Bottoms Up

How Texans in Hollywood are overturning the traditional top-down content model.

February 2009By Comments

What’s entertainment: The online series Pink (starring Natalie Raitano, above) is a deft example of old-fashioned storytelling.

Meet Natalie “Nate” Cross (Natalie Raitano), a tomboy by breeding (her father taught her to hunt animals when she would have much rather been playing with dolls) who’s now all grown up, with bee-stung lips, a yoga-rific body, a glow-in-the-dark-tattoo-covered back, and a reputation as one of the finest assassins around. In the Internet series Pink, co-created by the Dallas-based team of Blake Calhoun and Mike Maden, an incarcerated Nate strikes a Faustian bargain with the warden (Sheree J. Wilson): If she kills ten people on the warden’s mysterious hit list, freedom is hers. But that’s merely the beginning of a madly convoluted saga that leaps backward and forward in time to chronicle Nate’s tough-love childhood, her hopeful adolescence in foster care, her seemingly carefree college days, and her current plight, as a ruthless killing machine who would prefer to settle down and start a family of her own. The real marvel of Pink, however, is that such a surprisingly deft example of old-fashioned serial storytelling—a show whose multiple story lines and shifts from reality to fantasy could easily give Lost a run for its money—unfolds in three- and four-minute segments, to the sped-up, attention-deficient rhythms of the digital age, on the screen of your laptop or iPhone.

Welcome to the decidedly topsy-turvy entertainment industry circa 2009, in which film, TV, and media companies continue to wrestle with the same daunting questions: How do you adapt creative content to the Internet, with its community of users insistent upon controlling how that content is consumed and distributed? How will new talent be developed, when ad dollars and seed money are quickly migrating elsewhere? And, perhaps most essential, how do you make money on the Web, where just about everything is given away for free? For at least a handful of ambitious Texans, though, the answers to these questions aren’t necessarily dire. “The ultimate value resides in content,” says Jordan Levin, a University of Texas graduate and former CEO of the WB network who is the co-founder of Generate, a company that provided funding for the second and third seasons of Pink and has its hand in a number of similar Web serials (see “Spinning a Web”). “A lot of people were ascribing value to the technology. But at the end of the day, the technology is realized by content.”

Put it this way: We might very well have seen the last of big-budget, old-school Hollywood spectacles like Australia. If NBC’s recent decision to place Jay Leno on prime-time TV five evenings a week is any measure, hour-long dramas are probably also headed the way of the dinosaur. But efforts like Pink, or another Levin-produced project, Republicrats, suggest that classic storytelling isn’t dead just yet and that—more to the point—serious-minded artists will find a way to carry on, even as their tools continue to break down and reconstitute.

In the case of Calhoun, who has a second Web project, Exposed, premiering on WB.com this month, the filmmaker took a route that, certainly to those of us who spend our days evaluating the entertainment industry’s more conventionally developed product, sounds positively revolutionary. After writing and directing a number of low-budget features, he teamed up with Maden and conceived Pink. The script was written in May 2007; the first ten episodes were shot in July, in the Dallas—Fort Worth area, on high-definition digital video; the project was edited in August; and the first episode premiered on YouTube that September. (The show kicked off its third season in late January; in addition to WB.com, it can be viewed at hulu.com/pink-the-series and myspace
.com/pinktheseries).

But this breakneck process didn’t result in something that feels slapdash and incoherent. Quite the opposite, Pink displays a freewheeling pop urgency that’s informed by but not burdened by the traditions of graphic novels, comic books, and music videos. (Imagine Kill Bill with all the boring stretches siphoned out.) And whereas its frequent time shifts would probably come across on television as jarring and confusing, on the Internet, broken up into easily digested, cliffhanger-reliant segments, Pink proves marvelously supple.

Part of me thinks, of course, that online is no place to consume entertainment, even of the most lighthearted sort: Because my home DSL connection is unpredictable, I ended up viewing the first two seasons of Pink on my desktop computer at the office. Mostly, though, the possibilities here seem elastic. I watched a rough cut of Exposed on DVD in my living room, where the relatively linear story, about a young man (Chase Ryan Jeffrey) trying to keep a very dark secret from his girlfriend, played just fine. With minimal tweaks, the eighty minutes or so of material could easily be transformed into a feature film. Calhoun says he’s also busy developing “meta-verse” for Exposed: Facebook pages for his characters, say, or “behind-the-scenes” video footage that one of the characters in the show is frequently seen recording. The idea is that viewers might encounter the program via many different platforms and that fans can immerse themselves in Exposed’s fictional universe and help to expand the mythology of that world.

As for the (literal) million-dollar question—how can work that is viewed for free online ever be financially viable?—well, according to both Levin and Calhoun, it’s all about keeping production budgets low (the average episode of Pink costs a few thousand dollars, compared with a few million for an episode of a network show), drumming up advertiser and sponsor revenue and thinking across multiple platforms. A show like Pink, theoretically, could be packaged as a DVD or adapted into a graphic novel or spun off into a video game or—if the gods of entertainment truly decide to smile down upon Calhoun—remade into a large-scale Hollywood action movie. The ride will be bumpy, and the risks will be considerable (Calhoun says he still hasn’t earned back the money he spent on the first season of Pink, much less been able to turn a profit). And it’s only going to get harder and harder for Web-based artists to get noticed amid so much clutter (when Pink first started, there were only a handful of high-production-value Web shows; a year and a half later, there are dozens, and they just keep multiplying). But with the likes of Calhoun, Maden, and Levin in the mix, one can’t help but be hopeful that entertainment will still remain widely accessible, even to the technophobes, and that a little bit of humanity will remain as we throttle headlong into a brave new world.

Spinning a Web: What Jordan Levin is generating.

“In order to create a voice in the marketplace that has any resonance, it’s going to be difficult to do it in only one medium,” says Jordan Levin. In 2006 Levin co-founded Generate, a production, distribution, and talent management company that means to make inroads into TV, film, book publishing, and the Internet. Its most intriguing output thus far: Republicrats, a serial comedy that ran last fall on MSN.com about a former Fresno weatherman who decides to compete as a third-party candidate against Barack Obama and John McCain, and Chocolate News, a Comedy Central series that plays like a mash-up of The Daily Show and In Living Color, starring David Alan Grier. Both projects have their flaws (the creators seem to be amusing one another a lot more often than they amuse us), but they are also models of offbeat efforts aimed at niche audiences that—with a little bit of massaging and a whole lot of word of mouth—have the potential to go viral.

Christopher Kelly is the film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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