||Miιrcoles 13 de Diciembre de 2006, Ip nΊ 183
|The Secret World of Lonelygirl
Por Joshua Davis
She is a high school girl with swooping eyebrows, boy problems, and a webcam willing to listen. The room behind her could be anywhere in America there's a pink floral-print bedspread, a half-dozen stuffed animals, and a framed picture of a rose on the wall.
But this isn't what it appears to be: Almost everything in the room was bought from Target on the same day, and the price tags are still hanging from some of her stuff. The closet is filled with men's clothing, and in the corner two guys huddle around a laptop and stare at the webcam feed.
Welcome to the set of Lonelygirl15, the breakout Web hit that, in September, was unmasked by fans as a work of fiction. What nearly a million people thought was the room of a sweet, charismatic teen named Bree is actually the Beverly Hills bedroom of Lonelygirl15's cocreator Mesh Flinders, an unshaven 27-year-old who is fighting the flu and running a fever of 101. He hasn't left this room for more than 24 hours. "I've got no reason to leave," Flinders says, rubbing his bloodshot eyes and then blowing his nose. The room smells like sweat. "I write the scripts here, we shoot them here, and I sleep here. Why leave?"
When the show started in June with a two-minute YouTube posting by Bree played by actress Jessica Rose Flinders would rearrange his room after each shoot. He'd take down the pictures of Rose as a baby, stash the stuffed animals, and swap out the girly bedspread for his more masculine blue-and-white-striped blanket. Now, three months into the project and with hundreds of thousands of regular viewers, he doesn't bother. It's too much work, even though it has blown some great opportunities for him. Last week, he spotted his neighbors two Playboy playmates and invited them in. They glanced at his room, got suspicious, and quickly left.
Flinders shrugs it off; the room is an upgrade. Six months ago, he was living with his 96-year-old grandmother in rural Central California. Now, as a result of Lonelygirl15, he's represented by a top-tier Hollywood talent agency and has been interviewed on MTV, CNN, and NBC Nightly News. He even has business partners: a former doctor named Miles Beckett and husband-and-wife lawyers Greg and Amanda Goodfried. Together, with next to no budget, they have created a show that illuminates the future of television.
Flinders himself is startlingly uninterested in traditional TV. He grew up without it and rarely watches it now. But the series he created shows that Internet TV has arrived. The phenomenon is partly driven by technology Lonelygirl15 wouldn't exist without the explosion of broadband and the advent of YouTube and partly by the appeal of a hybrid form of storytelling. Lonelygirl15 is a mashup of homemade video diary, soap opera, and mysterious, hint-laden narrative like Lost. It's all the more engrossing because viewers can correspond with the characters and even affect the plot. For Flinders, it's a thrillingly uncharted creative landscape, and he has no interest in abandoning it for the tired conventions of film or television. Rather, he wants to be the JJ Abrams of the Internet.
So today, two weeks after the revelation that the show is fictional, Flinders is filming the 45th two-minute installment of the series and pushing into new territory. What began as a quirky story about a religious girl fighting with her strict parents and her boyfriend is poised to break out of the bedroom and into a full-blown international thriller. In the process, the series is helping to invent the rhythm, grammar, and style of online storytelling.
Between takes, Rose's cell phone rings, and she glances at the caller ID.
"It's the producers from Law and Order," she says. "Do you want me to answer it?"
"Let it ring," Flinders tells her.
I FIRST MET FLINDERS when he was 8 years old. He grew up on a commune north of San Francisco where friends of my mother's lived. As the youngest of the dozen kids in the community, he was always two steps behind. He got picked on for being small, and there was no escape: The children attended classes taught by the adults of the commune, which was isolated in the windswept hills of western Sonoma County. When he turned 14, Flinders was sent to a Catholic high school, where he was regarded as a hippy devil worshipper, beaten up, and thrown into a dumpster.
When he got to college, Flinders dreamed up an alter ego an awkward, geeky homeschooled girl. As a camp counselor, he told fireside tales about her experiences. He wrote short stories about her, and when he tried to make it as a writer in Hollywood, he put her in his screenplays.
