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Mass Animation Launching 2nd Project, This Time Paid

While all eyes follow the massive changes in the distribution of movies and TV shows -- from the networks, cable, and theaters to the Web -- not many stop to wonder what role the Web will have in the future of production.

Except Yair Landau. The Mass Animation project, a 5-minute short called "Live Music" that was crowdsourced on Facebook last year by the former Sony exec, recently opened for the animated feature Planet 51. It seemed like a smart, but narrow, experimental effort to stretch the movie and TV pipeline way out of bounds.

It appears to have worked. Landau's pipe dream of revolutionizing production for movies and games may not be as far-flung as it seemed at first. His experiment just won him a round of projects â€"- and this time he's getting paid for the work.

It's a first step toward building an entertainment-industry business model that seeks to do more than just port or tweak content online, or slap users with a fee for doing what they already do. This time it's about getting users to actually participate in the production of a game.

Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) just commissioned Mass Animation to produce the trailer and some game "emotes," or gestures, for their DC Universe massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), out in 2010. Superhero fans download digital models on Facebook and contribute their best footage. Winners make it into the trailer.

If the business model works, the game takes off with a large and already committed fan base. "It's about building mindshare about our games," says John Smedley, president of SOE. "It's also a new way of marketing, and a way of building a community â€" something that just throwing a trailer out there won't do," he explains. Landau sees the implications clearly: "One thing Sony Online does, which all MMOGs do, is beta testing. This is inviting people to get engaged in the game even earlier than that. The more people vested in your game when you bring it to market, the better your prospects are," says Landau.

And that's not all. Landau's developing a feature-length movie that riffs off the "Live Music" characters, which he'll shop around next year. Mass Animation's also in discussions for a TV project, a short for a charity, and a CGI feature film update of a classic 2D animated film. And Landau's parent company Bedouin Media is in talks with a game developer for an animated TV series and a CG feature. Not bad for a one-man shop leveraging the talent of unknowns to do studio-quality work.

The animation industry is undergoing a shift of its own. Tim Westcott, an entertainment industry analyst at Screen Digest, says the industry is fragmented: "On one hand, you have Hollywood studios that produce massively budgeted movies upwards of $150 million and mostly do it in-house with their own staff of animators. On the other end of the scale are indies, and it has become very difficult for most animation producers because broadcasters are cutting what they spend on original programming â€" most animation studios make a living doing commercials, corporate films, and service work.

Landau seems to have found a niche in between the studios and independent work. "Yair has unique qualifications because of the fact that he came from a studio environment and had made feature films. It's neat to see him go out of Sony and embark on something unexpected and very cool," says Smedley.

But Landau insists his project is not just about giving studios a low-cost alternative:

The cost savings are not the primary driver -- we are not materially cheaper than outsourcing to India or Hungary. Mass Animation is focused on a quality product and we believe we generate a higher level of emotional engagement and committed storytelling from the participating animators than outsourcing.
And Landau appears to have even bigger plans. The next step is targeting a teen/young adult demographic that he says is underserved in the U.S. animation market â€"- with new genres that resemble games with theatrical storylines. "There are stories people could be telling in CGI right now that the audience is there for, but which people haven't figured out the economic formula for or have the risk appetite for," he says.

Is a new kind of interacting online storytelling brewing? "If you look at games like Modern Warfare 2 and Uncharted 2, they have cinematic-level visuals and storytelling going on in the game. Look at the stuff people are creating in Machinima â€"- that's also evolving. There's a real opportunity to tell long-form stories both in-game and using CG characters like that to tell other stories," he says.

Landau says there's nothing comparable in the market in the U.S. If that's the case, Landau has an open field.

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