Filmaka: Like American Idol, but for TV

After more than a year, an independent Web-based movie venture called Filmaka is finally out of “beta.” The project has a couple of high-profile backers: indie film producer Deepak Nayar (responsible for movies such as Bend It Like Beckham and Buena Vista Social Club) and former Fox TV network honcho Sandy Grushow, who gave the world shows such as The OC, 24, The X-Files and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Grushow was also one of the network executives behind American Idol, and says Filmaka is based on a similar premise.

The founders say they want to find young or up-and-coming TV producers and filmmakers and in some cases to help them get major studio or network deals. The site already has a stable of more than 40 Web-based shows that it plans to run on networks such as YouTube, and has been conducting a kind of Web-based talent search with a contest that ends on April 28 — the winner, who will be chosen by a jury including David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Neil LaBute, will get as much as $3-million in financing to produce a movie for theatrical release.

That’s not the only contest Filmaka has been sponsoring either: the venture has also been running a sitcom competition with the cable channel FX, which will see the winner get $40,000 to shoot a 15 to 20-minute pilot for a potential FX television show, and the site has a documentary competition and a “branded entertainment” competition. Fox ran a similar kind of contest with MySpace, but didn’t turn either of the winners into a pilot. Jerry Zucker of NBC has spoken in the past about how expensive — and in many cases, ultimately futile — the current pilot-oriented TV production process can be.

More than 3,000 submissions have been received from aspiring filmmakers in more than 90 countries, and all of the submissions can be streamed from the Filmaka.com website. Visitors can choose to see entries by category (documentary, TV, feature etc.) or only the ones that have advanced to the jury level. Submissions include everything from animated shorts featuring “claymation”-style characters to sitcom-style comedies, and at least one Canadian filmmaker has several entries in different levels of the competition: Terry Miles has submitted a feature film called Lost and Found and also has an entry in the TV-pilot contest called The Secret Life of Amanda Jones, about a twentysomething college student who is also a vampire.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Grushow said that after 20 years in the network business, he wasn’t sure that any independent or unsigned filmmakers could produce content that he might be interested in, but he says his eyes were opened after Filmaka started the competition: “I was astonished at the quality level people were capable of creating … at such a low cost. To me, that represented a game-changer.” In Filmaka, he said, the partners hope create what amounts to “a studio with essentially no overhead.” And there’s already Canadian content.

Now that’s a real Indiana Jones movie

Aspiring filmmakers have all kinds of trials and tribulations to overcome — balky actors, nervous financial types, a bad script, etc. — but very few have to put off filming because their mom is afraid the crew is going to burn their house down. That’s just one of the many hurdles the young filmmakers behind a movie called Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark: An Adaptation had to confront. Why? Because they were 11 years old at the time, and they were trying to film the Nepalese bar scene from the movie in star/writer/director Eric Zala’s basement.

By now, the story of how a troupe of pre-teens from Mississippi made a shot-by-shot remake of the classic adventure film from George Lucas and Stephen Speilberg in the 1980s is pretty well known — the young filmmakers, who are now in their 30s, have met the two directors and have even touched the actual idol prop used in the original film, during a visit to Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch. But the movie itself has only been seen by a chosen few, at film festivals and special events (like Sprockets in Toronto), in part because it is an obvious copyright violation.

More recently, copies of the movie have started popping up on BitTorrent and other file-sharing networks, but they are hard to come by. As a taste, here’s the first 10 minutes of the movie — thanks to a link from Panopticist.com (turn the sound up, because it’s very faint through most of the clip). And remember that these kids are 11 and 12, that they made or bought all the props, and that they dug tunnels for months in order to film the opening scene. Even the storyboarding for the movie took over a year (and making the boulder took four).

More than one filmmaker will sympathize with Zala, who said that the first thing he felt after looking at the “rushes” or footage from the first summer of filming was disappointment because “we worked so hard and the end results looked so crappy.” But the group kept filming, and eventually finished their 100-minute remake for a total cost of $5,000. They showed it to some friends in an auditorium at a local Coca-Cola plant in 1989 and then put the tape away for 15 years, at which point a copy somehow made its way into the hands of Harry Knowles from the movie fan site Ain’t It Cool News and the story started to filter out.

It might be too much to ask for a major studio, but with the new Indiana Jones movie coming out, what better time to show the world’s greatest fan tribute film (in terms of sheer effort at least) to the world?

Writers’ strike and Web video: A continuum

Some more details from Liz Gannes over at NewTeeVee about the efforts of movie writer Aaron Mendelsohn and some fellow striking writers to put together a mini-studio to produce Web content. They’re looking for VCs to put up $30-million or so to launch their studio, Virtual Artists — a name that appears to be a reference to United Artists, the seminal 1920s studio founded by Charlie Chaplin and others.

Incidentally, it’s worth remembering, as Paul Kafka points out at Silicon Alley Insider, that United Artists didn’t work out so well, in part because movies became longer and more expensive to produce. Most of those who formed the studio were also well-known actors — in other words, the “talent,” and not just a bunch of writers whom most of Hollywood (rightly or wrongly) assumes are a dime a dozen.

So will Mendelsohn and his gang be able to follow through on what Marc Andreessen recently described as the remaking of Hollywood in Silicon Valley’s image? That remains to be seen. Kafka worries that the economics of Web video are uncertain at best and there is certainly some evidence that that is true. But why does it always have to be a black and white question of Web vs. traditional TV and movies?

With Quarterlife, Marshall Hersovitz and Ed Zwick have shown that there can be a lot of overlap between TV and Web video, in both directions. Meanwhile, some comedians, actors and directors who started with short video clips — Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island crew come to mind — have managed to extend that into more traditional (and presumably lucrative) spheres. To me it seems a lot more like a continuum than a black and white separation of worlds.

Is this the big shift to online video?

We appear to have two data points related to online video that are worth paying attention to. Number one: According to the BBC, Nielsen says that traffic to some online video sites has doubled since the Hollywood writers’ strike in October turned the TV into a wasteland of reruns and unfunny late-night talk shows (although it may be stretching things to call the Nielsen figure a data point, since I can’t find a report that has those numbers in it).

The second data point is a report from the Pew Internet Research project, a reliable and independent research group, indicates that almost 50 per cent of those surveyed had been to video-sharing sites such as YouTube (up from 38 per cent last year) and daily traffic to such sites has doubled in the past year. The number of people who said they had been to such a site within a day of being asked almost doubled to 15 per cent.

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Ever since the strike began, there has been a debate about how much of a benefit online video might get as the fresh content on television became more and more scarce. Some have argued that most online video is crap, and therefore the boost would likely be minimal. Others argue that much of what is on TV is also crap, although the production values might be slightly higher, and that the strike might help to push some content creators to remake the industry in Silicon Valley’s image.

I don’t know where things will end up, but I do know one thing: I am hearing from more and more “average” people — i.e., not geeks — that they are watching more video online, and that they are finding things there they can’t on television (and some they can). The writers’ strike may be one of the forces that are pushing people to do that, but it’s not the only one. Increasingly, the boundaries between TV and online are blurring.