LOS ANGELES — Web sites that buy original video clips often pay so little that "The Bannen Way," a flashy crime thriller debuting online, looked destined to be made poorly if it could be made at all.
Yet budding filmmakers Jesse Warren and Mark Gantt managed to hire 40-odd staff, including a boom operator, camerapeople — yes, more than one — and even production assistants on hand to offer sunscreen and sandwiches. And the production had actors familiar to some TV and movie audiences, including Michael Ironside, Robert Forster and Vanessa Marcil.
The secret to their success? Treat the Internet run like a TV or movie release, which often loses money on its on-screen debut, but can make healthy profits when issued on DVD or Blu-ray and later sold for reruns on cable or overseas.
With that in mind, major movie studios are now getting behind such productions, giving them a lift in budgets and quality — a far cry from the shaky camerawork and dubious special effects prevalent when Web video became a new phenomenon a few years ago.
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For Warren and Gantt, who wrapped up shooting in October, a snazzy trailer they produced helped snag Sony Pictures Television as a partner.
"We came up with this idea," said Warren, 31. "There's no limit to how many episodes there can be in a Web series. So why don't we design it as a (feature-length movie) so we can sell it as a DVD feature at the end?"
Sony executives, it turns out, had the same idea.
The studio picked up the project in April and gave it a budget of around $1 million. That's nowhere near the $30 million-plus budgets of many Hollywood movies, but more than the producers were told they could sell it for. Web sites typically pay up to $5,000 for a short clip of original video; with 16 episodes, other Web sites might have paid around $100,000 for "The Bannen Way."
"This money buys more lights and more production value," said Gantt, 40.
One quirk of the Web is that each episode must have a cliffhanger to keep online viewers coming back. In one scene, the audience learns for the first time that Neal Bannen, the title character, had been working for his mob boss uncle. Bannen's father is the chief of police, and viewers realize the son is about to be entangled in a cops-and-robbers struggle between father and uncle.
"It moves pretty well," Warren says, snapping his fingers. "We had breaks that would naturally lend itself to the Web."
Sony Pictures Television hopes the release will gain buzz and a few advertising dollars when it begins to debut in increments in January on the Sony-owned Crackle.com, a site targeted at 18-to-34-year-old men. Then, it will stop running for free online and get repackaged for sale to TV outlets, on iTunes and elsewhere.
Editing finished this month on the
feature-length project. There's no substantial difference between the whole or spliced versions — just that the Web version has episodic breaks at certain climaxes.
Although the main goal is to drive traffic to Crackle.com, which Sony Corp. acquired when it was called Grouper for nearly $60 million in 2006, made-for-Web productions are expected to make a profit by themselves.
Thus, studios scrutinize projects before approving them and committing funding.
"We go through a very similar green-light process as we would for any piece of content in the studio," said Eric Berger, senior vice president of digital networks for Sony Pictures Television, which is planning to make 15 Web productions annually. "How and why we make them and where we will make money is conceived with every project."