Hollywood Heavies Crash Web Video Party

NEW YORK While Internet video has remained mostly the stomping ground of the dramatic chipmunk, Diet Coke-Mentos fountains and Lonelygirl15, it is beginning to get attention from Hollywood movers and shakers.

United Talent Agency, a high-powered rep firm for Hollywood stars like Jack Black and Vince Vaughn, and Internet-based ad platform Spot Runner are spinning off a new company that is dedicated to providing a platform for professional actors and directors to create, distribute and profit from short-form Internet content.

The company, called 60Frames, is betting that the same high-quality content that makes movie blockbusters and hit TV shows can create the same buzz online. Joel and Ethan Coen, makers of Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, are the first talent lined up to produce shorts.

“When I started looking on YouTube at what was available, it became clear to me that most of what was there was not very good,” said Jeremy Zimmer, a partner at UTA. “People were excited about going online to look for video but they quickly became disenchanted because the quality wasn’t there.”

To remedy that, 60Frames will finance Internet video productions from established talent, then distribute clips through a series of outlets, including peer-to-peer networks, Web portals and emerging channels like mobile. Spot Runner will sell the ads tied to the content.

“There hasn’t been enough high-quality consistent inventory for advertisers to move their budgets online,” said former UTA exec Brent Weinstein, who will serve as CEO of 60Frames. “There’s this big gap that artists want to fill.”

60Frames, which is part owned by UTA and Spot Runner, has closed a $3.5 million Series A venture funding, led by Tudor Investment Corp. and Pilot Group, a financing organization co-owned by former AOL COO Robert Pittman.

Executives declined to provide details of the distribution agreements 60Frames has in place. Weinstein said it would have its first video rolled out by the end of the summer. It plans to begin with comedy clips but in time include other genres.

The launch of 60Frames shows how seriously Hollywood views the possibilities of using Web video to connect with audiences—and make money from it. In April, Creative Artists Agency linked up with Will Ferrell, partner Gary McKay and Silicon Valley venture firm Sequoia Capital to launch Funnyordie.com. Ferrell and McKay’s first video, “The Landlord,” showing Ferrell arguing with a foul-mouthed, beer-swilling landlord that turns out to be a 2-year-old child, has drawn 38 million viewers on the site. “Good Cop, Bad Cop,” a follow-up with Ferrell and the baby, which is actually McKay’s daughter, has been viewed over 2 million times in the past two weeks.

While that particular clip circulated without advertising, ventures like Funnyordie and 60Frames will draw in ads, predicted Matthew Rosenberg, group media director for entertainment at Omnicom Group’s Organic.

“You get a built-in audience when you bring in the equity of a filmmaker,” he said. “It’s easier to find a sponsor because they can expect a certain number of people will seek out the Coen brothers content. What’s going to be the next viral hit on YouTube? Who knows, so you can’t associate with it.”

To date, however, popular content creators in traditional media have a spotty record finding the same success in original online productions. Lloyd Braun, a former ABC television exec, arrived at Yahoo! in 2004 vowing to produce an “I Love Lucy Moment,” only to leave two years later without any hit programming. Similarly, Mark Burnett’s online efforts have attracted modest audiences on Web portals.

“The most exciting thing about shows on the Web is [that] people can decide what’s popular and what’s not,” said Dina Kaplan, COO of Blip.tv, a site showcasing Web video stars like Ze Frank and Amanda Congdon. “You have the benefit of creating a network where anyone can become the next star. You lose some of that advantage by betting on a few hits.”

While it will tap Hollywood for talent, 60Frames will not be tied to its blockbuster mentality, said Nick Grouf, CEO of Spot Runner.

“The online platform allows you to niche out content,” said Nick Grouf, Spot Runner’s CEO. “What online allows you to do is put out content that might feel small but actually finds a very broad audience.”

The ad format for 60Frames’ videos is not yet worked out, Grouf and Weinstein said. The company plans to experiment with various formats, including pre-roll and post-roll spots and brand integration.

60Frames is not UTA’s first foray into Web video. Last October, it launched UTA Online to scout for talent. It hooked up with online video sharing site Veoh in January to establish a channel for aggregate and showcase submissions.

Zimmer said the exact Web video formula would take some time to figure out, but he was confident his agency would play a vital role in finding the best content.

“So far, believing in talented people has been good business for me,” he said.