Along with a Yahoo!-like movie portal, there’s the name- and address-packed Hollywood Creative Directory, a $100 script coverage service called ScriptShark, and a location-scouting mini-site. Plus, some hot and gossip-heavy bulletin boards — so you’ll at least have something to talk about on your next gig as a production assistant.
Just because shaky handheld video is hip these days, that doesn’t mean you’ve got the next Blair Witch Project in your camcorder. Still, you might be able to earn a few bucks for it on Eveo. Every time someone downloads your film — which can be submitted to the website digitally or sent in one of those old analog formats — you get paid a nickel. Phillip Tiongson, a 26-year-old Columbia film school student and MIT Media Lab grad, raked in $1,200 on his $500 class project, Betrayal, after it became one of the site’s most watched shorts. Tiongson at first considered submitting the three-minute film to AtomFilms, but decided on Eveo because it allowed him to retain all the rights to his adultery comedy. Tiongson also won a $100 bonus — which is about as close to an up-front deal as most filmmakers will ever get.
Reading Daily Variety can be daunting for unknowns, and not just because of the $2.50 cover price. The latest news about a big-budget shoot, after all, isn’t going to help you get into the Toronto International Film Festival — but IndieWIRE just might. This daily-news site for the low-budget crowd not only has a keen eye for industry trends but will tell you where to go for AVID editing classes, and has a page listing film festival entry deadlines.
Here’s a musical challenge: This site supplies a backing track and asks you to fill in the melody or lyrics. Winning entrants — like 34-year-old songwriter and bread deliveryman Damian Fontana of Brick, N.J. — then get a phone call from Oscar winner Carole Bayer Sager, who founded Tonos along with 10-time Grammy winner Kenneth ”Babyface” Edmonds and three-time producer of the year David Foster. ”Carole said the next day she woke up singing the song that I wrote,” recalls Fontana, the first of 13 winners since April. ”For them to even consider my song is just a great honor.” Tonos then flew him to Hollywood to have his song recorded in studio with the help of country music producer Byron Gallimore, who is now shopping it to singers. Fontana’s demo was also delivered to the head of Warner/Chappell Music, who offered him a multi-song contract. Though Tonos won’t release the specifics of the deal, Fontana got an advance and takes a percentage of any future sales — which sounds like butter for a bread man.
MP3.COM, INC. (www.mp3.com)
For all we know, MP3.com’s losing legal battle with Universal will cost gazillions and ultimately silence the company for good. But if the site’s still up as you read this magazine, you won’t find one more friendly to independent artists — just ask easy-listening pianist Ernesto Cortazar, who in the last year earned more than $100,000 from MP3.com for his 56 songs on the site. In an arrangement dubbed the ”Payback for Playback Program,” artists like Cortazar who upload their tracks to MP3.com get a small fee (which is based on a formula as secret as KFC’s recipe) whenever someone listens to one of their songs. Cortazar also gets a 50 percent cut from the sales of the 21 CDs — priced at $5.99 each — available from his MP3.com homepage. With 10 million visitors to the site each month, it’s now possible for an artist with savvy promotional skills to earn a living playing music and still avoid all the strings attached to a big-time record deal.
The original concept was to award a $250,000 recording contract every month to a band that uploads music to the site and tops the popular-vote/review contest. And while just eight groups have won the prize since last year, it’s still a chance to have your tunes reviewed by the site’s advisory board, which includes Beatles producer Sir George Martin, Brian Eno, Steve Earle, and Garageband.com cofounder and ex-Talking Head Jerry Harrison. Plus, there are some new prizes: a chance to audition for Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst’s label, or get a slot on the soundtrack of Adam Sandler’s latest movie, Little Nicky.
Her agent was thwarted by publishing houses, and she was laughed out of the local bookstore for requesting shelf space to display her erotic suspense novel, Lip Service. But M.J. Rose prevailed: She independently sold the book on Amazon, where an editor stumbled across the rave reader reviews and decided to pick up the novel. Rose will be busy this January: Pocket Books will release her next novel, while St. Martin’s Press will put out another Rose book, called How to Publish and Promote Online. While there are now dozens of do-it-yourself Web options for fledgling scribes, the 46-year-old Rose still thinks Amazon’s Advantage Program is the best for DIYers. Because even though it burdens authors with finding their own scannable ISBN catalog number, printing copies of the book (which can be costly and results in a higher than average cover price), and shipping them to a distribution center, the chances of selling a book are much greater given Amazon’s 23 million customers. Still, the electronic publishing explosion — the number of books for sale is expected to jump from 70,000 in 2000 to around half a million in 2001 — will make it difficult for anyone without ultra-savvy promotional skills to follow in Rose’s path. Because now, says Rose, ”every single one of us is competing with Stephen King,” whose self-published e-novella The Plant is also available through Amazon.com.