But nobody bought his scripts: Agents and producers didn't think much of the character he had created. After working a few years as an assistant to an independent director and struggling to stay out of debt, he left town and moved in with his grandmother in Merced. He supported himself by writing a draft of a film for an aspiring producer in Maryland; it was about a serial killer.
That might have been the high point of Flinders' entertainment career if he hadn't met Miles Beckett. As a plastic surgeon in training, Beckett was yearning for a more creative line of work. "If you're a creative doctor, someone dies and you get sued," Beckett says. After four years of medical school and a year of residency, the 27-year-old dropped out of the program. Plastic surgery might be an essential part of the entertainment industry, but he wanted more. He wanted to direct.
The two met at the birthday party of a mutual friend. Flinders was back in town to finish the serial-killer film. Once Beckett and Flinders started talking, they didn't stop. Beckett had shot several comedy skits and posted them online, but they weren't getting many views. He thought that a dramatic story from the point of view of a video blogger would be more captivating. Flinders, it turned out, had the perfect character.
"IS THIS LEGAL?"
That was the first question Beckett and Flinders asked Greg Goodfried when they met him at El Cholo, a Mexican restaurant on LA's Westside. Goodfried was a young entertainment lawyer who had just signed on to handle the business and legal aspects of creating this nascent Internet TV series. Beckett had met him through a friend and wanted to make sure Lonelygirl15 didn't get them sued for deceiving the public.
Beckett ordered a pitcher of margaritas and explained that they wanted the vloggers of the YouTube community to believe that Bree was real. Flinders rationalized the deception, noting that viewers wouldn't expect Mark Hamill to point out at the beginning of Star Wars that he wasn't Luke Skywalker. But there was an important difference: A Hollywood movie is understood to be fictional. Vlogging on YouTube is not. Plus, to fully harness the medium, they intended to carry on email correspondences with YouTubers while posing as Bree. In short, they were planning to exploit the anonymity of the Internet to pull off a new kind of storytelling, and they worried they were on shaky legal ground.
Goodfried's advice was simple. "If anyone asks point-blank if you're real, don't answer the question," he said. "Don't lie to people. The answer is no answer. In my mind, it's the equivalent of not lying. But if people talk to Bree like she's Bree, that's fair game."
He had two other rules: Don't sell merchandise and don't use any copyrighted music without a license. If people buy Lonelygirl15 stuff thinking she is real, they could claim false advertising and sue. And then, with the clink of margarita glasses, counselor Goodfried gave the doctor and the commune-raised screenwriter a green light to unleash Lonelygirl15 on the world.
LONELYGIRL15'S FIRST VIDEO in late May had nothing to do with her. In fact, Beckett and Flinders hadn't even found an actress to play the part. But this first clip laid the groundwork for everything that was to come. One of the most popular vloggers on YouTube at the time was a teenager named Emily who had tired of all the attention. After some users posted disparaging remarks (one called her an "attention whore" and another a "video slut"), she decided to quit vlogging. But a few weeks later, she uploaded a new video, quipping that she'd taken a break because dinosaurs had attacked her house. A day or two after that, a new user named Lonelygirl15 posted an animated scene of a dinosaur stomping on a house, intercut with Emily's original videos.
It was a sly move: Post a video that comments on an already-popular vlogger and piggyback on the existing audience. Emily's fans loved it and offered a deluge of comments, giving Lonelygirl15 instant cred. Viewers praised this funny, creative new vlogger, encouraged her to keep the videos coming, and signed up to receive her future clips.
JESSICA ROSE WAS SUSPICIOUS and frankly a little pissed off. She had come to this organic-tea shop to discuss what she thought was a feature film called Children of Anchor Cove. Now Beckett and Flinders had made her sign a nondisclosure agreement and, clearly pleased with themselves, told her that they wanted her to play the lead in what they billed as the future of entertainment. For free. It was an Internet-something-or-other she wasn't listening. They were also going to "hire" another actor to play a character named Daniel. It sounded a lot like porn.
