EXCLUSIVE: Lionsgate enters Web business

Studio orders 24 episodes of original series 'Trailer Trash'

Lionsgate is venturing into original Web programming years after its fellow studios have entered -- and in some cases, exited -- that struggling business.

The studio has ordered 24 episodes of comedic shortform series "Trailer Trash," which blends animation and live action. Production company Hud:sun Media, a division of advertising giant MDC Networks, will produce "Trash," which depicts cartoon hillbillies involved in assorted high jinks.

Lionsgate is the latest in a string of studio entries to the Web originals business, which holds the promise of owning intellectual property that in success can be monetized again and again on a vast array of platforms. However, that has proved easier said than done.

Disney backed out of Web production via its Stage 9 shingle in 2008, though others like Sony -- which has built online network Crackle to showcase its Web work -- have moved full steam ahead with increasingly sophisticated though still modestly budgeted productions. NBC Universal, Paramount and Fox also are active in the space.

"Trash" likely will be the first of several projects Lionsgate will greenlight for the Web. But don't suggest to Curt Marvis, president of digital at Lionsgate, that he's late to the game; by his calculations, everyone else was premature.

"Only very recently has the environment been such that high-quality programming can be created for the Web and have a sustainable business model that can work," he said.

Marvis, who came to Lionsgate from CinemaNow in 2008, said he has been reluctant to pull the trigger for two years, a testament to finding just the right project and for the business model to evolve. He cited the maturation of high-traffic hubs from Hulu to YouTube as advertising platforms and the explosion of new so-called "over the top" devices migrating content to TV sets.

Whereas making a profit on Web series was highly unlikely without building the programming around a sponsor and/or monetizing them on other platforms including international TV sales or DVD, Marvis said Web distribution alone will take "Trash" past break-even, and creative won't be customized to marketers' brand messages. Ancillary revenue streams, which will be pursued, are pure gravy.

"Trash" was created by Todd Harris Goldman, who developed Blahgirls.com for Ashton Kutcher's Katalyst Media, and Max Benator, vp digital media at Hud:sun.