Webby Awards celebrate original content

Original Web content producers are happy with Webby Awards -- but what they really want is to get paid.

"Everyone wants to be a ninja," asserts Douglas Sarine, co-creator of "Ask a Ninja," an ongoing online video serial about a chatty masked warrior who offers advice and information. Ten years ago, such an idea might have garnered a few laughs. But today, "Ask a Ninja" (www.askaninja.com) has become a fast track to Hollywood for its creators, who say their property "gets as many eyeballs as (Cartoon Network's) Adult Swim."

They're not alone. Recently, as broadband, software and cameras have hit price points the average Joe can afford, Internet video has exploded, and the awards shows have come running. The National Television Academy launched its own Broadband Award in 2006, expanding it to five categories this year, and on Monday, the Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, which runs the Webby Awards, will recognize original online film and video content at the first annual Webby Film and Video Awards. (The 11th annual Webby Awards continue to recognize outstanding Web pages, mobile content and interactive advertising and will be held Tuesday; both shows are hosted by Rob Corddry and winners have already been announced.) The introduction of film and video this year attracted a powerful panel of judges, including the Weinstein Co.'s co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Jim Gianopulos and Showtime chairman and CEO Matt Blank.

"The pieces came into place this year," Webbys executive director David-Michel Davies says. "You're going to see a massive transformation in how content is created and consumed."

What's really on most content creators minds these days, though, is less what honors go on their shelves than what dollars go into their bank accounts. Sarine and co-creator Kent Nichols are proof that it is possible to leverage a popular Web video series into Hollywood meetings. ("Ninja picked up a Webby this year for best actor.) But the Web has yet to produce a bona fide star or even a major bankroll. That is the next frontier for creators and those looking to exploit their content.

"A lot of really smart people are trying to figure out how best to monetize this Web-based video revolution," says Aaron Greenberg, a member of Handsome Donkey (www.handsomedonkey.com), a Los Angeles-based group that makes comedic Web videos.

It helps having Michael Eisner in your corner. Big Fantastic (www.bigfantastic.com), a production company responsible for the Webby-nominated series "Sam Has Seven Friends" and which is currently producing "Prom Queen," were signed by the former Disney CEO to his Vuguru new-media production company for "Prom Queen" -- 80 short episodes focusing on prom-related high school intrigue -- then introduced them to the varied world of online advertising. "Queen" is being presented on MySpace and features product placement with Fiji bottled water and has partnered with New Line's "Hairspray" for a promotional contest.

"The most exciting aspect of it is product integration to us as artists," Big Fantastic's Chris Hampel says. "Putting Fiji in the hands of our actors is the best and most simple way to monetize this."

Thus far, the most viable business model for Web-based content ad placement is sponsored content. In lieu of banner ads or pre-rolls, an entire video will be presented by a certain company, a partnership that echoes the early days of television. Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz (www.eepybird.com) are pioneers in this medium, pairing the second version of their "Extreme Diet Coke and Mentos Experiment," which premiered on Google Video last fall, with a contest sponsored by the Coca-Cola Co. (Their original effort won them two Webbys this year.) But they approached the partnership, Voltz says, with extreme caution: "We didn't want to be pitchmen for Coke. We have an audience that trusts our authenticity."

They were pleasantly surprised by working with Coke, though, and kept total creative control -- the only caveat being that they couldn't disparage the product. Combined, the two Coke/Mentos videos have been seen by millions, and the pair are now in talks with cable networks about doing a series of "spectaculars," as Voltz calls the experiments.

"Ninja's" Sarine and Nichols use a variation on this ad approach. As part of a seven-figure advertising deal with Federated Media, they have individual sponsors for their videos, whose names run at the end of their clips. Sarine calls this approach "non-offensive," but at the same time, the "most powerful way" to monetize their content.

Greenberg says that this method would be his preferred scenario, as well, with a company presenting an individual Handsome Donkey video. "Corporate sponsorship is where money is going to change," he says.

Abby Wallach, whose background is in cable television, launched a Web series last month called "Beautiful Stranger" that features people on the street explaining their style and personality, while plugging the brands that they're wearing or carrying. The idea is that a company like Chanel will see their product featured on a video, and then decide to work with the show.

"We are very much a magazine-style business model," Wallach says. "We want to be a friend to every business out there."

Still, many creators are concentrating on the more conventional method of using the Web as a calling card in the hopes of attracting the attention of more traditional media. Actress Jessica Lee Rose, who won a Webby this year for best actress by playing Bree in the "Lonelygirl15" series (www.lonelygirl15.com), has since landed a starring role in Building Block Pictures' "Perfect Sport" and appears alongside Lindsay Lohan in Sony's July release "I Know Who Killed Me." She also has a recurring role on the ABC Family series "Greek."

Neil Mandt, who along with his brother, Michael, runs Mandt Brothers Prods., which produces ESPN's "The Jim Rome Show," already has a place in cable television. Unable to gain traction for feature projects, though, he produced, directed and starred in "Last Stop for Paul," a film distributed as an online video series (www.laststopforpaul.com). It was nominated for two Webbys this year (Best Drama and Best Comedy: Long Form or Series), picked up several festival awards, and will be released in theaters on Oct. 12 through indie distributor Launchpad.

Mandt has two similar projects in the pipeline, but he says he hopes to do things differently in the future. "I would want to have distribution in place next time," he says. "It's a long road."

The taming of the Wild West of original Web content appears to be well underway, but there's still lots of wiggle room for the creative and ambitious to get noticed, get paid, or both. "As the business matures, it'll become more mainstream," says Lou Wallach, Comedy Central's senior vp original programming development. "The stakes will be higher."

For now, one facet of Web content remains unique -- namely that without channels, networks or studios, individual creators retain a greater control over their product than almost any artist-distribution combination in the industry. Down the line, the most successful players will have to pepper their creative and experimental nature with a keen business sense to keep control of their product.

"What hasn't changed is how to make deals and how to negotiate," "Ninja's" Nichols says. "We've always been aware of our business. We don't need to go to a big-five media company to ensure distribution. We know that we control the means of distribution."

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