Note to aspiring Net cineastes hoping to ride those rough cuts to Hollywood fame: It's suddenly getting a lot tougher out there.
Online video sites that have showcased such fare as skateboarding dogs and personal rants are scaling back their focus on user- generated clips. What they want now is professionally produced programming. "People would rather watch content that has production value than watch their neighbors in the garage," says Matt Sanchez, co-founder and CEO of VideoEgg, a company that provides advertising for Web videos.
On Nov. 13, Bebo, one of the big social networking sites that hosts videos, opened its pages to top media companies. Bebo President Joanna Shields says the goal is to better entertain and engage Web users. "As more and more interesting content from major media brands becomes available, [online viewers] are going to share that more and more because those are the brands they identify with."
Bebo's open invitation comes fast on the heels of the decision that another video site, maniaTV, made in October to cancel its 3,000 channels of user-generated videos. Executives cited a lack of eyeballs for the populist productions. Roughly 80% of maniaTV's viewers were flocking to professional content produced by celebs such as musician Dave Navarro and comedian Tom Green. "We don't need the classic user-generated talent when we have Hollywood talent that wants to work with us," says maniaTV CEO Peter Hoskins. In July another video site, Sony's Grouper, re-launched as Crackle, sans user home videos. In its place are professionally produced series and videos from independent filmmakers hoping to score a Hollywood contract.
The new preference for quality stuff comes as much of Hollywood's talent pool of writers and editors is on strike over demands for higher payments when their work migrates to the Web. The numbers show just how big their stake is in this game. More than 57% of U.S. Internet users say they have watched or downloaded online videos, according to a July study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But they're shunning home videos in favor of news and movie trailers, followed by comedy bits, music videos, and television shows, according to a study by Burst Media (BRST ), an Internet ad network that studies the video market.
The money is starting to follow the eyeballs. Some advertisers will pay $60-plus per 1,000 views to place their ads inside professional video content, says Suranga Chandratillake, cofounder of video search engine blinkx. Ads on user-generated videos, on the other hand, go for as little as $7 per 1,000 views, says Chandratillake.
Meanwhile, Hollywood is flooding the Web with slick new shows, produced specifically for the Net. Over the past 12 months writers, actors, and entertainment studios have created original made-for-the-Web series and are distributing television shows along with behind the scenes content and DVD-like extras.
On Nov. 11, News Corp.'s social network MySpace added Quarterlife, a show created by the team behind the hit '90s TV show My So-Called Life. That adds to a lineup that includes Web original Prom Queen, produced by former Disney head Michael Eisner's Vuguru studio. Bebo's made-for-Web programs include KateModern, a show set in East London that focuses on a troubled art student. It is produced by the team behind the Lonelygirl15 series that tantalized Net viewers for months with daily dramas. And a variety of original sketches from well-known movie and television actors are showing on Funny or Die, launched by actor Will Ferrell and some of his pals in April.
Those programs supplement a raft of television shows and online outtakes now playing on sites such as Hulu, the creation of NBC and News Corp., as well as Yahoo video, Time Warner's AOL, and the networks' own Web destinations. "A year ago, if you did a search for a professional video, you would be able to watch a clip or a bad pirated version," says Chandratillake. "Now you are able to watch a real show."
Why is Tinsel Town warming to the Web? "For some people this is a different creative outlet," says MySpaceTV General Manager Jeff Berman. But Hollywood also is sensing the shift in the business model for video. As sites move from the grabbing-traffic stage to the making-money stage, they need to attract advertisers.
Amateur videos, on the other hand, make some major advertisers nervous. They worry about being unwittingly associated with images that make their brands look bad. "Advertisers are a bit more reluctant to trust the user-generated stuff... they feel better aligned with the professional stuff and that is driving a lot of these changes," says Burst Media CEO Jarvis Coffin.
That's not to say that Hollywood is taking over all corners of the Web. Users still submit a ton of videos in hopes of getting noticed by an audience or simply entertaining their friends. Every once in a while one of these unpolished gems catches fire, as the Evolution of Dance video on YouTube did a year ago, showing one man's medley of dances. Then again, the video's creator was a professional comedian.
By Catherine Holahan