Moguls of New Media
The MySpace member with a million 'friends.' The receptionist with a production deal. Some of the Web's amateur entertainers are becoming powerful players.
By JOHN JURGENSEN
July 29, 2006; Page P1
On the popular Web site MySpace.com, members set up profiles with information about their interests and then network across the site, recruiting other members to link to their pages. Often, the teens and 20-somethings who dominate the site have dozens or hundreds of these registered "friends."
Then there's Christine Dolce, whose MySpace page boasts nearly one million friends -- making her arguably one of the most connected people on the Internet. A 24-year-old cosmetologist who until a few months ago worked at a makeup counter in a mall, she now has a manager and a start-up jeans company and has won promotional deals for two mainstream consumer brands.
As videos, blogs and Web pages created by amateurs remake the entertainment landscape, unknown directors, writers and producers are being catapulted into positions of enormous influence. Each week, about a half-million people download a comedic video podcast featuring a former paralegal. A video by a 30-year-old comedian from Cleveland has now been watched by almost 30 million people, roughly the audience for an average "American Idol" episode. The most popular contributor to the photo site Flickr.com just got a contract to shoot a Toyota ad campaign.
While online stardom can sometimes be fleeting, and some measures of audience size are subject to debate, a look at the rising stars in this world shows how the path to entertainment success is being redefined. Traditional media companies and marketers are already in pursuit of some of these new faces.
"It's an awesome feeling," says Ms. Dolce, who built her MySpace profile with a page that panders to the site's young demographic with a mix of confessional commentary, provocative photographs of herself, celebrity images and music.
WHAT TO WATCH
A late-night brainstorm and a video camera can catapult an unknown Internet user to instant -- if sometimes short-lived -- stardom. Below, five creative digital productions rising through the ranks on the Web.
This "mockumentary" tells the story of Phillip Rockhammer, an up-and-coming competitor in the faux sport of professional staredown. With the bravado of wrestling but none of the contact, rivals lock eyes until one of them flinches. Featuring slick production, a soundtrack and dozens of actors, the film is being offered free in installments.
'Chad Vader: Episode 1'
One of the latest in a long line of "Star Wars" spoofs to hit the Web, this short fish-out-of-water film imagines Darth Vader as a lowly supermarket manager. He bows to his supervisor in the walk-in refrigerator and uses his powers to confront a rival co-worker and impress a cute check-out girl. The video is currently popular at Channel101.com, a site where viewers vote for their favorite comedy clips.
www.YouTube.com (search for 'Nobody's Watching')
Bill Lawrence, a writer and producer of the NBC sitcom "Scrubs," helped create this offbeat comedy as a pilot for the WB network. After the network passed on the pilot, it appeared in three parts on YouTube and became a hit, leading NBC to announce this past week that it had ordered a series of scripts and short episodes of the show for the Web with the possibility of broadcasting it on TV in an upcoming season.
'Strong Bad Email'
The most popular feature on Homestar Runner, a site of cartoons and games, "Strong Bad" revolves around a sarcastic character in a wrestling mask whose answers to emails are the jumping off point for short cartoons. The emails are real, culled from the roughly 3,000 messages that creators Matt and Mike Chapman receive each day.
The Fancy Pants Adventure
www.addictinggames.com (search for 'Fancy Pants Adventure')
Created by Brad Borne, a college student, this simple but fun videogame plays like a minimalist version of Super Mario Bros. Using a few keys on the computer keyboard, players control a floppy-haired stick figure, maneuvering him through a world of mazes, springs and spiders. On Atom Entertainment's AddictingGames.com, the game has been played about 1.5 million times, with a replay rate of 50%, according to Atom, which licensed the game and hired Mr. Borne to help create another one called Celebrity Smackdown.
She joined MySpace in September 2003, adopting the name "Forbidden" for her home page. As one of the first 15,000 members to join the site, launched in July 2003 (MySpace now has 96 million members), she built an early following that grew along with the site's membership. Because users' pages list their friends in chronological order, being an early member has also meant that Ms. Dolce appears near the top of many friend lists.
