Web sites encounter obstacles in search for moviemaking talent
By Jefferson Graham
Pete Jones of Chicago was just another insurance salesman with a dream until he won a contest on the Internet last year and got to try his hand at making a movie.
"Stolen Summer," the $1.9 million movie that Jones, 32, wrote and directed, opened after capping a yearlong adventure instigated by actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
They came up with the idea for the contest, co-sponsored by Miramax Films, and made Jones' progress into a documentary series called "Project Greenlight," which recently ran on HBO.
Jones' movie, which opened in four cities, made $62,000 its first weekend, but the money is almost beside the point.
At the time the contest began, many Web entrepreneurs were speaking loudly and boldly about the Internet becoming a new place to find undiscovered talent, a way of breaking through the traditionally closed doors of Hollywood.
Then came the reality: It costs a lot to run entertainment sites, investor money was drying up and the online ad market was struggling.
Many believe the opportunity is still there, but the choices are now far fewer and, in most cases, no longer free for the asking.
Jones' ride began a year ago, when 7,291 contest entrants submitted scripts.
His story, a family film about a Catholic boy wondering how to get to heaven in 1976 Chicago, was one of the ones picked as a finalist by visitors to the Project Greenlight site (www.projectgreenlight.com).
The actors and their partners chose "Summer" as the winner, giving Jones a $1 million budget (later increased to $1.9 million) to make the movie.
"We still think the Web is a great place to find new talent," said Keith Quinn of Live Planet, the production company owned by Damon and Affleck that staged the contest. "The Web is the way you get your peer review, with your users choosing the finalists."
But while Live Planet and Miramax said they hope to stage a second contest, they haven't been able to agree on terms. They're running a Web survey asking users how much they would pay to participate in a sequel, after the first site reportedly went $750,000 over budget. The first contest was free.
One site still free
The only free contest site still out there is Hypnotic's Chrysler Million Dollar Film Festival (www.hypnotic.com). Hypnotic's first festival resulted in a grand prize winner who won a $1 million budget to shoot a feature film.
The contest was held at the same time as Greenlight, and announced its winner first.
However, the film about a would-be earthquake in New York City has yet to be made by David Von Ancken, formerly an employee of an accounting firm.
"David submitted a very ambitious first draft, which was wonderful, but a different movie than we could make for a million dollars," said Hypnotic's Gene Klein. "He's rewriting it now."
They said they hope to get it before the cameras this summer and have its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Hypnotic, whose traffic is under the 200,000-monthly-visitor threshold tracked by Jupiter Media Metrix, showcases film shorts.
The site is part of the Vivendi/Universal media empire, which includes Universal Studios, the music Web sites MP3.com (www.mp3.com) and Get Music (www.getmusic.com) and the just-launched MP4. com (www.mp4.com), which also presents video shorts and clips.
The new contest spotlights 25 short films, mostly student works, which will get winnowed down to 10 by Hypnotic users, with the winner to be selected in September.
Larry Auerbach, University of Southern California Associate Dean, said he's "not a big believer in these contests. The odds of winning are horrendous. And if you do win, the contracts really need to be examined closely. They take all rights away and demand a lot of our students' time."
Despite all the attention to the Net, Auerbach said festivals are a better way to go. "The Internet market was hot for a while, but now it's not. It was built on hype; no one could make money."
Try telling that to Patrick Daughters. "To have an opportunity like this is fantastic," said the Hypnotic contestant, recently of New York University, who works nights as a bartender. "There are a lot of frustrated young filmmakers out there. It's like there's this big party going on in the next room and you can't figure out how to get in there."
Despite the relative lack of competition, Quinn said he thinks a second contest, if they pull it off, will be bigger than the first.
"We went from the idea in the writer's mind to releasing it in the theaters. Now that we've done that, and 10 (million) to 20 million people saw the show on HBO, don't you think a lot more will want to be involved next time?
Pete went through some well-documented troubles, but he made a really good film and got his foot in the door."