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From YouTube to the big time? Maybe

Brandon.jpg

Brandon Hardesty of Parkville, Md. got noticed by a talent agent after his Hollywood film reenactments and other clips became popular on YouTube (Courtesy: Sam Holden Photography)

Cory with Sparta

Cory Williams of Thousand Oaks, Calif. poses with his cat Sparta in one of several popular YouTube videos that have helped him transition into traditional media. (Courtesy of SMP Films)

In 2006, Brandon Hardesty got a rather quirky idea.

He was watching the film “Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” at his home in Parkville, Md., when, on a whim, he decided to videotape himself re-enacting the final scene where Charlie's grandpa asks Wonka about the lifetime supply of chocolate.

"I had a little digital video camera and I told my mom what I wanted to do," the 20-year-old said. "I was looking for a good mustache for Charlie's grandpa, and she grabbed lint from the dryer and Scotch-taped it to my face."

His family and friends thought the video was amusing, so Hardesty decided to re-enact more movie scenes and upload them onto YouTube to have a little fun and, maybe, get a little attention.

To his surprise, his videos became a hit. Then one day, he decided to post a video of himself making funny faces. The video was featured on YouTube’s home page where it caught the eye of millions, including a talent agent who decided to offer him a contract. The next thing he knew, the Martin Agency wanted to use the video of his funny faces in a Geico commercial and a film producer offered him a role in an upcoming independent movie with William H. Macy about a kid searching for a prom date.

"I've sort of taken an express train to Hollywood," Hardesty said. "I have definitely skipped over a lot of obstacles."

Before the rise of the Internet, most aspiring actors and comedians followed the traditional route of sending out headshots and demo tapes in their quest to get a talent agent to look their way. But as video Web sites surge in popularity, unknown amateurs suddenly have the opportunity to show off their talents to a wide market, and some people in show business are taking notice.

There have been a number of cases in which unknown actors, comedians and Web personalities who became famous on YouTube made direct transitions into television and films. The cable channel Bravo, for instance, announced last year that YouTube personality and fashion guru William Sledd will star in an upcoming reality-TV pilot. While making that leap is still relatively uncommon and most people who make it don't land lead roles, there are some agencies using the Internet as a talent search tool.

"The traditional thing was to pick up and move to New York and Hollywood and wait tables and hope you can expose yourself to someone who has the ability to actually make a hiring decision," said Alex Halavais, an assistant professor of communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., who researches the effects of new technology on society and business. "I don't think that is the case anymore."

The bulk of the people who appear to be attracting interest, however, are not traditional actors who aspire to play Hamlet on the great stage. They are, by and large, people who create their own content and post original scenes they have written and sometimes star in as well.

"We are looking for that new creative thing that is out there for us to develop and build a new show around, a new personality around, some sort of brand entertainment," said Clay Smith, a 29-year-old talent agent with the Independent Artists Agency in New York, who has been using YouTube for several years to find people.

Cory Williams, 26, a multi-media junkie from Thousand Oaks, Calif., is a good example of that. He claims to be one of the first people to make the big transition. He began writing his own skits and comedic music videos around 1999. He posted his first funny video, "How To Make Poop," on a site called Newgrounds in 2005 and eventually began regularly posting on YouTube. His videos surged in popularity, and they led to a job as host of DirecTV’s "The Fizz,” and a supporting role in an independent film. Now, he said he is in talks to host a major cable television show. Williams believes the entertainment industry is on the cusp of a sea change in how it gets its talent, but he thinks there is still a resistance to embrace YouTube stars.

"We are trying to soften up traditional media a little bit to let in some new media guys," said Williams, adding he is among the "pioneers."

But some experts in the industry remain skeptical that YouTube will become a career launching pad. Brian O'Neil, the author of "Acting As a Business," points out that throughout the 1990s, actors hoped to get a start in independent film, and then on reality television shows such as "Survivor" as a way to catapult someone into stardom. But those routes did not prove helpful to many aspiring actors, and he predicts it won't happen much with YouTube, either.

Clips on the Internet will lead to some acting jobs, "but percentage-wise, it will be rather small," O'Neil said. "It will probably go to people who truly create their own stuff, as in writers who actually wrote the film clip you saw or comedians who write their own material."

Serious drama schools, such as the New School for Drama in New York, dissuade their students from posting "gimmicky" types of clips and instead urges them to post their reels on professional acting Web sites. If a student is going to post something on YouTube, it should look professional, said Robert Hoyt, the director of professional development at the New School for Drama.

"One thing about the Internet is that anyone can go ahead and post," Hoyt said, noting that the medium has become diluted. "It's almost like "American Idol" to a certain extent--almost anyone can audition and not everyone can sing. You have to cull through a lot of really bad ones to find the good ones, and I don't think the industry is ready to use that amount of time."

Even talent agencies that have launched online talent divisions, such as the United Talent Agency in Los Angeles, don't necessarily focus on helping Web stars transition into traditional media. While UTA does not discourage such ambition, the agency believes the smarter business model is to help Web stars cultivate the fan base they already have online.

"When you pull it off the Web where it has a life of its own, you're taking a big risk," said Jason Nadler, the head of UTA Online. “There will always be a question of what will be different? Has he sold out? The authenticity question is really what works on the Internet.”

E-mail: sl1160@columbia.edu