Sony aims for Crackle, pop from new site

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Sony Pictures is turning its online acquisition Grouper into a ministudio that aims to move some of the best user-generated content onto movie and TV screens.

The initiative, which has users competing in ongoing contests for development and distribution deals, also involves changing Grouper's name to Crackle beginning today.

Described as a "streaming entertainment network," the site features branded channels where user-generated content in different genres will be submitted and judged by site "editors," entertainment partners and users. Winners will receive the chance to collaborate with Sony executives and creators — the first step in the larger distribution of their project.

For example, winners of Wet Paint's (the site's animation channel) quarterly contest will garner a cash prize and a chance to pitch Sony Pictures Animation executives with a concept for a future animated short that could be theatrically released.

Similarly, the winner of the Shorts (Crackle's Short Film channel) quarterly contest will receive the chance to pitch an idea to Columbia Pictures execs and receive funding from Crackle to develop and produce shortform content for Crackle distribution.

Crackle offers viral Web distribution across such sites as MySpace, Facebook and AOL along with the option to view content on such Sony platforms as the Sony PSP, Sony VAIo and Sony BRAVIA.

The site's other branded channels include Moving Targets, a sketch-variety channel; High Wire, a virtual stage for stand-up comedy; and Scrambler, a video music magazine.

Josh Felser, founder and co-president of Crackle — formerly founder and co-president of Grouper — said the new online network with its 25 million monthly unique visitors is positioned to serve emerging online talent.

"We're the only Internet company that's actually integrated into a studio," Felser said. "We are very focused on liberating the next generation creator-writer from YouTube; we offer funding, syndication, promotion and a pathway to Hollywood despite cynicism."

Sony Pictures senior executive vp Sean Carey, who said the studio has been focused on integrating the company with Sony Pictures, described Crackle's development budget as in the "mid-seven figures."

Sony acquired Grouper for $65 million in August. The site, which served as a P2P network and offered a video editor and Web-based video-sharing service, also provided the ability to post videos to MySpace, Friendster, Blogger and Wordpress as well as download capability to the computer, iPod and Sony PSP.

Carey didn't rule out the potential for Crackle programming to transfer to such different viewers as the XBox 360 and Apple TV.

Besides its development and distribution offerings, Crackle features a 16x9-inch widescreen player, the ability to embed its video to other sites and a user interface that allows for browsing while video is playing and changing. The site's channels offer branding opportunities for advertisers.

The Grouper site will be mapped to Crackle, meaning users will automatically be directed to the new site. Previous content from Grouper will be transferred.

Featured programming upon launch includes 10 episodes of the original comedy "Mr. Deity," which stars "Saturday Night Live" alum Julia Sweeney. Crackle has committed to an additional 10 episodes to premiere on its sketch-variety channel Moving Targets.
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