"I saw the vision that MySpace was growing bigger and bigger and I thought, wow, great," Ms. Dolce says.
While some members are choosy about whom they will accept as friends, Ms. Dolce decided after about a year on the site to accept anyone who put in a friend request. She also took on a manager -- Keith Ruby, another MySpace member with whom she developed a friendship online. A former concert promoter from Calgary, Alberta, he advised her on ways to capitalize on her online popularity. He helped broker deals with companies like Axe body spray and Zippo lighters. In recent months, she's appeared in online promotions for both brands. She commands rates of as much as $5,000 to appear at events like auto shows. In March, she quit her job at the makeup counter.
Advertisements for Ms. Dolce's outside Web site and assorted business ventures, like her jeans business, line the page. Seeing her entire home page requires pressing "page down" about two dozen times on a large computer monitor -- and that page is followed by some 24,000 additional pages holding the photos of all her friends.
Mr. Ruby says Ms. Dolce has never used a computer program to artificially boost her friend list -- a practice that has plagued sites like MySpace in the past. MySpace takes steps to prevent the use of computer-generated mass friend requests, such as limiting users to a few hundred outgoing friend requests a day. Mr. Ruby says Ms. Dolce briefly tried software that automatically accepted requests from others, but now instead relies on family and friends to help her process them all.
Popular members like Ms. Dolce represent something of a dilemma for MySpace. The site says it has no problem with the photographs and content on Ms. Dolce's page, which, while racy, stop short of being pornographic. Recently, however, MySpace, which is owned by News Corp., has been working to promote a family-friendly image to appeal to potential advertisers -- some of whom could be leery of sexually suggestive pages like Ms. Dolce's.
Ms. Dolce's commercial deals have occasionally run afoul of MySpace's rules. The service doesn't allow using the network for direct commercial gain; because of the site's regulations, Ms. Dolce is prohibited from sending mass messages to her MySpace friends about the products she's paid to endorse.
Some of the people who have emerged as digital stars online are true amateurs, people who have simply videotaped themselves in their living rooms and posted the results online. Others are quasi-professionals with some experience in the entertainment industry: writers of a TV pilot that didn't get picked up; first-time filmmakers who were praised on the film-festival circuit but never found distribution or stand-up comedians who couldn't graduate from coffee houses and small clubs.
The creators of one of the Web's most popular video podcasts fall somewhere between these categories. Each week, about half a million people watch a two- or three-minute video starring a man in a ninja costume that includes a Lycra ski mask bought for $6. He typically delivers a sarcastic comic monologue in response to a ninja-themed question a viewer has emailed in. ("Do ninjas catch colds?" was a recent topic.) The weekly series, called "Ask a Ninja," appears on the creators' Web site, as well as on iTunes and video-sharing sites like YouTube and Revver.
Its creators are Kent Nichols and Douglas Sarine, who first recorded the skit in November. Both in their early 30s and living in Los Angeles, the two had dabbled in the entertainment industry: Mr. Nichols had worked as a production assistant on a few TV pilots and Mr. Sarine had spent some time as a paralegal for Disney. Together, the pair, who had met in 2000 at an acting workshop, had written a script for an anime series they hoped to make for the Web, but they grew discouraged by the expense of producing it.
Then they noticed a video online. Titled "Lazy Sunday," it was a sketch that had first aired on "Saturday Night Live," but was being emailed all over the Internet: Millions of people saw it in a matter of weeks. They decided to try an online video series of their own. Around Thanksgiving, Mr. Sarine donned a makeshift ninja costume, and the two wrote and improvised a loose script. Mr. Nichols filmed Mr. Sarine against the wall of his West Hollywood apartment, using a six-year-old camcorder. He edited it on his laptop and posted it on their personal blog and on YouTube.
The skits got little response initially, but in early January, Messrs. Nichols and Sarine submitted the podcast to iTunes and launched an official Web site for it. Editors at iTunes quickly selected the series as a "new and notable" podcast, giving it featured placement on its podcasts page. That positioning landed "Ask a Ninja" a spot on iTunes's list of top-subscribed podcasts, which meant it was one of the first titles anyone browsing for podcasts came across. Mentions in a number of blogs helped to boost viewership as well.
