Likely scenario: you're sitting in your office or at home and check your inbox. Someone's sent you a message. Subject: You Gotta See This. Body: This movie is ridiculous. A guy falls in love with a girl and she's in a wheelchair and they make it all about how they're from totally different worlds and I think at the end he ends up in a wheelchair. You just gotta see it. It's called Wheels . Black 20 is the company behind Wheels and many of the viral videos being passed around on the web. Gothamist sat down with J. Crowley, co-founder of Black20, to find out just what it takes to make it in the world of Internet comedy.
How did Black20 come to be?
Let's see... back when we were NBC Pages, a group of us started working together on a comedy pilot that we ended up shooting on the roof of my apartment. Fast-forward a year later, where I all but stalked a NBC Executive in an elevator, which parlayed into a rare opportunity to pitch the show. Crazy enough, NBC actually picked it up. To say we were ecstatic would be an understatement. Unfortunately, things weren't all they were cracked up to be. Surprisingly, there was really no distribution and then our show budget was drastically reduced. So there we were, no distribution, not enough money, shit out of luck. So we took a drive down to the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City and bet a good chunk of the remaining production money on a roulette spin. It was pretty frightening. I think O'Gorman puked in the parking lot. But Black20 is where that roulette ball landed, so there you have it - the production money we needed for our show. We stayed at the network for a couple months after that, releasing only one video: " The Easter Bunny Hates You " - which is two glorious minutes of an Easter Bunny terrorizing the city. It ended up getting a lot of traffic and press, and became the catalyst for our jump. We left the network and opened up shop in Brooklyn - under the name Black20.
What's a typical day like at Black20 HQ?
For starters, the days are long. I feel like we live there. In fact, two guys originally lived in the back rooms. Every day is different. Sometimes you walk in the office and it will be total chaos with multiple shoots and edits going on. Someone's probably in face paint. There's a batch of fake blood being cooked up, and O'Gorman is shirtless for some ungodly reason. Other days you can hear a pin drop - everyone wearing headphones, lost in scripts, or editing a new viral. Everyone's so crazy competitive, we play a lot of ridiculous games. I've almost seen a fist fight over a face-melting session on Guitar Hero. Heck, we've even shot a compound bow in the office (I busted out a window in January that is still not replaced). And we just installed a mini basketball hoop, so I wouldn't expect very good videos for the next two weeks.
What does it take to make it in the world of Internet Comedy?
A really dedicated team. A couple cameras. Final Cut Pro. Some crazy ideas. And never ending patience. We release videos that fully we expect to pull traffic in the hundreds of thousands, and it does about 93 viewers total. Ugh. That can be really disappointing. Other times we throw out a random piece that totally blows up, and gets over a million views in one week. At first it seemed impossible to predict, but we're starting to notice trends and have a better idea of what the equation is.
How did you get the word out about Black20?
We actually don't really spend any money on marketing or PR. We've just been cranking out video after video, and marking them all with the Black20 branding. We also haven't restricted where Black20 videos end up. They're basically everywhere. Some of our bigger Virals (Sheffield Quigley The Professional MySpace Photographer, Star Wars PSAs, 300 PG Version ) have really helped brand the network. It's just starting to reach the point where people are realizing that we're the same guys behind some of their favorite videos. Our fanbase is also tremendously loyal, constantly spreading the Black20 word. We owe them like a thousand beers.
The New York Times describes you and Neil Punsalan as having been, "Promising Self Starters at NBC." What did they mean by Self Starters? How did you get involved in NBC and what was your Webshow Out of Context about?
Out of Context was best described as a behind the scenes look at a satirical Dateline, if that makes any sense. All those episodes sit on their shelves collecting dust bunnies. As for the "Self Starters" comment - I suppose it's because we've taken a lot of risks throughout our career, and moved up at the network quite quickly. We both moved to NYC to work in television, and met while giving studio tours at the NBC Page Program. We'd spend all our free time writing scripts, or submitting jokes for SNL's Weekend Update. We did our best writing while on these studio tours. We took the initative to create "Out of Context", and then shop it around. I was 25 when I sold it back to the network, so we became Executive Producers in the Digital Studios Department at a pretty young age. And just when we thought we found our dream jobs, we were back on the streets doing our own thing again.
What's next for the Black20 crew?
Honestly, we really need to get the hell out of these offices. We've just hired a few more writers and producers and this already cramped office is getting smaller by the second. Not to mention the M-Train shaking the walls of our office every 9 minutes. We've just secured a round of investment which will help us get out of this shoebox, and more importantly, help grow Black20 into the broadband entertainment network we envision it to be. We're also up for a Broadband Emmy, so we're keeping our fingers crossed. I'm kinda getting tired of losing to LonelyGirl.
Please share your strangest "only in New York" story.
I just got back from a long trip to LA and decided to move out west. That was until I was on the subway, back from JFK, and suddenly these two crazies started brawling on the subway - we're talking Soda Popinski style. And instead of breaking the fight up, everyone on the subway starting cheering them on like it was the main event. I think I heard someone trying to take bets. That person may or may not have been me.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
I'd have to say my older brother. Despite kicking my face in when we were younger, he has always been a mentor for me. He took the entrepreneurial start-up road well before me. He ended up creating Dodgeball.com - mobile social software - which was really innovative for it's time. He's paved the way for me, and pointed out the start-up pitfalls time and time again. He was a big factor in convincing me to leave my job and start Black20.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York?
Free wi-fi everywhere. No cars below 14th street. And I'd had everyone go outside for one day and clean up all the litter. Then create a law where if you're caught littering, you're banished to Fresh Kills landfill for life.
Under what circumstance have you thought about leaving New York?
I had a run of bad luck in 2004. I just wrapped-up post production on that comedy pilot and had a hard time getting meetings. I had zero credits to my name, and was getting turned down from agencies and networks like it was my job. Weekend Update had just told me they wouldn't accept my submissions anymore. I remember thinking that was the end of my career. (ps: I still have that email saved). I had a really hard time finding writing jobs in NYC. I went on unemployment - the most depressing thing next to watching "Starting Over" every day. My unemployment eventually ran out. Luckily, I ended up getting a PA job at a small production company. Unluckily, they treated me like hamster poo. I had this boss who'd always make me go out and get him yogurt in the pouring rain. After all that, I decided to explore options in LA.
What's your idea of a perfect day of recreation in New York?
Start it off with a buttermilk biscuit sandwich from Clinton Street Bakery, but skip the ridiculous two-hour wait. Head to the East River Park and toss around a baseball with some friends. Lunch at Piada. Sit on couch with girlfriend and play catch-up on our DVR. Dinner at Frankies (Cavatelli in Sage Butter = best dish ever) and top it all off with pool and skeeball at Ace Bar.