NOW SHOWING ON THE WEB; INTERNET FILMS CHANGING THE WAYS MOVIES ARE MADE, SEEN

When Madonna gets behind the wheel again, she won’t have to worry about ruffling the finer sensibilities of MTV and VH1.

Unlike her “What It Feels Like for a Girl” video her wild ride in a Camaro was banned to one-time, late-night showings this time the singer will be tooling around in a BMW and on a Web site, www.bmwfilms.com.

The British motor company is sponsoring “The Hire,” a digital film series executive produced by director David Fincher (“Fight Club,” “Seven”). With the dictates that the starring vehicle be a BMW and running time be kept under 10 minutes, the project enticed directors John Frankenheimer, Alejandro Gonzalz Irritu, Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie and Wong Kai Wai.

The series cranked into gear on April 26 with “Ambush” by Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate”). The six-minute tale, starring up-and-coming Clive Owens (“Croupier”), featured diamond smugglers, armed masked men and chase scenes.

Debuting Thursday is Lee’s “Chosen.” Ritchie’s short with wife Madonna is set for June 7.

Despite the hulks of Internet companies moldering on the wayside (The Spot, Stan Lee Media, Icebox and the list grows), Hollywood is still eager to get in on the superhighway. Not even the false start of one of its own Pop.com, backed by Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, never got off the ground has dampened the rush to cyberspace.

Originally, the Web was envisioned as a destination, its democratic platform promising global communication, multimedia storytelling and independent cinema.

With the domino effect failing Internet companies are having on the economy, the original utopian vision has largely been shoehorned into a corporate matrix of distribution: Creativity becomes content and the Web just another channel to surf.

Yet old-timers and it takes only five years to become a graybeard in cyberspace see the shakeout as a return to the Web’s democratic spirit.

“The Web started with people just linking to each other, people sharing information,” says Webby Awards founder and director Tiffany Shlain. While veteran companies continue to harbor space for filmmakers, those that died like Pop.com were trying to be a one-stop shop. “It was counterintuitive to what the Web was about I feel like it’s returning to its roots.”

And while Web cinema has had more than its share of one-note jokes and gross-out animation, it has showcased original, stunning work that Hollywood itself might never make, but enviously seeks out. Meanwhile, Hollywood might introduce higher production values to Web cinema; it also brings higher budgets to what has largely been a shoestring operation.. How these contradictory impulses will be reconciled and whether they need to may determine not only the future of online entertainment, but all cinema.

Alternative

Established talent, such as filmmaker Tim Burton, have long shared cyberspace with amateurs, and Web films have been steadily maturing without the big names. In the last two years, a spurt of online film festivals from PlanetOut, Yahoo! and Sundance attest to a cinematic coming-of-age.

The term “cinema” for Web fare might be generous if it’s measured in terms of running time. An aggravating mix of download waits, an intimidating array of plug-ins and other factors have dictated that online entertainment runs on an average of 30 seconds to 30 minutes. That explains why animation, with its broader strokes and fewer pixels, remains an Internet mainstay.

Yet in cyberspace, time may no longer determine what is true theater. Cindy Vandor considers the Internet a “film fan’s feast.” She serves as supervising producer for IFILM@IFC, an Independent Film Channel and IFILM weekly cable co-production that debuted in April. The “Entertainment Tonight” for independent theater devotes one-quarter of its show to Internet programming.

“It used to be films were locked up by distributors,” she says. “If you didn’t live in the right neighborhood with the right theater and you had a yen to see an offbeat film, forget about it.” Vandor has discovered works such as the Academy Award-nominated Hungarian short “One Day Crossing,” which she declares to be one of the best films of the year.

The Web audience is receptive to international fare: Besides gerbils in microwaves and frogs in a blender, one of www.AtomFilms.com’s top attractions is the Oscar-nominated German film “Kleingeld.”

The alternative, naturally, appeals to those outside the mainstream. “The gay and lesbian market is so underserved by traditional media outlets,” says PlanetOut.com senior entertainment producer and filmmaker Jenni Olson. She uses a similar neighborhood analogy: the Akron, Ohio, corner video store that likely wouldn’t carry gay-friendly entertainment, but online, someone discovers, “Wow, there are gay short movies that I can see that reflect my life that I’m not seeing anywhere else.'”

Prestige

Online film festivals have opened what was once closed and mystifying route for budding filmmakers. Sometimes artists merely experimenting win contests by accident. San Francisco Academy of Arts student Jony Chandra and friends thought they were just posting their “Fowl Play” on Showtime’s site. They ended up winning best drama, software and $10,000 for their animation about a Mexican rooster fight.

Nontraditional stories bypassed by movies or television can get screen time. The nature of Olson’s work landscape films limits her audiences, but her short “Meep Meep” won notable mention in the Sundance online film festival.

A Hollywood contract, however, still defines prestige for the average filmmaker. Yahoo’s Filmmaker of the Future Award “answers a filmmaker’s ultimate goal for a much sought-after pitch meeting with MGM studio executives, courtesy of MGM.com.” Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s site, LivePlanet, held a screenwriter contest, Project Greenlight. Out of 10,000 contestants, winner Peter Jones of Chicago won a minimum $1 million budget and Miramax Film’s promise to distribute his film, “Stolen Summer.”