Now the two are trying to turn their podcast into a viable business. In May, "Ask a Ninja" launched an online store and now sells about 150 T-shirts a week, Mr. Nichols says. They'll soon begin selling premium subscriptions at $1.50 a month to fans who want early access to new episodes. This month, they added their first advertisement to the series, a mention of the Sony movie "Little Man" at the end of an episode.
The ad was placed by Podtrac, an agency that links advertisers up with podcasters, and brought "Ninja" revenue "in the thousands" of dollars, according to Mr. Nichols. He hopes to draw more based on the show's popularity and viewer demographic: 90% male, between the ages of 13 and 24, according to a Podtrac survey.
In the spring, Crista Flanagan, a castmember on the Fox comedy show "Mad TV," contacted the duo through their MySpace page and the three decided to collaborate on a new podcast. The resulting series called "Hope Is Emo," features Ms. Flanagan as an emotional young woman in black clothing and eye makeup, frequently moved to tears by items like discarded pizza boxes. After being featured on the Ninja homepage and on YouTube, the first episode of "Hope is Emo" quickly drew more than one million views.
The two see branching out beyond "Ninja" as key to long-term success. "'Ask a Ninja' was always kind of a proof of concept for us," says Mr. Nichols. "We've looked at others who have been successful but they didn't know how to work with new talent and bring fresh ideas into the fold. Dick Clark makes more money in his sleep producing things than he ever does on camera."
Messrs. Nichols and Sarine are looking for a way around a problem that affects virtually every Internet star. Even if they become wildly popular, amateur podcasters and video producers can rarely make a living from their newfound fame. Podcasts and do-it-yourself videos are generally free to watch online, and even those few creators who manage to attract advertisers seldom make much money. According to research firm eMarketer, current ad spending on online video is expected to double by 2007 to $640 million, but most of that goes to large media companies rather than to amateur videos.
The greatest hope of most Web amateurs is to cross over into "old media" outlets like TV networks and Hollywood. The flagship crossover star in digital entertainment is known by one name: Brookers.
Type the word "Brookers" into the search field of YouTube.com, and a list of some 1,240 videos will appear. Thirty-one of them are videos made by 20-year-old Brooke Brodack of Holden, Mass., who has posted a range of videos starring herself under the screen name "Brookers." In large part, the other 1,200 or so are Brookers tributes, critiques and imitations, posted by Ms. Brodack's fans and detractors in response to the clips she's made.
Though Ms. Brodack's videos have a distinctly amateur feel -- they feature her lip-synching songs, dancing goofily around her bedroom and occasionally adopting silly character voices -- they inspire a passionate following. Many are drawn to her blend of good looks and unselfconscious antics. But she says she can't explain why her videos have been so popular. "I'll never understand it," she says.
Last month, Ms. Brodack, who works as a receptionist, got an email from an executive at the development company of former MTV star Carson Daly. Mr. Daly had seen her videos and liked her performances and production techniques, which typically involve wild camera angles and overlays of text and images over the video pictures. He signed her to a deal to develop entertainment ideas with his production company for TV and the Web. Mr. Daly, who has only spoken to Ms. Brodack over email, says he's still working out what exactly she'll be doing for his company. When it comes to hiring talent from the digital world, he says, "There's no manual. Everybody wants to lock them up and figure it out later."
Ms. Brodack says some of her friends have resented her newfound success. She's also dealt with a downside of viral video stardom that many people on sites like YouTube encounter. Because anyone who watches her videos can post a comment, she's constantly confronted with criticism in a public forum about issues from her appearance to her dancing skills. She sometimes responds to these comments in her videos.
Mr. Daly's company has sent her some new equipment to help her enhance her videos, including a new laptop and extra hard drive, and plans to get her a higher-quality video camera, but Ms. Brodack is nervous about professionalizing her videos. "I don't want it to look too slick," she says. "I'm trying to keep it simple and think of it the way it was eight months ago."
Write to John Jurgensen at firstname.lastname@example.org