Grouper Uses Sony Assets for Crackle

Grouper, a web video company that tried a variety of strategies and business models before being acquired by Sony for $65 million nearly a year ago, is back with a new angle. It’s renaming itself Crackle and launching an original content discovery site, applying the distribution and production assets of Sony to offer web video makers a sweeter package than other offerings. The site went live late on Sunday.

While flying mostly off the radar and missing all the online video hullabaloo since it was bought, Grouper has managed to tie up syndication arrangements with social networks and publishing platforms like MySpace and hi5, and more interestingly gotten access to parent Sony Pictures Entertainment sister company Sony Electronics, and its PSP, VAIO, and BRAVIA lines of game consoles, computers, and TV sets, respectively. Now, with the Crackle launch, the company is taking advantage of its parent’s Hollywood divisions and contacts to promise big-time partnerships to independent videomakers who upload to its site.

Crackle enters a growing market of pro-am syndicators like Next New Networks, Break, and Veoh. Even though videomakers have loyalty to the sites and communities they’re already invested in, it’s not going to be impossible to break into this market; creators will go where the opportunity is. They want fame and fortune — and with the hardware and web distribution deals and the Tinseltown connections Crackle you’re most of the way there.

“We have a unique offering that Veoh or any other startup just can’t match,” said Crackle co-president Josh Felser, the former CEO of Grouper. “We’re part of a studio.” That means quarterly contests with cash prizes and flights to Los Angeles to pitch Sony Pictures Animation execs for Crackle’s “Wet Paint” animation channel, a development deal and pitch meeting with Columbia Pictures for the “Shorts” short film channel, and a tryout with IMPROV comedy clubs for the “High Wire” standup channel.

Few of these deals are sure bets, but they’re a more consistent opportunity than the one-off contest and development contracts we see from so many web video sites, consumer brands, talent agencies, and TV networks. Now that such deals are so widespread, Crackle is really going to have to prove itself by making stars out of its early winners. A little Revver/Eepy Bird-type press goes a long way.

Crackle is also making its own content and commissioning exclusive web projects with a “mid-seven-figure” budget from Sony, starting out with Mr. Deity, which it found on YouTube and then brought onto its platform, claiming 5.7 million views since March across its various syndication outlets, far more than the series had seen on YouTube. Crackle is using Sony’s ad sales team (no more than 15-second spots, Felser promises) to guarantee revenue shares.

The one thing is won’t do, says Felser, is bring television and movie content down from the studio parent. “That content is everywhere,” he said. “It’s not unique to us.”

Grouper has had nearly as many lives as a cat by now, trying file sharing between small groups before abandoning that and going to user-gen before abandoning that and trying personal family media. Earlier peer-to-peer distribution software and editing tools are “in the Grouper graveyard,” as Felser put it, though he said he’d especially like to bring P2P downloads and streaming back.

Crackle made a funny Japanese action movie parody depicting itself fending off all the online video competitors that was shown at the media briefing; we’ll put it up here as soon as they finish the final edits and send it over.

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