C21 MEDIA: Home Grown

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29 Apr 2008

INTERNET ENTERTAINMENT: Pure Grass Films has revived the Hammer Films brand after 30 years through a new web series on MySpace, and Endemol recently invested in the company.

Adam Benzine reports as part of C21’s special season on internet entertainment.

home-grown1Pure Grass Films was hot property even before Endemol paid US$2m for a 40% stake in it last month. The production company is responsible for Beyond The Rave (left), the highly anticipated online horror series, which has been sending ripples round the blogosphere in recent months.

The 20×5′ series launched on social networking site MySpace at midnight on April 16, marking the first production in 30 years for the resurrected Hammer Films horror brand. The story concerns a group of travelling vampires who move from town to town, setting up giant raves and feeding on the locals.

The production is Pure Grass’s third major project, and follows on from 2006’s mobisode horror series When Evil Calls (20×2′), which was produced in association with Zone Media, and martial arts mobile series Urban Defender (6×90′), produced together with Player X.

Following its MySpace.TV run, Beyond The Rave will be released as a full length DVD and digital download, with the producers aiming to negotiate deals for cinema, TV and mobile releases. Pure Grass Films is the vision of brothers Ben and Tom Grass, Oxford graduates who serve as MD and creative director respectively.

home-grown2Ben Grass (left) is every bit as excited about the project as you’d imagine he’d be, being particularly keen to draw attention to the wide audience a partnership with MySpace is set to bring – the social networking site claims exposure from Beyond The Rave will reach 90% of its 110 million-strong user base.

“There’s maybe one or two movies a year at this sort of budget level that go out to this sort of audience,” says Ben. “Basically, unless you win the Edinburgh Film Festival, there’s no way you can get this sort of exposure.

“The nice thing is we’ve released them in high definition on MySpace, so people can view them at any size. Hammer Films fully funded it and control the distribution rights, and MySpace is the online distribution partner.”

Pure Grass is aiming to have the series on TV screens in the UK by June, although Ben says the company has “a very open mind” about how the TV distribution might work. He also says that the company is not concerned about the failure of Quarterlife, MySpace’s first original online series, which NBC picked up and then axed after one episode last month.

“I didn’t watch Quarterlife when it went out on TV, but obviously it would have been nice to have had a test case that had been a success,” he says. “But every show is different, and I think the fact that that hasn’t worked particularly well doesn’t spell trouble for the sector.

“We’re quite conscious that the internet audience might have a different way of connecting from a TV audience – you have to be pretty snappy online – so we’ve focussed on making sure that the online version moves along at a faster pace, and what we’ve tried to do with the DVD version is spend more time building up characters and backgrounds.

“First and foremost, though, we want this to be a success online,” says Ben. “Then there’ll be the DVD cut, which is going to have about 10 to 15 minutes extra footage. We’re focussing on the DVD rights at the moment, but we will probably do a blanket deal with a studio and wrap it all up into that. In terms of income, the revenue streams come from advertising and revenue online, TV advertising, DVD sales and then whatever we do on mobile.”

home-grown3Ben’s digital approach has won him plaudits from his new media contemporaries. “I think Ben was definitely a bit of a trailblazer to leave a traditional job and build a new media company in the way that he did,” says Jamie Kantrowitz (left), MySpace international senior VP for marketing and content. “He’s been thinking in this mindset for a while – he’s one of the only people in London who has a couple of years of experience creating this stuff.”

The ‘traditional’ job that Ben left to form Pure Grass Films was a position as Sony Pictures Entertainment Europe director of internet and wireless, before which he was a senior advisor on corporate strategy at the BBC.

His brother Tom Grass, meanwhile, worked in advertising for a range of companies including Saatchi & Saatchi and Tribal DDB, and managed a wide range of freelance consulting assignments. Tom has written screenplays, short stories and created mobile content for movies such as Charlie’s Angels 2, Spider-Man and Bad Boys 2.

Completing the triumvirate is Pure Grass head of production Wendy Bevan-Mogg, who joined the company after spells with UK art house distributor Artificial Eye and sales agent Pathé International.

