Only in a Web series would inebriation and The Legend of Zelda be a match made in heaven. But ever since a gas-station attendant woke up hungover inside the classic Nintendo game nearly two years ago, The Legend of Neil has been one of Atom.com's most successful franchises.
The campy live-action series, now in its third and final season, highlights Atom's evolution over the past decade from user-generated indie film shorts to professionally produced comedy series. In 2006, MTV Networks acquired Atom for $200 million, to serve in part as an idea incubator for its cable nets. Recent hit series 5-On, for example, became Comedy Central's Ugly Americans, and Atom has its own popular (for 2:30 a.m.) weekly showcase on the channel. "One of the things that [creators] are hoping to do is catch the networks' eye," says Scott Roesch, Atom's general manager.
Atom stockpiles the best of its year-round slate for the fourth quarter, much like a TV network. Yet it retains a Web flavor by sharing ad revenue with its creators and partnering with them in hybrid Web-TV deals. For example, Atom is working with Waverly Films, the trio behind its former Web series Stickman Exodus (stick figures in a kid's notebook go on a freedom quest) to create a series called The Fuzz, a cop show set in a city where humans and puppets coexist. Roesch explains, "We pooled some budget and had them do a Web series instead of going through normal TV development." The Fuzz is expected to air on Atom later this year.
Viewership is up to about 3 million visitors a month, with users watching nearly three times as much as last year. At least 80% of the site's 10,000 videos have been posted by users, many hoping for a shot at the big-time, or at least a distribution deal à la director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) who, after film school, licensed some early shorts to Atom. So go ahead: Raid your Sega stash and shoot for the stars.
3 to Watch
Munchie the Agent
In each episode, Munchie, an animatronic cat and the "world's worst Hollywood agent," takes a meeting with a client such as Tom Arnold, Eric Roberts, or Ray Liotta. The problem? Munchie doesn't remember who they are and suggests inappropriate projects.
Dan Levy's Laugh Track Mashups
Comedian Dan Levy reimagines '80s and '90s sitcoms — mixing, say, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with Mr. Belvedere — with the help of talent from some of the era's original shows.
Rahzel's Rap Minute
Rahzel, the legendary beat boxer from the Roots, skewers recent music news with parodies — and yes, a little beat-boxing.
Coming up next ... Animator vs. Animation 3, where the animator does battle with Flash (early fall) ... A horror spoof starring Tommy Wiseau, the guy who directed The Room, renowned as the worst movie ever made (October) ... Old People Tech Reviews, which is, indeed, 85-year-old anchors critiquing the holiday season's must-have gadgets (November)
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A version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.