Cart before the 'Jackass'

Par, MTV flip distribution with online debut

The "Jackass" gang is about to attempt its most audacious stunt yet: online-first movie distribution.

In a radical departure from the traditional movie business model, Paramount Pictures Digital Entertainment and MTV New Media are co-producing "Jackass 2.5," a sequel to its two-time boxoffice hit that will skip multiplexes entirely.

Instead, "2.5" will be offered online for free over a two-week span beginning Dec. 19 courtesy of Blockbuster and its new online property Movielink, which will exclusively host the 64-minute film during that period. The movie will be made available at blockbuster.jackassworld.com.

From there, the film will move on to different pay-per-view platforms including iTunes and DVD as part of a light-speed reinvention of the customary distribution-window chain. The domestic release strategy will be replicated internationally early next year, but with different distribution partners.

In addition, the movie launch will be a curtain-raiser for JackassWorld.com, which will establish a permanent online home for the franchise beginning Feb. 9. MTV will oversee the site with "Jackass" shingle Dickhouse Prods.

As the first studio-backed broadband film, "2.5" is a bold shift for a franchise that has delivered hundreds of millions of dollars to parent company Viacom in traditional distribution channels, from theaters to DVD. When all is said and done, "2.5" could end up a milestone in Hollywood's transition to digital media or an overly ambitious misstep.

Tom Lesinski, president of Paramount Pictures Digital Entertainment, emphasizes that the film won't be the last experiment from a studio intent on being a first mover in the space.

"We're trying to shake up the model," he said. "We're trying to prove that some form of longform distribution can be successful on the Internet."

David Gale, executive vp new media at MTV Networks Music Group, acknowledged that longform programming is a rarity online, where the conventional wisdom holds that shorter is better. But he begs to differ.

"People say it's serialized shortform content and that's the way you should see it, but that's not going to be the (whole) future," he said. "That's only part of the future."

"2.5" reunites all players on both sides of the camera from previous "Jackass" films, including executive producer Spike Jonze. The franchise has averaged nearly $80 million in worldwide gross over two separate theatrical releases: "Jackass: The Movie" in 2002 and "Jackass Number Two" in 2006. While not blockbuster numbers, they represent significant profit given that production costs were a fraction of the gross. Both films also opened at No. 1 in North America.

Although long rumored in the blogosphere to be in the offing, "2.5" has been deliberately kept under the radar for 18 months, long before the writers strike erupted. However, if it succeeds, the novel distribution approach eventually could give striking parties more ammunition in their quest for digital revenues.

In keeping with its innovative distribution scheme, "2.5's" marketing strategy is just as unconventional. Rather than employ the traditional yearlong promotional campaign via 30-second spots and print ads, "2.5" will go into viral mode just a week prior to release with a video message from star Johnny Knoxville, a "2.5" trailer and clips. All are timed to capture the attention of the young males home for the holidays.

It makes sense to test the waters with "Jackass" for a number of reasons. First, production costs were minimal because most of the film is footage that was shot for "Jackass Number Two." In addition, its merry band of masochistic pranksters are something of a precursor to the often rough-edged user-generated content that predominates online.

The absence of content restrictions on the Internet also will allow "Jackass" to push the boundaries of good taste even further than before. " '2.5' has a higher percentage of gross or inappropriate things to it, but nothing too gross that it couldn't have been in 'Jackass 2,' " said Jeff Tremaine, producer and co-creator of the "Jackass" films.

To protect children from the graphic content during its free-viewing window, Blockbuster will employ an age-verification system that will discourage anyone younger than 17 from seeing "2.5." Viewers will have to go through a multistep registration process to get to the film.

Age verification proved to be a stumbling block for another high-profile online content play earlier this year: Budweiser's Bud.TV. The beermaker drew criticism ranging from concerns that registration wasn't enough to shield minors from racy material to objections over the barrier to entry for adults.

Aaron Coleman, senior vp of Blockbuster Online, defended the company's strategy. "There was a lot of thought and discussion about establishing a comfort level for the proper audience," he said.

"2.5" will be rolled out across a reshuffled and compressed version of Hollywood's typical distribution course. The film will remain free online for its second and final week, then transition to DVD on Dec. 26, hotel-room VOD and electronic sell-through platforms including Amazon's Unbox and iTunes, for which price points are still be determined.

DVD is pivotal for "Jackass," where its "Unrated" versions have performed particularly well. The "2.5" DVD will go for $29.99 and feature 45 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage not available on other platforms.

A third window opens Jan. 1, when Blockbuster gets exclusive online VOD rental rights via Movielink. When JackassWorld.com opens in February, the film will move there, along with any other site that wants to syndicate it in fragmented form. Breaking down "2.5" into multi-minute pieces won't disrupt the film because "Jackass" essentially is a series of vignettes sans narrative structure.

Lesinski indicated that launching the distribution sequence for "2.5" free online was a way of heading off copyright infringement, which typically begins at the DVD stage. "We want consumer-friendly alternatives to piracy," he said.

But all eyes on "2.5" will start at Blockbuster, which declined to divulge how much it will pay to sponsor the film via a branded video player. In addition, the film will contain preroll and postroll commercials, though the deals for those sponsors are not expected to close until later this week.

Blockbuster stands to gain a significant promotional boost for Movielink, which it acquired in August in a bid to catch up to first movers in the nascent movie-download space, including Netflix. The company has indicated that it is trying to transition from the brick-and-mortar presence that has weathered heavy losses in recent years.

Before "2.5," the only exclusive lock it had on movies came from a deal that covered titles from the Weinstein Co. "This was another way for Blockbuster to provide a unique set of content with exclusive windows to create some value," Coleman said.

"2.5" also will point the way for the launch next year of JackassWorld.com, which will extend the franchise with access to its video archives, as well as new content with an emphasis on community building. JackassWorld.com is in keeping with MTV Networks' strategy of building out deep online verticals for its hits, including "South Park."

One significant difference: JackassWorld.com will not invite user-generated video content for fear of spawning the kind of copycat incidents that raised ire on Capitol Hill early during the franchise's run on MTV.

"It's always been MTV's policy that what they do is not meant to be imitated," Gale said.

But both "2.5" and JackassWorld.com are meant to tide over the franchise's fans between theatrical productions, a prospect Paramount/MTV clearly is hoping will be reached. Tremaine did not rule out the possibility of a "Jackass 3."

"We said we'd never make a 'Jackass 2,' and we made it, too, so we'll quit saying never," he said. "There's no plans at this moment, but who knows what will happen?"
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