Part 2

INTERNET ENTERTAINMENT: In the concluding part of C21’s feature on Pure Grass Films, Endemol digital media MD Peter Cowley explains why the Big Brother producer took a stake in the firm behind MySpace web series Beyond the Rave. Adam Benzine reports, as C21’s special season on internet entertainment continues.

Pure Grass Films was set up by brothers Ben and Tom Grass and has recently hit the mainstream after producing Beyond the Rave, a web series that debuted on MySpace earlier this month, marking the first revival of the Hammer Films horror brand in 30 years.

The company boasts a board of advisors that includes actor Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers, Dreamcatcher); Roger Vakharia, a former Intel MD charged with managing the computer giant’s relationships with Hollywood studios; David Chermont, a former Merrill Lynch media sales executive; Ernesto Schmitt, former Silverscreen CEO; and Snap TV international exec Sep Riahi.

home-grown2Discussing how the venture with Hammer came about, Ben (left) explains: “I’d met Simon Oakes before he took Hammer Films over, from when he was the senior guy at Liberty Global. He’d been aware of When Evil Calls, and we met again at Cannes in May when he was just about to take the helm at Hammer.

“As well as the idea of doing this for online, I think one of the key attractions for him was that we could deliver this very quickly. We offered to turn this round fast – we didn’t have a script in May but we went into production on September 3. My brother basically locked himself in a basement,” he laughs.

As with previous project When Evil Calls, which featured the likes of Sean Brosnan, Lois Wilson and Victoria Aitken, Beyond The Rave features a host of talent, such as Jamie Dornan and Sadie Frost, who are perhaps more famous for celebrity relations than for being actors in their own right. Many of the stars of the series have their own MySpace page, as do their fictitious counterparts.

“We didn’t have any issues selling this to agents and actors at all, whereas two years ago it was a totally different story,” reveals Ben. “I did the casting with the film’s director Matthias Hoene. I was excited about using him because he’s a great commercial and music videos director – he really knows how to nail short form videos.

“We jointly did the casting, and we’ve got people like Jamie Dornan and Phil Bush, the lead singer in the Cazals. The great thing is, they’re all young people who live and breathe the internet,” he adds.

Beyond the Rave‘s release came amid a period of accelerated growth and activity for Pure Grass, which has seen events moving rapidly. Beyond The Rave was only greenlit last May; three months later it was in production, with MySpace onboard as partners; by mid October the six-week shoot was finished; by the end of February, additional shooting was wrapped up; and by March post-production was complete.

By then word had spread about the ambitious project, catching the ear of global powerhouse Endemol, and on March 14 the two companies closed a US$2m deal for Endemol to acquire 40% of Pure Grass, as revealed on C21media.net.

home-grown4“We’d been keeping an eye on them since they released When Evil Calls, their first horror production,” says Endemol’s digital media MD Peter Cowley (left). “We were very interested in how that had done, and in particular how it had fared going on to other platforms. We were particularly impressed that their vision was to begin digitally and then seek other paths later; that projects can begin online and that there’s a big enough market from things like broadband providers to support that.

“They had a couple of good projects under their belt, they have a vision of how these things work and they’ve shown they can do this at least once. Pure Grass ticked all of the boxes from our point of view.

“I think distribution partners like MySpace, which has a global reach, have the potential to be the new broadcasters. That’s also why we’re in the market to invest in companies like Pure Grass now that there is a market, rather than before there was a market – we’d have struggled with a company like this two years ago.”

And Cowley reveals: “We have a project in development, and we would’ve been working with Pure Grass anyway, regardless of the investment deal.” As part of the investment deal, Cowley and Endemol UK’s CEO Tim Hincks have joined the board of Pure Grass Films.

The deal values Pure Grass at around £2.5m (US$5m) and is Endemol UK’s second deal via its digital media investment fund, which was established to acquire a portfolio of assets specialising in digital platforms. It follows last August’s 25% stake in digital entertainment producer and distributor MoMedia International.

For Pure Grass, meanwhile, it appears as if this will be one horror story with a happy ending, with Ben clearly aware of what a major milestone he expects the Endemol deal to prove to be.

“Up until now we’ve just been these four guys working out of a little office in Soho, so we’re really excited about how we can work with them,” he says. “They’re going to allow us to grow organically though new funding and partnerships, and they’ll present massive opportunities for us. I think it’s going to be really positive.”