So far as I know, Babelgum is the only company paying Web-video creators money up front," says chief revenue officer Douglas Dicconson. And not for low-brow stuff, but ambitious professional works such as British documentarian Daniel Edelstyn's Vodka Empire, the unlikely 25-part saga of his discovery that he's heir to a Ukrainian vodka factory, and his attempt to bring Zorokovich 1917 to the modern spirits world.
Publishers of each of Babelgum's five channels — including Vodka Empire's home, Metropolis, which is devoted to art, design, fashion, and urban culture — are given budgets to commission original content creators who do their own thing. "We've basically had more creative freedom and control than anything I've worked on in my entire career," says actor Kevin Pollak, who wrote and directed the spoof Vamped Out for Babelgum's comedy channel. Babelgum splits ad revenue after deals earn out their advance. This talent-friendly setup has attracted both serious and comedic artists, such as Michael Showalter, who goes behind-the-scenes of familiar TV ads on The Making Of....
In Babelgum's quest for advertising and eyeballs, it has looked backward, adapting some traditional TV practices. In early 2011, the company will have upfronts for advertisers. Shows will have specific release dates so fans can set their devices accordingly. Dicconson argues that more and more, Web TV is competing with NBC, ABC, and MTV, and that conventional wisdom about online viewership is wrong. "The long-tail theory says that a video may aggregate a million views in nine months, but 80% of our views should come in 48 hours," he says. That's good for advertisers — they'd rather get their messages out quickly, not wait for a trickle of random hits through next Arbor Day.
Dicconson says that he closed more revenue in the first quarter of 2010 than in the past three years combined. And momentum continued this past spring as Babelgum's traffic spiked to 5.7 million visitors a month, when Vamped Out and Vodka Empire first aired. Na zdorovye!
3 to Watch
Babelgum's first fully financed feature film, helmed by Academy Award-nominee Leslie Iwerks, will get its U.S. debut as an episodic series. Dirty Oil examines the economic and ecological impact of the oil sands in Alberta.
When we last saw our vampiric out-of-work-actor hero Alowisus Hewson (Jason Antoon) in season one, he was sucking a young Hollywood starlet's blood while formerly skeptical documentary filmmaker Elliot Finke (series writer and director Kevin Pollak) wigged out. Will the 172-year-old thespian find work in a Twilight world?
Bomb It 2
Babelgum produced the original street art/graffiti documentary, and the sequel will profile artists from locations such as Singapore (third offense is a caning!) and the Middle East. "In Israel, there's a blossoming street-art culture with percolations of ideas," says director Jon Reiss, "but in the Palestinian refugee camps, everything is political."
Coming up next ... Dark Fibre, a thriller costarring Noam Chomsky (!) that blends fiction and reality to explore the nexus of media, technology, and the future of India (mid-September) ... Big Shots, a 24-part look into the world of L.A. paparazzi (mid-September) ... Photojournalist Danfung Dennis's gritty documentary series Valley of Death, about Marines in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley (late 2010)
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A version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.