For Love and Money


The guys behind Chaos Theory, a new serialized movie that debuts april 17 on the teenybop web site, invoke some heavy-duty lineage when describing their project. ‘The idea of serialization,’ says 36-year-old Edward Vilga, the film’s director, ‘harks back to Dickens and “The Pickwick Papers.”

Dickens—whose sentimental serials made him one of the most financially successful ink slingers of his time—never patented his product. But that is exactly what Vilga and fellow Yale grads Ryan Hegg and Bert Orlov, all partners in a New York-based company called FilmSnacks, have proceeded to do, with the help of recent sweeping court rulings that dramatically expanded the right of Web entrepreneurs to patent intellectual property and business concepts. And—like many before them who have been disappointed—the three smart-talking dudes are sure they can turn Web-based entertainment into cash money.

At the same time, indie-minded forces who don’t care much about cross-merchandising are using the Web to create new kinds of narrative structures. “I’m telling stories on the Web,” says Maya Churi, an East Village filmmaker whose Letters From Homeroom, like Chaos Theory, is an interactive, episodic Web movie about high schoolers aimed at a teen audience. While there are similarities in medium, subject matter, and target age group, Churi’s project is to FilmSnacks’s what My So-Called Life was to Melrose Place—except it’s not even designed to make money.

The two projects are part of a new wave in new media, inspired by the increasing popularity of the Web and, perhaps, a short memory and great reserve of hope. Only five years ago, dollars were pouring into dozens of Web-based entertainment projects, on the theory that people wanted to get entertainment on the Internet. When it turned out that most people were just logging on to check the weather in Dubuque or the trading price of their Cisco stock—and that they didn’t have the technical resources to view sophisticated content online—the money flowed back out of Web entertainment like a receding tide.

FilmSnacks’s movies are intended to be accessible to anyone who has a Net browser, a 56K modem, and the latest version of RealPlayer. And they’re supposed to make money. FilmSnacks’s first vehicle is Chaos Theory, which the company describes in a press release as “the post-millennial, Blair Witch Project– meets-MTV Road Rules adventures of a group of high school students on a New York City field trip gone awry.” Its 30 three-minute segments will be unveiled over six weeks. The stars and characters, if previews are any indication, are pale digital spawn of the teentainment clan whose venerable giants include Beverly Hills 90210 and The Real World. All the actors and concepts have been meticulously tested in focus groups.

What makes FilmSnacks’s venture patentable is the way it is being marketed and the package that goes around it—some of which is editorial content, like chat rooms and behind-the-scenes footage from the 12-day shoot, and some of which is frankly commercial, like contests and chances to buy products featured in the movie. The company envisions providing its content to dozens of “destination” host sites like Alloy that are in the process of fighting it out for brand value in niche Web markets like college kids and the gay community. Run a FilmSnacks serial, the sales spiel goes, and you’ll get more eyeballs than your competitors.

Orlov says the concept has flown well with the angel investors he pitched to get the money for Chaos Theory. For the next round of dough—$2 million to $4 million to finance as many as 15 serials in the company’s second year—FilmSnacks is approaching big-ticket investors. You know, “the kind of person we all aspire to be,” says Orlov with a happy chuckle. “The kind of person who can write a million-dollar check without noticing it. I could get used to that.”

Maya Churi is still getting used to the feeling of receiving a check for $5000 in grant money after her Web film project was screened at the New Media Center at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The inspiration for the work came when Churi, a 29-year-old NYU film school alumna, found a trove of 200 notes she and her friends had written to each other in high school. The notes got her thinking about a film project exploring the friendships between girls. “I took all the points I wanted to address and created an outline,” says Churi.

Originally, she conceived of the story as a short film. But her work as an associate editor with indieWIRE, an online publication covering the independent film industry, led her to consider how she could use the Net to tell this intimate story. With a Web site, Churi reasoned, she not only could reach a wide audience without the backing of a distributor, but she also could create a new kind of narrative. Hits have been good since the site launched in February. In the week after Yahoo showcased it, 16,000 people visited per day, staying an average of 10 minutes—much wider exposure, Churi says, than she could have gotten in theaters.

Churi shot the movie digitally with her own money, using kids from her own Philadelphia high school—she auditioned 120 in one day—and then, with the help of her brother, Ariel Churi, and her friend Fiona Brandon, she created a Web site with 17 one-minute segments, each written as a note from one girl to the other, through video, audio, or text.

The story is a sweetly mundane one of two ordinary girls, Alix and Claire, whose best-friend relationship is, typically, fraught with love, jealousy, shyness, envy, and longing. It emerges obliquely from the notes and from other elements of the site, which include Alix’s online journal, modeled on those of real girls; a bathroom where visitors can join threads of conversation about each segment; and a locker room where, by clicking on each character’s virtual locker, viewers learn more about each of the kids in the story.

Churi, who admits she’s not a frequent visitor to other online film sites, didn’t even know HTML until eight months ago, when she learned it to create Alix’s and Claire’s Web sites, which are part of Letters From Homeroom. Unlike the FilmSnacks crew—whose plans include creating a Dynasty-esque serial for a department-store site where viewers can interrupt the story to buy clothing sported by the characters—Churi hasn’t patented her concept and doesn’t expect to make a lot of dotcom dollars. Instead, with the grant money and whatever else she can raise, she intends to take the story of Alix and Claire into their junior year. And she hopes people will be watching.