The Internet arms of companies such as Warner Bros., Showtime and Universal Pictures host film festivals to attract audiences (more than a million visited Showtime’s site, http://alt.sho.com, when it awarded its festival prizes) and as a low-cost approach to auditions. For example, Hypnotic, part of Universal and a “studio within a studio,” held an online casting contest for “American Pie II.” AtomFilms took pitches from audience members paired with employees; they picked one and produced the top-rated “Talk to Taka,” a comedy set in a sushi bar starring Pat Morita. “It’s access to emerging filmmakers and their work and their ideas,” says Gene Klein, vice president of content at Hypnotic.

As Hollywood is recruiting new talent, its seasoned celebrities are using the Internet as a creative outlet, even in thinly disguised commercials.

“While Ang Lee will do a Crouching Tiger’ and get a lot of accolades, he might not be making another movie for a year,” explains Gary Garfinkel, Showtime vice president of acquisitions. “That’s a lot of time for not doing your thing, your craft.”

Steve Golin, CEO of Anonymous, which partnered the BMW films, said the people involved in “The Hire” series could do a project in six weeks.

“It’s kind of fun, it’s in and out, you get to try different things,” he says. The Ritchie newlyweds worked together; Mickey Rourke and Forrest Whitaker worked with Wong.

The faith in the Web’s sustained future is evident in the increasing number of Webisodes. Internet production studio EzFlix plans to launch David Cronenberg’s “Filmskool” (the director as a failed filmmaker turned angry film school lecturer) and “C-SCAM,” a C-SPAN parody written by Larry Gelbart (“Tootsie,” the TV series “M*A*S*H”) with actors including Bruno Kirby, James Coburn, Liv Ullman and John Lithgow.

The abbreviated running time is not necessarily a deterrent, either. “The short format allows filmmakers more freedom to tell their stories,” explains Scott Roesch, AtomShockwave senior director of Web entertainment. “You don’t have to fit a 90-minute or 100-minute window. You don’t have to hit exactly 22 episodes. I think that’s a good thing for the content itself.”

Ultimately, on the Web, brand names don’t matter and they cost less. “If you can get quality from somebody who doesn’t happen to be a household name,” Klein points out, “why not?”

Aesthetic

With the Web, it may be both the message and the medium. Business folk call it just another platform, like TV, video and soon, monitors on buses, airplanes, elevators and the PalmPilot.

Golin describes his company’s shorts as “platform agnostic.” Web-only cinema is “kind of a novelty act,” he says, a good place to exhibit young filmmakers’ works, but in the end a vehicle for entertainment.

The BMW series, which even has theatrical trailers on network television, will move on to DVD and be given to BMW owners. The sponsorship harks back to the early days of radio and TV shows. “We’re not trying to monetize the Web,” Golin says. “It’s not a commercial proposition. It’s a marketing proposition.”

Shlain believes that the Web isn’t just a platform for marketing, but a platform for expression. She points out that the movie studio system expanded, then consolidated into four companies then Sundance emerged. “You’ll always have an independent counterbalance,” she insists. “I’m just a true believer that you can’t stamp out independence.”

No matter what direction Web cinema goes in, however, it may create a unique aesthetic that will have a profound influence on entertainment in general. Golin says the BMW series “didn’t make one concession to the Web, not one, except for length.”

Still he concedes, “somehow, some of the cinema that comes from the Web, it’s going to seep into the filmmaking psyche like music videos did.”

Already movies such as “Time Code,” in which director Mike Figgis (“Leaving Las Vegas”) divides the screen into four different squares, reveal a Net influence. Shorts such as “The New Arrival,” by award-winning Amy Talkington, takes advantage of 360-degree film technology.

These days, “trying to get video through the Internet is trying to get a pig through the garden hose,” says Falk. Technology also changes so rapidly, lessons learned may soon be obsolete.

Like Shlain, though, he does see how these tentative aesthetic explorations parallel the beginning of theatrical cinema. “When we look at movies now, there are techniques that individual directors invented that we take for granted, that’s now part of the vocabulary.”

Even the very way people physically view Web offerings (leaning forward vs. sitting back) may change their appreciation of entertainment. Freedom may not only be reserved for the artist, but also for the viewer.

As filmmakers, businesspeople, engineers and audiences alike figure out the language of Web cinema, the utopian vision remains that it will actually, well, mean something.

As Vandor points out, “It will be such a fun thing to take a coffee break with a short film, dial up in the middle of the night and not be beholden to whatever crap is on television.”

Times’ events editor Vera H-C Chan can be reached at vchan@cctimes.com or 925-977-8428.

FILM SITES

Here are but a tiny number of the sites featuring Web entertainment:

http://alt.sho.com (Showtime)

www.atomfilms.com

www.bmwfilms.com

www.ezflix.com

www.ifilm.com

www.Countingdown.com

www.hypnotic.com

www.planetout.com (gay lifestyle portal with online film festival)

www.webbyawards.com (site of annual awards contest which hosts 27 categories, including film)

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