Another day, another harried schedule of lunching around town. My first stop was Papa Cristos for gyros with Sean Bury and Chris Cantwell of Invisible Engine Films. Then I took the metro across town to Hollywood for a coffee with Cory Tyler of Can We Do That. At this point, even I was starting to wonder if we were just going to talk about more of the same, but so far every conversation I’ve had has given me new ideas as well as different perspectives on recurring themes.
I have to admit, after talking with Chris and Sean, who along with Matt Wyatt form the core of the Invisible Engine team, I realized to my embarrassment that I actually knew their work better than I thought I did. Thing is, I hadn’t connected the dots and realized that half a dozen clips that had made me laugh out loud over the last year were all produced by these guys. Even my dad had seen their short “OMG Mark Foley” when it was a featured clip on Keith Olbermann’s popular infotainment revue.
It turns out that the clip, which made it onto CNN and Don Imus’ show besides, went from idea over dinner to published online just after midnight one evening. Having originally met as students at USC, the Invisible Engine team went from sketch comedy to producing a feature film together. While they didn’t make a splash on the festival circuit, they were left with a bunch of digital video equipment. When Matt Wyatt got an insurance settlement from a car accident, he used the cash to purchase a Mac on which they began editing their short clips.
In just nine months, they not only produced over thirty shorts that have been viewed by millions, but signed with UTA who have worked to get them production deals and auditions for television roles. “We had to move into the world of agents and accountants to handle the productions we’re being asked to produce,” said Sean, almost apologetically. They started doing shorts to show people and promote their work, much like any production team has produced spec work for their demo reel, and still do bits just for fun.
The web, according to Chris, is “a place for small projects that can be really effective.” In terms of using it to promote or even sell your work, it’s “an interesting back door that’s getting crowded really fast.” The interview itself was hilarious, which reinforced my perception that talent, no matter where it finds an audience, will succeed. That’s not to say that filmmaking, online or off, doesn’t take hard work. When asked to offer suggestions to other hopefuls, they declared “Make quality content and make a lot of it.”
In many ways, the story of Can We Do That is very similar to that of Invisible Engine. It’s another team of three friends — Cory, Ski-ter and Charles — who were connected by having grown up in LA and having killed plenty of time waiting for their call at auditions together. After working on some scripts, they came up with a preview for a pilot loosely based on the McMahon family’s pro wrestling empire called “Tough Love.”
The pilot wasn’t picked up, but all the pieces were in place to create their own short-format sitcom. Cory said that when he first encountered the new ease of publishing online video, he thought “this was the platform we’d been waiting for.” And now the show has created something of a promotional feedback loop — the web video gets them more exposure and therefore more acting work, and their acting appearances actually generate buzz for their show.
One of the interesting ways that they’ve made it easy to work with advertisers is by crafting product placement scenarios into the plot — which centers around their characters as a commercial production team. If PepsiCo wanted to reach out to the web audience in an ‘edgy’ way, they could arrange for the show to feature the team working on a commercial for Taco Bell, for instance. It’s the kind of sponsor-based advertising that used to be industry standard, and can’t be easily excised from the show, if at all.
Having worked in the entertainment industry for so long, Cory, Ski-ter and Charles have built up what Cory called “creative equity.” For instance, their cameraman also happens to be a martial arts choreographer. They have a number of musician friends who contribute scores, and actor friends who make appearances. Cory, as the producer, has wrangled everything from a Learjet to a horse for scenes in the show. It all contributes to a familial vibe on set, which is the key to keeping the project light and fun.
What I took away from both meetings was that what hasn’t changed — and probably never will — is the craft. Invisible Engine plans shots and scenes like they were working on television, and the trio at Can We Do That cumulatively represent decades of experience in acting, writing, directing and producing. Both teams produce professional content, both by merit of being paid and by the value they put into their productions.
But when Cory suggested that, instead of putting together a one-man show and inviting agents and casting directors, or spending months doing summer stock, prospective talent should just go straight online, I changed my perspective. The paradigm shift is that now every artist has direct access to an audience. It’s the gatekeepers who’d better start looking for new work.