Shape Shifting

For those who have managed to avoid Web "content" thus far, well, now it's coming to you. In scattered camps across the Alley, local developers, eager for exposure and a new trickle of cash, are jumping offthe Net to expand into every other venue imaginable--books, radio, film, and television. The switch is equal parts artistic restlessness and financial desperation, but highlights the particular anxiety of Web-based projects: how long can you stay strictly online and survive?

The properties aren't abandoning the Net entirely--they're just tryingto show a new face. Epicurious (food.epicurious.com), the gourmet food site launched back in 1995 by Condé Nast's interactive division, announced last week that the site will become a weekly show this fall on the Discovery Channel (one assumes okapi and ibex won't be on the menu). For 13 weeks, listeners to NPR Playhouse tuned in to the dark musings of Vanishing Point, a spooky radio drama with a $2 million interactive-game component due soon, all developed by Web shop Sunshine Digital and Microsoft. CD-ROM auteurs Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake will premiere their animated feature film, The History of Glamour, at the Downtown Arts Festival on September 16. But the biggest Alley assault is on traditional publishing. Starting in September, "literate smut" site Nerve (nervemag.com), community Tripod (www.tripod.com), movie-review site Girls on Film (girlson.com), and online programming resource Earthweb (earthweb.com) will release books based on their Web sites.

The surprising aspect of this mass migration is not how quickly the developers have abandoned interactive media--after all, most started online strictly because it was cheap. The impressive feat is how fast they've adapted to working offline (mostly by dragging their computers and resourcefulness along with them). Duncan and Blake's sly fable, The History of Glamour, is a case in point. Duncan, known for her CD-ROM games for girls, like Chop Suey and Zero Zero, had already spent a month prepping Glamour for her usual format when she was offered cash from an enthusiastic investor to blow it up into a feature film. Animated entirely on Apple machines (in Adobe After Effects), the project was crashed together in just four months. "I wanted to see if I could do a sustained narrative," says Duncan. "I like CD-ROMs because the user isn't passive, but I think most people are lazy and like the story to happen to them."

The results are striking, a mix of the skewed mood of Todd Haynes's Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and television's wry King of the Hill, with songs by Bikini Kill and Fugazi (and lyrics by Duncan). The film is set up as a pseudo-documentary, in which Charles Valentine, a blond bombshell from Antler, Ohio, comes to New York, hits it big as a rock star (celebrating with "Chanel No. 5 on the rocks"), and ultimately skirts the spotlight to become a writer. As Duncan describes it, "It's about a young woman trying to find an identity. She goes from 'glamour' to 'grammar.' " Compared to South Park and its low-res shoddiness, Glamour looks like a masterwork--Blake's rough, freehand drawings and digitally based watercoloring (in a software program so bad he dares not speak its name) have a warm, folksy grittiness. Duncan hasn't even finished editing the film, but she's already unabashedly pitching the project to network TV.

Like many online developers, Duncan knew all along she wanted to muck around in multiple media. Nerve's Rufus Griscom and Genevieve Field, an online Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin with a business model, intended from the start to move from the Web into print. As publishing expats, "we wagered that if we spent a decent amount of money on good writers"--like Robert Olen Butler, William Vollmann, and Rick Moody--"we could sell the content in a book form," says Griscom. The anthology of Nerve's articles, mostly available gratis online, is pitched to technophobic cultural elders. "It'll help us reach people in the literary community who are a bit skeptical of the online world," says Griscom.

If Nerve feels comfortable on paper (the online version reads like a magazine to begin with), the other properties risk seeming flat and out-of-place when they make the backward move to print. The female producers of Girlson.com just signed a deal with HarperCollins to write their own girl-oriented guide to film (television and music manuals may follow, as if the world needed more of them). Like Nerve, the first one, due out early in 1999, will repackage plenty of online content, but Dan Pelson, CEO of the Concrete Media, which owns the site, insists it'll have a fresh perspective. "This is not Siskel and Ebert repackaging 500 movie reviews," he says. He mentions possible articles on the 10 scariest movies ever made or, say, the size of John Travolta's head.

The books are as much advertisements as necessities. Tripod'sTools for Life resource book and Earthweb's 12 hefty titles may be smart and relevant, but the shelves are already crowded with competitors (just check the computers section of B&N). The fact is, their prime audience likely already knows how to punch in a URL and get the information for free.

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