It was exactly what her acting coaches at Universal Studios' film program had warned her against: unkempt producer-types hawking shady deals. The previous week, one guy had offered her a part in a movie if she would use her student ID to buy him discounted film at Kodak. She had been so excited when she got a callback on the Anchor Cove project it was only her third audition ever. She had been out of film school for a month, and things were looking bright. Now it had proven to be a classic Hollywood mirage. She thanked Flinders and Beckett and walked out.
Beckett dialed her cell phone.
"This isn't porn."
"OK," she said, not believing him.
But he did persuade her to meet again the next day. It was at a crowded coffee shop she figured she'd be safe. Beckett showed up alone and explained the plan this way: The project was a sketchbook for a film. If it was a success online, they could go to the studios and use the material as a screen test for both her and the story. That seemed to soften her. This was just a stepping stone to a feature film. She decided to give it a try.
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT JESSICA ROSE that the webcam loves. Her distractingly large eyebrows and small round face are bent and stretched by the fish-eye lens into a morsel of beauty that fits perfectly in a pop-up window. That's not to say she isn't pretty off camera she is but every step she takes closer to the cam multiplies and enhances her looks. It's a face made for the browser screen.
Her character is also deliberately crafted to target the Web's most active demographics. Nerds geek out on the idea that this beautiful girl lists astrophysicist Richard Feynman and poet e. e. cummings as heroes. Horny guys respond to the tame but tantalizing glimpses of her cleavage. Teenage girls sympathize with her boy troubles and her sometimes-stormy relationship with her strict parents. Early on, viewers started emailing to offer advice and sympathy. Others wanted to talk dirty and discuss mathematical equations.
Initially, they received curt replies: "Thanks. All the best, Bree." It didn't sound like a 16-year-old girl, mainly because it wasn't. Flinders was too busy writing scripts, so Beckett typed out the responses. But he couldn't seem to get in touch with his inner teenage girl. Clearly, the team needed someone who could play Bree off camera as well as Rose did on video.
Goodfried, the lawyer, suggested his wife, Amanda, for the job. She was an assistant to a lawyer at Creative Artists Agency (where I'm also represented), a top Hollywood talent shop, but she was bored and wanted to do something more creative. She could be trusted not to let the secret slip, so Beckett and Flinders agreed to bring her on.
For Amanda, it was a welcome departure from her day job, where she answered phones and handled the demands of high-powered stars. As Bree, she struck up friendships with people in Sweden, Scotland, Ireland, Portugal, Australia, Mexico, and all over the US. She never offered much information about her character. Rather, she'd research an emailer's MySpace page and ask questions about their life. They responded enthusiastically and helped spread the word about the amazing new YouTube vlogger named Bree.
ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, Lonelygirl15 posted a different kind of video. Her first handful of clips had been funny: She lip-synced a rap song, made fun of her friend Daniel, and danced around with a hand puppet named Purple Monkey. But now her tone had changed. "I'm really upset," she began. Although she was hugging Purple Monkey, she seemed older. The title of the video was "My Parents Suck
," and she explained that her religion prevented her from doing things that other kids did. Still, she felt that her parents had gone too far when they said she couldn't go on a hike with Daniel. It was the first time Bree was emotional on camera.
Before heading out to a barbecue, Goodfried noticed a spike in hits. The previous videos had gotten between 50,000 and 100,000 views after a week, but this one logged 50,000 in its first two hours.
"This is it," Goodfried thought. "This is what people want."
Beckett was at home trying to decompress. He had been working as an urgent care doctor to pay the rent and was exhausted. Between filming and editing the Lonelygirl15 series and dealing with severed fingers and dog bites at the hospital, he wasn't sleeping much. It didn't help that Goodfried called at 2 am.
"Miles, it's time you quit being a doctor," he said. "We just passed 200,000 views."
Within 48 hours, the video had half a million views. Goodfried knew that to be considered a success, a cable television show needs to get between 300,000 and 500,000 viewers. "My Parents Suck
" had vaulted into that territory. It hadn't taken them long to figure out, by trial and error, what worked in this new genre. Viewers wanted family and relationship drama mixed with a rich, mysterious backstory that could be explored and debated. The YouTube community was sucked into the plot and speculated endlessly about Bree's faith. Some thought she was Mormon; others insisted she was a Satanist. Another group tried to figure out where she lived: The leading guess was somewhere in the Midwest. Viewers spent hours Googling the possibilities and posting their results on YouTube.
