6/18/2014 | The Wall Street Journal
Maker Studios, looking for content for its planned new video site Maker.tv, is turning to Ben Stiller for help.
In particular, Maker, now part of Walt Disney Co., has enlisted Mr. Stiller’s Red Hour Digital, a division of his production company, to help revive ”Next Time on Lonny,” one of the odder cult video series on the Web.
The show hadn’t been produced since 2011, after Demand Media’s humor site Cracked.com elected not to pick it up for another season. But “Lonny,” which sends up everything from cheesy action movies to bad TV previews and has no real linear plot, had caught the attention of Mr. Stiller and several other influential names from comedy and Hollywood.
A few weeks ago, season 2 of “Lonny” premiered exclusively on Maker.tv. While it’s too early to call the show a hit, Maker content head Erin McPherson believes this is just the kind of show the new site, and the medium, needs.
“We think this is the perfect piece of short-form story telling,” said Ms. McPherson as she prepared to head to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this week for a speaking gig. “It really fits the Maker brand voice.”
That voice is, to put it kindly, off the wall. The backdrop for episodes of “Next Time on Lonny” is a fake reality TV show. But in each episode, when the ‘reality show’ cuts to its pseudo”next time” previews (which mimic those previews that close many TV dramas), the show take bizarre and fantastical turns. For example, in one episode, the main character Lonny engineers an extremely complicated heist. In another he runs for office and gets strung out on drugs.
“The main rule for the show is that there is no continuity once next time hits,” explained Alex Anfanger, who created “Lonny” along with Dan Schimpf.
“Lonny” episodes are roughly six or seven minutes long, and actually work better that way,” argue the show’s creators, who think their abruptness makes them funnier. “We did think about TV. It’s obviously a much more lucrative proposition. But we think “Lonny” is a better concept in short form. The stories might lose momentum stretched out to 22 minutes or longer,” said Mr. Schimpf.
Maker has been experimenting with various strategies to drive audience to “Lonny”–and Maker.tv, including several exclusive 24-hour premiere windows before show is distributed elsewhere on the Web.
Ms. McPherson contends that the show’s storytelling style has the potential to be just as groundbreaking as other hyped ‘Web video’ breakouts, like Netflix’s “House of Cards” which is at the complete other end of the spectrum compared to “Lonny” in terms of budget. “I actually think that in Web video there’s content that’s innovative and disruptive and distribution that’s innovative and disruptive. We aim to innovate and disrupt and we think “Lonny” is about a new content paradigm.”
Mr. Stiller certainly believes so. His production company, Red Hour, had worked with Mrs. McPherson on the buzzy Web show “Burning Love” when she ran video at Yahoo. That show, which spoofed reality TV like “The Bachelor” eventually found its way to Comcast’s E Network.
“I don’t pretend to understand how the Internet works, or what the models are, or how to make money. It’s still so unclear,” said Mr. Stiller. “But seeing what Alex and Dan did with first season of what they did with no money, it’s so impressive. They’ve got this undiluted voice.”
“For me it resonated tonally,” Mr. Stiller added. “So we worked with them to get the second season produced.”
That took a while. Mr. Stiller was shooting “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Mr. Anfanger and Mr. Schimpf also had various other projects. Plus, Lonny episodes take a while to shoot, since they use a small crew and lots of locations, explained Mr. Schimpf.
Maker has landed Verizon as this year’s exclusive sponsor for “Lonny.” Ten episodes have been filmed. And while there’s no guarantee of a third season, the creators are hopeful.
Ms. McPherson said it’s early to judge the audience for season two. “Web shows tend to be a slow burn,” she said. “So much of the audience comes through social channels. The audience is not linear.”
Nor is “Next Time on Lonny.”