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Celebs on the Web: Hollywood Discovers Streaming Video

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Once upon a time, web TV series were the exclusive domain of gaming geeks, narrow-niche tech experts, and die-hard fanboys/fangirls. But times have changed. Today, you can find web series starring TV/film celebrities such as Brent Spiner (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Mary Lynn Rajskub (24 and the new CBS series How to Be a Gentleman), and Illeana Douglas (Cape Fear, Seinfeld, Six Feet Under, and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit).

They’re not alone. Kevin Pollak’s Johnny Carson-style Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show is an online hit, while Adam Carolla’s The Adam Carolla Show has been recognized as the Most Downloaded Podcast by Guinness World Records. Meanwhile, 24 star Kiefer Sutherland has launched a new web series called The Confession, and acclaimed actor Kevin Spacey is starring in a web series called House of Cards. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix outbid HBO for the rights to the Spacey series — a cool $100 million for 26 episodes.

Clearly, there is a big difference between Spiner’s five-part, 5-minute Fresh Hell shorts and Netflix’s 26-episode House of Cards. “Fresh Hell only cost $800 to shoot over a day and a half, and that $800 was spent on sandwiches,” quipped Spiner during a live web chat with co-star Kat Steel. “Come to think of it, the sandwiches were not particularly good.” (Note: The series’ title is derived from the words of famed writer Dorothy Parker, who once derided the latest tribulation in her life by asking, “What fresh hell is this?”) 

SpinerReferring to Fresh Hell’s $800 budget, Spiner deadpanned, “I have to say, on our behalf, I really think it looked $900. ... We’re going to make it look like a thousand next time, and I’m not kidding.”

“It’s not surprising that so many celebs are turning up in web series,” observes Mike Rotman. He is CEO of Streamin’ Garage (www.streamingarage.com), which produced the Fresh Hell live webcast. Rotman is also co-executive producer and director of Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show. “Working on the web allows celebs to flex their acting muscles, due to the freedom of the medium,” Rotman says. “That said, there really isn’t any money in it.”

Too true, says Pollak: “Being asked to act in a friend’s web series is the new jury duty.”

Spiner echoes Pollak’s sentiment and adds that he is open to any reasonable offer. “Obviously we are looking for a sponsor or network to finance the series,” Spiner says. “This said, I’d be pleased to run promos of Kevin Spacey’s series for half of what Netflix is giving him.”

Why Celebs Are Taking to the Web

Artistic freedom is the reason that Pollak took to web series, both in hosting Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show and Vamped Out with co-star Jason Antoon, which Pollak describes as being “the Arrested Development for the web.”

Reflecting on his career to date, Pollak comments, “Acting in movies all these years has been like a living out a childhood fantasy, but creatively, it’s left me feeling like a gun-for-hire, often greatly disappointed with the final result. However, as someone who started out as a stand-up comedian, I’ve been searching all these years for that same ‘live and die by your own wits’ aspect, not to mention ownership. The opportunity to stand on stage and take the audience on a ride of my choosing, without network or studio control undermining my 30-plus years of learning what part of my humor the audiences most respond to, has always been the biggest thrill.”

Producing Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show has provided this vehicle for Pollak. As host, he can let conversations with guests such as Matthew Perry, Felicia Day, LeVar Burton, Kevin Smith, Weird Al Yankovic, Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Eugene Levy (among others) run as long as it seems right without time constraints. He can truly live as a performer, without “the suits” getting in the way of his “biggest thrill.”

“Creating for the web is the closest I’ve come to that high as a performer,” Pollak says. “I truly believe, more and more, the shift of creative content featuring famous faces and talent is growing exponentially far greater than the studios and networks realize.”

Artistic freedom isn’t the only reason for taking to the web. Just having the joy of doing television again is also a big motivator.

Brent Spiner fits into this second category. Asked why he has starred in Fresh Hell (which features Spiner as himself, albeit as a version of himself who did something so heinous in public that his acting career is now in tatters), Spiner replies, “Why not? I want a show and the networks aren’t exactly breaking my door down to get me. Everyone says this is the future. I disagree. I think it’s right now.”

This said, the former Lt. Cmdr. Data doesn’t want to become too identified with his Fresh Hell persona. This is why “I really don’t want to be doing this show for too long,” he says. “I’ve already set a limit of twenty years, unless of course, audience demand talks us into another decade or so.”

RajskubAt press time, Mary Lynn Rajskub was preparing to launch her new web series Dicki on My Damn Channel (www.mydamnchannel.com). The series’ namesake is a quirky 40-year-old woman who still lives with her parents, while trying to find love and friends anyway she can.

“The main character Dicki was first developed in a screenplay and her name was Dawn,” Rajskub says. “A couple of friends and I developed it into a filmed piece that we originally explored as a TV show. [But] we met with My Damn Channel and realized that this material could lend itself to small episodes for the web. So we edited the piece into small pieces and are going to see how it plays.”

Like Spiner, Rajskub is not getting rich doing web work. But she’s not concerned. “Anything you work on that you are passionate about will eventually benefit your career in some way,” she explains. “In other words, there is no direct benefit! For me, it serves to develop ideas and characters in a relatively low cost way and see if there is an audience for them.”

Illeana Douglas is also on My Damn Channel with the third season of her IKEA-sponsored show Easy to Assemble. Cleverly using an actual IKEA store as its set (with subtle visual gags such as a staff cafeteria that features buffet trays filled with Swedish meatballs), Easy to Assemble features Douglas as a fed-up actress trying to get out of showbiz by working retail.

“My passion is low-budget indie cinema,” Douglas says. “But the industry just died when the recession hit in 2008, and it hasn’t really recovered since then. So I found myself trying to find new venues for work. I eventually shopped around brand-specific web projects to various sponsors, and IKEA bought into the concept.”

As it turned out, IKEA has proven to be an excellent hands-off sponsor for Easy to Assemble. “They really believe in the show, and they let me write the characters and dialogue I want without interference,” she says. “Ironically, the show is really very true to life: I am exploring my own feelings about fame and the business. In particular, it is very difficult to be a 40-something actress in Hollywood. There just aren’t the roles.”

Douglas’ witty digs at showbiz shallowness (at one point, Easy to Assemble co-star Justine Bateman cuts Douglas down by saying, “You and I were friends for weeks before I realized you were not Allison Janney”) makes for fast-paced satire. This may explain why so many celebs have signed up for “jury duty” on Easy to Assemble, to quote Kevin Pollak, including Pollak himself. Other celebrities who have turned up include Jeff Goldblum, Craig Bierko, Jane Lynch (of Glee, playing a Swedish-accented IKEA clerk), Fred Willard, Tom Arnold, Ricki Lake, and Ed Begley Jr.

What the Web Gets From Celebs

“Celebrities are great audience grabbers,” says Mike Rotman. “Having a name like Brent Spiner doing a web series is a natural draw for his fans; bringing lots of eyeballs to the series’ site and giving us the opportunity to interest them in other web series once they are here.” 

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