In response to the feedback, Beckett and Flinders decided to focus on the tension between Bree and Daniel. When viewers suggested that he had a crush on Bree, they changed the story line to include a romance. That couldn't have happened on television. A conventional TV episode airs once at a certain time; even if it's great, it can only serve to attract viewers to future episodes. On YouTube, a video can be streamed at any time. The good ones are watched again and again, sending a clear message about what works and what doesn't. When "My Parents Suck
" broke 500,000 views, Beckett and Flinders realized this wasn't just an experiment or a setup for a film. It was a medium in its own right. The team decided that Lonelygirl15 shouldn't leave the Internet. She had been born there, and she would stay there.
FROM THE BEGINNING, some thought Lonelygirl15 was fake. The editing was too sophisticated and the music too well integrated, and several people noted that everything in Bree's room seemed to come from Target. (One viewer annotated each item with its SKU number.) Could it be, one fan wondered, that the whole thing was an elaborate ad campaign for the retailer?
Meanwhile, the online celebrity started spilling over into the real world. Rose was browsing for a book in Santa Monica after "My Parents Suck
" was posted and noticed two girls watching her closely. That night, Amanda received an email from a fan: "Hi Bree. My friend and I thought we saw you at the Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica, but it couldn't be you, right?"
Rose, who was still an unpaid actress on the project, was about to start work as a waitress at TGI Fridays. In a day or two, she'd be out on the floor, serving buffalo wings to the masses. Beckett panicked and called his parents. He needed a loan, he said, explaining that the series was taking off. His parents pointed out that he had been on his way to a lucrative career as a surgeon before he started making little videos and posting them online. But now Beckett seemed to be onto something, so his father, a marketing executive at an IT company, agreed to invest in the newly formed Lonelygirl15 production company. Beckett immediately called Rose.
"I don't want you to ever set foot in another TGI Fridays," he said, explaining that he'd pay her $500 a week to play Bree full time. In return, she had to stay home as much as possible and wear sunglasses and a hat when she went out. For Rose, it was a dream come true she was a working actress. She just couldn't tell anyone.
GOODFRIED PUT ON A POWER TIE and got his wife to let him in the door at CAA. He knew that Beckett's loan would run out soon, and they needed money to keep going. An agent could get him meetings with studio and network execs who might be interested in Internet storytelling. So he wandered through the agency's I. M. Pei-designed headquarters nobody took much notice of him. He might have just been the newest mail room clerk.
He began knocking on doors and was waved away by agents juggling phone calls. His time was running out he was sure he was going to be asked to leave soon. Desperation crept in. When two young guys turned the corner, he planted himself firmly in the middle of the hallway.
"You have no idea who I am," Goodfried said, speaking fast. "But if you give me just five minutes, you won't regret it."
They were agents, and they agreed to listen for five minutes but no more. An hour later, Goodfried was still talking. He showed them the videos, and they couldn't deny that a lot of people were watching. The question was, what could be done with the success? A network looking to take the plunge into the Internet might be interested in hosting the series online. The agents felt like there could be a deal to make, so they agreed to represent the project. Goodfried had walked into the building as a nobody and walked out as a client.
IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, MATTHEW FOREMSKI, the 18-year-old son of a Silicon Valley tech reporter, dug up an old version of Rose's MySpace page. She'd deleted it when she became Bree, but Google cached a copy, and Foremski posted the link to his father's blog. Within 48 hours, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and a slew of TV stations ran the story. The jig was up. Many assumed the series would sputter and die. Media reports zeroed in on how viewers had been duped, suggesting an inevitable backlash. But the fans raised on the unreality of reality TV and with the role-playing ethos of the Web seemed to take the revelation in stride. One guy who had corresponded regularly with Bree wrote to ask if he'd been conversing with Jessica Rose.
