On March 17, Cobble Hill–based Web prankster Ze Frank will end his daily, year-long Internet video show to go all Hollywood. “The one thing I took away from my meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg is that the work begins now,” said Mr. Frank, who was accidentally rewarded with fame after a jokey video, “How to Dance Properly,” went utterly viral in 2001.
Last summer, Sharon Sheinwold, a partner at United Talent Agency, arrived at zefrank.com from the Web log scobleizer.com and spent the next three days “getting lost” in the site. Soon after, she and U.T.A. owner Nick Stevens flew out to New York to meet Ze Frank in person.
The power meeting went down at the East Village eatery Zum Schneider on Sept. 10. Mr. Frank, whose parents are both German and who spent much of his childhood in the homeland, feasted on radishes with cheese, while Mr. Stevens and Ms. Sheinwold picked at less ambitious platters. During the courtship, Mr. Frank was struck by Mr. Stevens’ energy as well as his language.
“He was like, ‘We’ll do this, we’ll do that, we’ll pump that area.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, did you just say you’ll ‘pump that area’?” said Mr. Frank. “In a way, it was my best expectation of Hollywood. In and of itself, it was such a creative statement, I definitely felt like I could work with this guy.”
Mr. Frank then went home and made a video that incorporated the phrase into a song. He posted it on Sept. 11.
“He’s a self-generating comedic force and magnet for talent à la Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, Mitch Hurwitz, Imagine—albeit in his nascent state of bloggerdom,” said Ms. Sheinwold, who became his agent soon after that meeting. “He’s a guy who, when we connect him with the right people, will be able to do whatever he wants.”
A few months later, his agents brought the Web dude to Hollywood to meet with such studio honchos as Mr. Katzenberg, C.E.O. of DreamWorks, Jeff Robinov, president of production at Warner Bros., and Fox co-chair Jim Gianopoulos, as well as comic idols like Steve Coogan.
“You know, I went out there for like 10 days, and I probably had like four meetings a day, in addition to doing the show—so I was kind of, you know, burnt,” said Mr. Frank, who is 34, hails from Albany and has the real first name of Hosea.
At the Zen palace that is DreamWorks—Mr. Frank reports the place is laden with waterfalls and free ice cream—Mr. Katzenberg advised him to “to stay kind of close to the system, but outside of it—to develop content, develop ideas, instead of trying to play to the game as it exists out there.”
Mr. Frank seems to have taken that advice to heart. He’s also picked up some of that sumptuous industry lingo.
“There was a pilot with CBS that almost went to deal, but we had to kind of pull out of that,” said Mr. Frank. The show had been a sitcom with a “tie-in to online space as well.”
So Mr. Frank has decided since then to focus on feature films for his first foray into the mainstream. But don’t worry, netizens! He swears he’ll never ditch the Web.
In March of 2001, Mr. Frank was an art director at Dennis Interactive. He became an Internet rock star overnight when, as he put it, “The ‘How to Dance Properly’ thing hit.”
“You know, I made a little birthday invitation that I put online of myself dancing like an asshole with some sarcastic commentary, and I sent it to about 17 people, and then millions of people were watching it within a couple days,” he said. “It’s one of the strangest things that can happen to you. It’s just so crazy to be getting e-mails at that rate, where every single time you refresh there’s 60, 70 new e-mails from around the world. It was just so weird and exciting.”
Mr. Frank knew he was on to something. He quickly threw up a Web site and quit his job.
Mr. Frank had studied neuroscience at Brown. In 1996, he moved to Brooklyn with his college band, Dowdy Smack—a blend of college rock, funk, jam band, fusion. The band soon split, and Mr. Frank got a computer. After landing the job at Dennis in ’97, he began making “masturbatory” Flash sites.
“I didn’t know anything about what Web popularity was, how to hold people’s attention—the only clue that I had was that one idiotic thing,” he said. “So I sort of moved forward from there.”
And last year he began producing his daily show. Today, he can’t leave his studio apartment without being recognized. What’s more, he says, because of the personal nature of The Show, people feel comfortable approaching him for a casual chat. For the same reason, he was compelled to disconnect his phone, whose number had been listed.
The other day, Mr. Frank went to see the Ron Mueck exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. On the subway ride from his apartment in Cobble Hill, one of his many devoted fans—25,000 to 30,000 people watch his online show each day—approached him to say whassup. Upon returning home, he opened his inbox only to discover that another fan had been eyeballing him from afar as he took in Mr. Mueck’s sculptures.
“It kind of freaks me out. I get a lot of the negative aspects of celebrity, but not much of the positive,” said Mr. Frank—the positive being, among other things, the “cash.”
Originally, he began making other videos similar to the one that had made him famous. Although traffic on his site inevitably went down, a significant stream kept coming back. He began making games, and then he began requesting user input. He built some little toys with which users could make little pictures that he’d post in the gallery. He challenged users to do things like take pictures of themselves being attacked by office supplies.
“Basically, I just started dipping my feet into this whole world of community stuff, but there were no rules—it was just, you know, try to make it work,” he said.
Earlier this month, Mr. Frank launched his own social network. Already, 13,000 “sports racers,” as he calls his audience members, have signed up.
Though he still does freelance work as a designer, consultant and public speaker, the site now supports him. The ad space at the top of zefrank.com goes for $900 a week. The ads that run at the end of his videos go for 30 cents per click. Mr. Frank says he’s only just begun to enter “the conversation” about how to monetize the site. It was something he only began to consider once he started pumping so much time into that area.
“There is certainly a way to make money, but you have to really make it a job,” Mr. Frank said. “And I think moving forward when I have a little bit more time, I’m certainly going to try to tackle that job a little bit better.”
Each morning, Mr. Frank wakes up at 7:30, gets a coffee and starts researching. He describes his process this way: “I don’t write anything. I wouldn’t call my shows improvised, but I construct them sentence by sentence. And I also try not to precede a day with an idea, because part of this whole is trying to understand this rapid creative process as well. So, yeah, I take the temperature of the world and I take my internal temperature. You know—are you fuckin’ pissed off, or are you kind of weird and gitty that day?”
He sets up his lights first, then his camera, an old Sony VX2000. Most days, he uploads his show by 5 p.m.
“In the case of my audience,” he said, “if an advertiser wants to come into this space that I have, I feel like, No. 1, this is an audience that I value immensely, because they do incredible stuff. How do you value an audience who, when I ask them to dress up their vacuum cleaners, send in 1,000 pictures in 20 hours?”
How do you? With a raging party? Mr. Frank is planning a sort of wrap party for the end of the show. “I hope it’s in Brooklyn,” he said. “It might be in L.A.”
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