MTV signs 'Hustle' director to Web series

Craig Brewer tops slate for new media division

When MTV Films acquired "Hustle & Flow" in 2005 at the Sundance Film Festival, it was a bittersweet coup for David Gale. "Hustle" director Craig Brewer had first pitched the head of Paramount Pictures' youth label to develop the project in-house. But as much as Gale wanted to make it, the studio's business model couldn't accommodate the film.

When Brewer returned to MTV with a new pitch last year, Gale managed to sign the up-and-coming director -- but not to a movie. Having transitioned to the newly created position of executive vp of MTV New Media two years ago, Gale convinced Brewer to consider the Internet.

As a result, the nascent online video business will get an injection of gravitas early next year with the release of "$5 Cover," an unscripted Brewer creation for which he credits Gale.

"It felt like the perfect blend of where David came from in movie production and where he was going with new-media content," Brewer said.

"Cover" is one of a handful of original-content initiatives in the offing at Gale's division, which also quietly launched a social network last month devoted to skateboarding. MTV is looking to Gale to re-create the success he found at MTV Films; Gale hopes to rekindle the entrepreneurial streak that marked MTV Films' early days.

No wonder his game plan is essentially the same: take creative risks while staying true to the spirit of MTV.

"It's really about just throwing out the rules, sort of like what David and I did when we started MTV Films," said Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks Music/Film/Logo Group. "I had every reason to think he'd be as successful in the digital world as he's been in the theatrical one."

But Gale knows repeating the feat will be challenging.

"It's not as simple as being a good creative judge of content," he said. "I didn't have to find out the business model for feature films or know the technology for making a movie and distributing it to the audience."

With just four execs and a small budget, MTV New Media is not expected to perform miracles. But a breakthrough would be nice given that MTV has a reputation to uphold as an envelope-pushing pioneer. It's an image that has suffered online, where Viacom has taken lumps in recent years for not moving quickly enough to acquire MySpace and for its ongoing court battle with Google's YouTube that has kept MTV off the Web's most popular destination.

For now, Gale is occupied by more mundane matters like seeing through Brewer's final week of shooting. Although focused on future projects, his ground-floor office at MTV's Santa Monica headquarters is still dominated by posters of movies he shepherded through production or release in his previous post, including "Election," "Jackass" and "Napoleon Dynamite." Displaying soft-spoken gentility, he is the farthest thing from the stereotype of the blustery movie exec.

With many Internet content players still groping their way toward a functioning business model, the absence of precedent doesn't bother Gale.

"I've spent a lot of time creating things that don't exist, being the first employee at MTV Films," he said.

Gale had the same wide-open playing field in front of him when he joined the company in 1995 after stints producing with Gale Anne Hurd and Ridley Scott. As Toffler and Gale describe it, they started out operating strictly from their guts, greenlighting such unconventional titles as "Beavis and Butt-head Do America" and "The Original Kings of Comedy" precisely because they didn't hew to conventional filmmaking wisdom.

But after a decade in operation, MTV Films' maturation dampened its entrepreneurial spirit, and expensive flops like "Aeon Flux" soon followed. About one year after Brad Grey assumed control of Paramount, Toffler reassigned Gale not long before the studio reorganized itself.

A newcomer to the online world, Gale has learned that budgets were nothing like they are in the film business. Fifteen episodes of "Cover," each no longer than eight minutes apiece, will run MTV just $350,000 -- a pittance considering that Gale's smallest bet at MTV Films, "Better Luck Tomorrow," cost nearly $1 million to acquire.

Luckily, Brewer's vision for "Cover" was always on a shoestring. Like all of his previous productions, "Cover" is an exploration of working-class Memphis, particularly the midtown music scene he knows intimately as a native of the city.

But instead of hiring actors or building sets, Brewer is calling on his favorite musicians to play thinly veiled versions of themselves in the same haunts where such less-than-household names as Muck Sticky and Amy LaVere rose to local fame. There is no script, only improvised dialogue based on story ideas Brewer drew from his cast's real-life exploits.

While Brewer had always envisioned creating "Cover" for film or TV, Gale helped him shape his vision for a medium he never considered. "The most exciting thing about it was David kind of new what it should be," Brewer said.

Part of that vision will be making a musical performance from that episode's subject the centerpiece of each installment; those performances--a nod to MTV's music roots--will also be distributed separately. Gale is still weighing options for sponsorship and syndication strategies for "Cover," which will be marketed on-air and also sold on DVD and electronic-sell through platforms.

In addition, "Cover" will have a social networking component and ancillary content pieces like interactive maps intended to make Memphis a character in its own right. Highlighting the location is a key piece of the strategy because "Cover" is intended to serve as a template for launching editions in other cities. MTV is even scouting international locations in search of other happening music scenes.

That franchise-building element also is evident in, a modified social network MTV slipped under the radar in July. It allows skateboarders from around the country to form communities, share videos of their stunts and exchange goods. T-Mobile is on board already as a sponsor.

The point of isn't so much skateboarding per se but exploring how to tap a broad niche of enthusiasts. As with "Cover," if the platform works, it will be adapted for other communities. "I think one of the things that we're trying to do at MTV is engage special-interest groups," Gale said.

MTV New Media also is experimenting with what it calls digital cinematic comics, launching "Invincible," an animated version of an Image Comics title released in 2003. The superhero tale is now available on select digital platforms including iTunes and Xbox Live.

While Gale goes about the task of introducing new intellectual property, he also is looking to extend MTV's existing franchises online. In February, MTV's "Jackass" franchise -- which Gale shepherded to the big screen -- was adapted as a Web site, Together with Paramount Digital Entertainment, they unspooled an online-only sequel of sorts to the franchise's films, dubbed "Jackass 2.5," that was deployed via DVD, streaming and downloads.

Albie Hecht is following Gale's initiatives with interest. Before leaving Viacom to launch his own multimedia production company, Worldwide Biggies, Hecht worked alongside Gale as president of another Paramount-connected film division, Nickelodeon Films.

Hecht thinks Gale is suited to transition from film to Internet "because David is a big risk-taker. You have to take risks in this space."

But to take risks of his own, Hecht believes doing so within a conglomerate can prove a hindrance. "The reason I'm doing what I'm doing now is that I didn't feel like I could do it within a big company," Hecht said.

Tell that to MTV Games, another digital-minded division that has scaled up fast thanks to the success of mega-selling title "Rock Band." Once a small skunkworks operation like MTV New Media, it has grown to the point where even a mega-producer like Jerry Bruckheimer signed on for a gaming development deal.

"We weren't a publisher in gaming like a year ago and now we're No. 5 in the business," Toffler said. "Who knows what can happen, you know? The smallest, quirkiest idea can yield a big, unexpected return."