"No, you've been talking to Bree," came the reply (from Amanda). "If you want to talk to Jessica Rose, you can go to her MySpace page. If you want to keep talking to Bree, use this email."
"Fair enough," the fan wrote back, and then went on to tell Bree the latest news in his life. To many, it didn't seem to matter whether she was real or not. A number of posts appeared on YouTube denouncing the series, but many more responded with variations of this simple statement: If you don't like it, don't watch.
The proof was in the numbers. Videos after the outing benefited from the publicity surge and pushed a few of Lonelygirl15's clips close to the million-viewer mark. Emails flooded in Amanda now responds to roughly 500 a day. The show has a reliable viewership of 300,000 per video, and the team posts two, sometimes more, each week. Lonelygirl15.com, the site Beckett and Flinders maintain as the center of Bree's universe, generates about $10,000 a month in ad revenue by attaching commercials to the end of the videos they stream. (Most viewers still see the clips ad-free on YouTube and other video-sharing sites.) It's enough to keep the operation afloat until they can find a way to take serialized online entertainment to the next level.
SO FAR, HOLLYWOOD HAS NOT EXACTLY EMBRACED Beckett and Flinders. With CAA's help, they landed meetings with studios and TV networks. But their first sit-down with a major broadcaster was, Goodfried says, an "exercise in futility." Beckett tried to explain to the executive that the central theme of online entertainment was interactivity, as opposed to the passivity of television. He wanted to create shows in which the line between reality and fiction is blurred, where viewers can correspond with the characters and actually become involved in the story by posting their own videos. The exec responded by walking them through his fall lineup and pointing out that the network's Web site had great supplemental video material for the season's upcoming shows.
Beckett is clearly frustrated. "The Web isn't just a support system for hit TV shows," he says. "It's a new medium. It requires new storytelling techniques. The way the networks look at the Internet now is like the early days of TV, when announcers would just read radio scripts on camera. It was boring in the same way all this supplemental material is boring."
What's needed, he says, is content that's built specifically for the Web. It doesn't need to be lit like a film that would make it feel less real. The camera work should be simple. There shouldn't be a disembodied third-person camera a character is always filming the action. Each episode needs to be short, no more than three minutes. "You wouldn't show a sitcom at a movie theater, right?" Beckett says. "You make movies for the big screen, sitcoms for TV, and something else entirely for the Internet. That's the lesson of Lonelygirl15."
This Web series not only looks different, it's made differently than other filmed entertainment. As Bree's universe expands, each new character will have his or her own vlog. Flinders can't write and film them all, so new writer-directors have been hired and paired with actors playing the new characters. Unlike television, where writers sit in a room and come up with a single script, the Lonelygirl15 team comes up with a general plotline and then sends its writer-directors out to produce independent but interconnected videos. All the characters, in essence, have their own show.
It's a concept that the Internet portals understand better. "Yahoo says it wants to be the network of the 21st century," Beckett says. "And we're the production company of the 21st century." Still, an early sticking point in the search for online investors was exclusivity each portal wanted the series to stream on its site only. Beckett and Flinders balked. It was anathema to the whole concept of the Web. If it couldn't be shared if hard borders were put around it how different was it from TV? If this was going to be the first successful Internet TV show, they felt it needed to embrace the medium. As a result, they still don't have a deal.
ROSE IS DANCING AROUND THE BEDROOM, waltzing with Purple Monkey and singing into the floor lamp like Elvis. Beckett and Flinders are crammed in a corner, cracking up, while the webcam on the desk captures her clowning. They don't have a big TV deal, or even a big Internet deal, but they're convinced that what they're doing is important anyway.
And they're still here, in Flinders' bedroom. Rose leaps onto the bed and jumps up and down. She makes faces at the camera and waves her hands, knocking askew the picture of the rose hanging on the wall. Beckett got it at a 99-cent store because it was cheap and looked like something a teenage girl would buy. Nobody seems to have noticed the faint pink quotation printed beneath the flower: "It is by believing in roses that one brings them to bloom."
|| 01/12/2006. Wired Magazine.