Until a year ago, none of the Hollywood agencies had divisions devoted exclusively to mining and developing the Web for talent. And everybody in the industry is watching to see how these young agents do.
O ne day not long ago, three best friends from a Berkeley suburb pick up a video camera and film themselves acting stupid in their parents’ living room. They crank out the videos and post them on the Web, and 10 people watch online. Then a hundred. Then a hundred thousand. Then they have a million new friends, and they’ve moved down to Los Angeles, to a small apartment on Olympic Boulevard, which they christen “The Lonely Island.” Sure, they work crap jobs, but they stick together and keep the videos coming. It’s the best because nobody is going to tell them what to do or how to do it. It’s the worst because nobody is going to pay them, either. But then the Hollywood agents come calling, and soon these three best friends — Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone — get a TV deal, a movie deal, a gig on Saturday Night Live, which they’ve dreamed of practically all their lives. Soon they’re making online videos with Brooke Shields and Kiefer Sutherland and Natalie Portman, and people are gossiping about how one of them may or may not be dating Kirsten Dunst. And all because of some funny videos they posted online.
On a sunny August morning a year later, another fledgling comedy troupe of best friends is sitting in a room at the Beverly Hills offices of United Talent Agency Online. The guys from HandsomeDonkey.com have come over to show their agents a top-secret, not-yet-released video. They pile into the room, spread out on sofas and lounge chairs. One of the Donkeys picks up the extra-large remote control on the coffee table and holds it up to his ear like a cell phone. “Hey, dude. Yeah, I’m talking with my agent right now. I’ll have to call you back.” It is hard to tell which is which, talent or agent, in this roomful of clever 20-somethings right out of a J.Crew catalog.
“I’d like to give these out as Christmas gifts,” agent Jason U. Nadler says, taking the remote, which has buttons the size of pink school erasers. “How cool would that be? With ‘Happy Holidays From UTA Online’ printed across the top?”
They watch the video on the monitor mounted to the ceiling. “This disc has to leave with us,” says one of the Donkeys, popping it out of the DVD player and gripping it tightly.
“Can we burn it, though?” asks Nadler, in flawless deadpan.
“And can we put it on the Web?” asks agent Barrett Garese. The Handsome Donkeys laugh.
Whether Handsome Donkey is the next Lonely Island is just one of the questions that Nadler, Garese and their colleagues Ryan Reber and Jon Zimelis have to answer as the first of a new breed of Hollywood agent. Everybody in the room has something to gain and something to lose. For the Donkeys, it’s fortune and fame. For Nadler and company, all former assistants whose very jobs as “online agents” were created shortly after their agency, UTA, signed Lonely Island, it is the hope of finding — and growing — the hottest acts on the Net. Their new division, UTA Online, hopes to wrangle the Internet into a major entertainment medium to rival film or television. First there was the silver screen, then the boob tube, and now YouTube. Until a year ago, none of the Hollywood agencies had divisions devoted exclusively to mining and developing the Web for talent. And the industry is watching to see how these young agents do.
The Web — specifically, how much writers should get paid for work that is broadcast online and downloaded into cell phones, laptops and iPods — is key among the issues the film and television writers are striking over right now. The Writers Guild of America argues that as studios increasingly make more money off of online distribution, so should writers. Currently, writers get none of the profits generated when millions of viewers watch a show on the Internet — zilch. But the studios argue that it’s still too early in the game to know how much money can be made from Web-based entertainment in the long run. As fresh TV scripts run out and networks are forced to air reruns, it is possible that the strike heralds a heyday for Web-only content creators. Forced to look elsewhere for entertainment, viewers will turn to online media. Maybe. Any way you look at it, the Web represents a whole lot of murky, undefined territory.
When you think about the Internet itself, chances are you think about the rise of social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, or about Google and YouTube and how the former bought the latter for a mind-splitting $1.65 billion. But in terms of one specific, bright and shining Internet talent, who has rocked the cultural landscape like a Madonna, or a Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg or Walt Disney? That so far has been elusive. Up for grabs is the $1.3 billion that will be spent on Internet video advertising next year. The Web, since it has been happening, has always been the next big thing, always tantalizing on the horizon.