Hollywood has always been a closed-connected system—the hardest type to penetrate," says Chill cofounder Brian Norgard, 33. He's sitting in his Los Angeles office, looking more urban outlaw than tech whiz kid in a blue T-shirt, designer jeans, and black cowboy boots. "It's always been a set of studios that did business a certain way, and you're either in or you're out."
But that's quickly changing. Getting past Hollywood's velvet rope is no longer only about impressing a studio head or A-list producer. Instead, entrepreneurs like Norgard are carving paths around gatekeepers—the studios, networks, and labels that have long ruled the entertainment business. "The future of this whole town," says Norgard, gesturing behind him toward an impressive view of Sunset Boulevard, "is about allowing anyone to become part of this ecosystem through these tools."
His vision of access looks like this: Since launching in early 2012, Chill has served as a web platform for filmmakers and other entertainers to sell content to fans, bypassing traditional distribution channels. The company has offered some 150 projects for streaming on chill.com at prices ranging from $1.99 to $9.99, including the YouTube documentary Please Subscribe and comedian Maria Bamford's popular series of DIY stand-up specials. Bamford's Chill debut earned her more in one month than she made on her two previous Comedy Central specials combined. "I can connect with fans directly rather than having to tell them to watch a certain channel at a certain time," says the comedian.
Chill's model is just one of many open-access efforts. The company VHX helps artists create their own sites to hawk their work (Aziz Ansari and Dave Grohl are clients). On StageIt, bands can schedule a live-stream concert for fans to virtually attend. And Gigit lets music lovers easily hire bands to perform in their living rooms or backyards. Even traditional media companies (i.e., those old gatekeepers) are joining in. MTV operates Artists.MTV, where unsigned acts can promote and sell their music.
This direct-to-fans craze heated up in 2007 after Radiohead let people pay whatever they wanted to download their album In Rainbows. In 2011, Louis C.K. self-distributed a comedy special online and made more than $1 million in 12 days. The idea took off. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, fans have gotten used to the idea of interacting with entertainers, and with direct distribution, the transaction itself can even have a certain intimacy. "When you're shopping on iTunes, you're just picking one of many titles on a shelf," says Jamie Wilkinson, cofounder of VHX. "But when you go to somebody's store, you have a relationship with them."
Consumers also feel like they're supporting the creation process, rather than just forking over cash to a faceless megacorporation. "You're part of it, and you're supporting [artists]," says Dan Gould, 35, who cofounded Chill with Norgard. "This person is putting their heart and soul into this creation, and people are like, I want to get behind it."
Chill didn't start as an iTunes competitor. Norgard and Gould launched it as a free social media–powered discovery site that focused on premium (as opposed to audience-generated) video. With more than 20 million users in just six months, the site had high-profile backers such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, William Morris Endeavor, and Lady Gaga manager Troy Carter.
After Louis C.K.'s huge payday, Norgard revamped Chill to be a distribution platform where creators could not only engage their fans but also make money doing it. (Chill takes a 30% cut, with all other revenue going straight to creators.) Bamford was one of the first acts to come aboard. Ever since, "we've been sprinting," says Norgard.
But for most artists—those without a ready fan base—these sites still offer more potential than payoff. "I think there's Louis C.K. and there's everybody else," says Dermot McCormack, EVP of digital media for MTV Music & Logo Group. "And what about the everybody else?" In fact, when Chill launched its first episodic TV show, The Vigilante Diaries, this summer, it bombed; in a Kickstarter-ish model, the money that people paid to download the first two episodes went toward production of future installments. Yet only $23,000 of the $50,000 goal was raised.
Norgard isn't giving up. "I think people will support episodic content in this manner," he says. "It just requires the right content and the right audience." Even if most Chill content is far less successful than Bamford's specials, he says, "success is relative. We are not out there saying that anyone is getting ridiculously wealthy yet. These are the early stages."
Recently, Chill debuted Insider Access, which allows creators to drum up excitement (they hope) for in-progress movies by sharing behind-the-scenes footage and blog entries. Norgard says the idea has even attracted interest from some of the Hollywood studios that Chill is designed to circumvent (he declined to specify which companies).
That's just fine with him. "People say, 'Is this you versus the studios?' That's erroneous," Norgard says and smiles, seeming to enjoy his somewhat confounding role as a renegade who's nonetheless trying to coexist with the establishment. "It's about being inclusive. It's not the death of these other, old-world systems. It's just a new evolution."
A version of this article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.