ZOETROPE VIRTUAL STUDIOS (www. zoetrope.com)
Francis Ford Coppola’s Virtual Studios will soon offer a full palette of filmmaker resources on a par with IFILMpro, but right now it’s best suited to screenwriters — two scripts have already been optioned from the site. The first, Brave New Word, by Steve Blair, a 33-year-old Baltimore-based cooking show host, focuses on a boy who invents a new word to cope with the death of his father. Coppola read the script on the website and passed it on to his TV development head. It was then optioned by Alliance Atlantis for American Zoetrope Television, coproducer of this fall’s CBS crime drama C.S.I., which is now shopping it to networks for a six-figure deal. Prior to having his story read by Coppola, though, Blair had to submit his work to the same vetting process — devised by Coppola himself — as every other Zoetrope member. All writers are required to read and critique four screenplays before submitting their own to a peer review. Since Zoetrope.com’s debut a year and a half ago, more than 3,600 feature-length screenplays have been posted to the site. And unlike traditional ”coverage” services like IFILMpro’s $100 ScriptShark, the Virtual Studio system is free and guarantees constructive feedback — even if it’s essentially a rejection. The 50 top-rated screenplays of each month are split up and read by Zoetrope’s film development crew, including head honcho Coppola — now, that’s coverage.
The reality show craze isn’t exactly a TV writer’s gravy train, but sitcoms will be back in vogue soon enough — which means now is the time to hone your laugh-track chops. The pitch on TVPitch.com, which is essentially a coverage service charging $20-100 for script and treatment critiques, reads way too much like a late-night infomercial (”Your way to break into the exciting, lucrative world of television writing!”). But the experienced ”show runners” who back this site also offer a slew of free tutorials on crafting plots, selling ideas, and finding agents. They even have recommendations on where to do lunch, though paying for a meal at Nobu, which is one of their picks, generally requires selling a script beforehand. Two of the site’s features, a comedy seminar and a writers’ workshop, have yet to materialize — but we’re told their mid-season lineup is ready for prime time.
SCRIPTAPALOOZA (www.scriptapalooza. com)
The third installment of this scriptwriting competition began Oct. 1. And aside from getting a share of $40,000 in cash and prizes, the 13 winners are guaranteed a shot at the big time as Scriptapalooza’s three-person staff spends the next year trying to land feature deals for them — which is probably more than your agent will do. The runner-up from last year was offered a development deal from the studio that made Rugrats, the second placer’s script was picked by Universal and will be directed by actress Mary Stuart Masterson.
The majority of options for actors are little more than head-shot databases — which won’t get you much closer to a starring role than sending out traditional 8 x 10 glossies. IAM.com easily hogs the spotlight in this category due to its jazzier bio pages (with video and audio) for the dancers, musicians, and actors who opt for the $149.95 ”Pro” membership. And since the company’s board includes director Spike Lee and Revolution Studios founder Joe Roth, it’s a good bet that IAM.com will have more than a walk-on part in Hollywood’s digital makeover.
You want the thrill of being an executive producer without the horror of spending years as someone’s assistant? Then start crafting your pitch for the second installment of AtomFilms’ MogulMaker, which began in October. In the first go-round, the five finalists and wannabe producers chose from a slate of scripts greenlit for production by AtomFilms and then pitched the site’s members on their vision of the production for one of the screenplays. The winner by popular vote, San Francisco film student Eel Jin Chae (who, in classic Hollywood style, wouldn’t divulge his age), got $10,000, and his director got a $100,000 budget (jointly bankrolled by IAM.com and AtomFilms) to cast and start shooting a ”sushi comedy” starring Pat Morita. When the film is complete, Chae will have a demo reel proving he’s either a great movie chef — or just another fishmonger.