EB INSIDER PROFILE: My Lunch with Honkworm
by Kevin Dreyfuss/EB Insider
I didn’t actually eat lunch with Honkworm, per se. When I met with the creative team behind next-gen content studio Honkworm a few weeks back at the Standard Hotel in LA, they ate, and I just downed coffee, trying to keep up with their rapid-fire table chatter. They’re an odd crew, made up of filmmakers, animators, TV veterans, Webheads, porn refugees and one quirky Swede holding it all together – Johan Liedgren.
Liedgren started Honkworm up in Seattle after he left Microsoft in 1997 – “That’s ‘Birth of the Nation‘ time on the Web,” noted one Honkwormite. Their first and biggest hit was the bizarre, impossibly funny “FishBar” series, where crudely rendered cut-out fish sit at a bar getting ripped, talking about the weirdest conspiracy stories you’ve ever heard. They’ve branched out since then, with 12 new series like “Dog in a Box with Two Wheels” and “The Siliconites” available for licensing off their site, all of which take a more sophisticated creative and technological approach. But the triumph of their original “FishBar” is truly the triumph of vivid imagination over technological limitation, transformed into funny funny shit.
Times have changed since those grassroots beginnings. Now, Honkworm has millions in financing, and is positioning itself as a cross-media studio able to churn out 30 new series and 500 new Webisodes of programming a year. To help enable that, they’ve assembled a team of experienced TV and Web personnel to act as creative directors and producers, headed up by TV and film veteran Chris Cobb as VP of Content. The in-house staff is in charge of finding and developing projects, then hiring creative talent on particular pilots in the flexible, freelance Hollywood mode. And they just brought on Jeffrey Kramer, former President of David E. Kelley Productions and executive producer of “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice,” to head up their cross-media efforts – exploring the synergies in creating content online that can migrate to TV and film, and the other way around.
Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, in this recounting of the insights and pontifications of Liedgren, Kramer, Cobb and their crew, you will not find the answer to one burning question – I do not know what the hell Honkworm means…
EB Insider: Chris, what’s your background coming to head up the Content area at Honkworm?
Chris Cobb: First, I was a computer programmer for a long time. Then, I came out of film production, worked at Paramount, became story editor over there. Then, right in ’93 and ’94 when the studios all did that stampede like lemmings towards new media, multimedia, I made a jump to an interactive company. And after that I took a weird segue to help launch a magazine called Joe with Starbucks; I was Creative Director there. After that, I was at David E. Kelley Productions, and then Johan came along…”
EBI: What do you see as the Honkworm mission going forward in creating new content?
Cobb: Six months ago we realized that the technology was changing fast and we had to up our production values. The moment we’re in right now, the audiences coming online are more sophisticated, they’re looking to get past typical creative experiences, which all works to our advantage. But that also means that they demand higher production values, we need to take it to the next level. Some of our new series are almost like recreating the early shows [with new technology]. And also, right now in our development hopper we have 35 shows – 4 are live action, 3 are 3D animated, for very high-end users. We see more users coming online, with bandwidth increasing, and production values increasing. However, the number of buyers [of these shows] have to increase as well.
EBI: Johan, the number of shows you’re producing is increasing dramatically, the production values are going up, but what about the type of content? Are you working at changing the kinds of content, adding more interactivity, for instance?
Johan Liedgren: A couple of things. First of all, we’re not just streaming animation anymore, we see ourselves doing more and more live action. The other thing is we’re looking at this space where we now have a broader demographic, so we can take some of the stuff we’re doing, and we see if we can match it with, say, a site for women, or we’re going to be doing kids stuff. So we’re going to be broadening the demographics we’re aiming for.
EBI: By broader, you don’t mean in the sense of broadcast versus narrowcast, you mean hitting a greater variety of those narrow niche audience…
Liedgren: Right, that’s one of the reasons why our content is going to be so much better for that narrow demographic, if you will. Because TV is run by a couple of networks, run by a couple of studios, that type of monopoly thrives on mediocre content because it has to please too many people. We don’t have that problem, we can do content that targets you.
EBI: So it’s the cable model over the network model, reaching fewer users per channel, but more targeted.
Liedgren: Yeah, and another thing we’re going to be doing is take some content or brands that we have on the Web today, and turn them into something that would work in the broadcast medium like TV and film. But it’s not going to be just the Web stuff brought over to TV, just as you’re not going to just take TV and bring it over to the Web. You have to re-purpose it, redo it.
EBI: So, Jeffrey, this is your area, cross-media content. What’s the vision here?
Jeffrey Kramer: I think the content will cross-pollinate both ways. I think there are several series that we have right now that could make the jump to TV series or movies. “The Siliconites” is a good example. We’ve already started to get feelers, because it’s about Silicon Valley, it’s content that’s going to reach everybody in America, in a way that is concise and prejudiced, and it’s fun to skewer that world.
And it will also work the other way. We’re going to be announcing in the next few weeks, that we’re going to take an old cartoon franchise, and we’re going to re-develop it for movies and television, but the Web is the development process. It’s fast, it’s quick, it’s more malleable, more forgiving, the feedback is instantaneous. So if we use it well, then our chances at success in other media are so much more greatly enhanced than going out there and spending $250,000 or whatever on a movie script. This [the Web] is the best development tool that’s ever come along.
EBI: But you’re not going to be distributing anything?
Liedgren: Just look at us as a studio, look at us as Miramax for the Web. We don’t have a destination site, where we take all the money that we have and worry about driving traffic. 100% of the dollars that we have and we put it back into the content. My focus Jeffrey’s focus, Chris’s focus, all of our focus is on creating good content. Then we can turn around and sell it to those guys whose whole business is driving traffic to themselves. I don’t want to be in competition with my clients. The short version is that we are an online studio, the stuff that we do is specifically designed for the Web, so we don’t just take indie films and slap them on a Web site.
EBI: So what are those new paradigms about content creation on the Web?
Cobb: For us, the content just has to have that moment, that “a-ha” moment, where it’s funny, it’s smart, or whatever it is that hit you. And then the really hard part is preserving that until you’ve created a pilot. Like this new pilot, “Dog in a Box with Two Wheels.” Just think about trying to do that on television. You can’t.
Kramer: The essence is that whether it’s in any medium, you still have to tell it well, it’s gotta be good. We actually have a show in development that’s 365 days a year, that the narrative will drive you to K-mart or Sears or Wal-Mart, some clues to help move the story along will be hidden there. It’s a really clever idea…
Cobb: What we’re finding is that the best way to solve that problem is to actually get creative minds working on it — writers, artists, directors.
Kramer: And also, a lot of creative guys in the other world really want to enter into this new form. They all feel they’ve been screwed in the old world. Online, you can help distribute your own product, you own more of your ideas, you are a participant on all levels from day one. That hasn’t been available to creative talent [in the old media world] unless you are a mega-mega-star for decades. The Web represents a democratization of talent in entertainment that has never existed before, and these [old media] guys really want to do it. A lot of them say, “You know what, you gotta break the rules to make new ones, and every time we did it in the old media, that’s how you got you a breakthrough hit.” And a lot of these guys say, I want to do it now, because there’s a certain alchemy that has to exist to take talent from the old world into the new world.
Cobb: With Jeffrey on board, it’s easier to access great talent, but it’s harder to get their best work out of them. And you see a lot of people signing big deals, like Shockwave, but you need someone like Jeffrey with such experience, you need the right kind of development process, to take this great talent and actually wring great content out of it.
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