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Online laughs with ‘The Burg’

Early last year, Thom Woodley and Kathleen Grace were heading up the elevator of the Pierre Hotel to meet Michael Eisner in his private hotel suite. Eisner was launching Tornonte, his new Internet media venture that provided users with original comedic content and he wanted to meet some emerging talents.

This was right up Woodley and Grace's alley. In June 2006, the two created a scripted Internet comedy called The Burg, which revolved around the lives of five young people in Williamsburg. They wrote the script, hired the actors, filmed their pilot, and shot and uploaded their first episode to the web over the period of a month for about $300.

“Kathleen wanted to do ‘Saved By the Bell’ but with hipsters,” Woodley revealed. They ended up going in a slightly different direction.

Each episode consists of three storylines that refer back to the title in some way and lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. The creators often package each episode with several self-contained vignettes that may have nothing to do with the theme of the show but are comedic shorts that star the same characters.

The pilot episode was called “MySpace,” a clever take on the theme of friendship in the 21st century. It included a storyline where one of the main characters dropped her friend from her MySpace page’s top eight friends. A second storyline revolved around a new roommate situation who invaded another character’s personal space. All of the stories were resolved in the end.

“We’re interested in the trust fund people, the people who want to believe they’re at the forefront of a new artistic revolution,” said Woodley. These people are taking things ridiculously seriously, making arbitrary rules about what is cool. The hipsters decry the condos, but what is ironic is that the hipsters led to those condos being made. The people who you see walking around Bedford Street now are very different from those who you saw walking around the neighborhood three years ago, even a year ago.

Thom and Matt Yeager, another writing partner, wrote all of the scripts for the show. Thom directed the first episode and most of the shorts. Kathy has been directing since the first episode and both Kathy and Thom serve as producers. Producing the show involves finding places to shoot scenes, hiring the actors, selecting the music for scene changes, arranging everyone’s schedules, and making any other corrections as the process goes on.

“We’ve shot at the Atlas Café, the Bushwick Country Club, on several side streets in Williamsburg, and in Kathy and Bob McClure’s apartments.” said Woodley.

McClure is one of the five main characters in the show.

“It’s a great area to shoot around. There is lots of parking and people are walking by, but not too many. We don’t have the resources to fake it. Stylistically it’s rough around the edges. It’s poppy looking and it’s cheap looking.”

When the first episode came out, a few New York blogs started promoting it and gave it good reviews. The manager of one of the now-defunct bands who played on the pilot, Jenn Carlson, posted the first press on Gothamist, which led to a review on Gawker. By the end of the next week, Virginia Heffernan, an influential television and Internet video writer for the New York Times, wrote about The Burg. The Burg also got mentioned again in the Times in the Magazine’s end of the year issue, Best Ideas of 2006 in a short paragraph on Internet television shows.

At this point Woodley and Grace started receiving a lot of phone calls from agents who wanted to sign them and television networks who wanted to buy The Burg or their next project.

“The networks still don’t know what they want to do in the Internet domain.” Woodley explained. “NBC has a comedy site, but they have put promotions for their comedy shows on that. MTV wanted to buy the Burg for $5,000. We said no.”

After signing with CAA representatives, Woodley and Grace decided to meet with Eisner to gage his interest in their project.

“Eisner said, ‘I really like what you’ve done with the Burg,’ and he mentioned that his favorite part of the show was the writing and the attractive blonde lead actress,” Woodley said.

Woodley and Grace decided not to sell The Burg but to develop their next show, The All-For-Nots, with Eisner’s company producing it. The show, launched this spring, is about an up-and-coming indie rock band that goes on a poorly planned, ill-equipped nationwide tour. Each city the band stops in will be the focus of one episode, and Tornante has committed to producing 24 seven minute episodes. It is an extensive project and Woodley could not be more excited.

“We ended up casting people who were really really good actors and the band sounds pretty good too. At the last minute, I had to step in to play in the band and be one of the actors.” Filming starts in November.

Woodley shed some insight into his production process and the future of the industry.

“The future for Internet storytelling is in longer form entertainment. It is trickier to tell longer form stories. I think we will see less and less viral videos and more professionally produced longer form entertainment on the Internet. I hope to be at the forefront of that.”

Episodes of The Burg can be seen and downloaded at www.theburg.tv. To view episodes of The All-For-Nots, go to www.theallfornots.com.

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