It’s not exactly coincidence that today’s launch of Sony’s zombie comedy web series Woke Up Dead comes on the heels of the company’s box-office-winning $25 million opening weekend for Zombieland. In fact it was pretty much by design. With its debut on Crackle today, the Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) led comedy is the latest example of how the studios are starting the work their digital properties into the synergistic business mix, capitalizing on buzz from one property to drive interest in another.
The series is touted as the tentpole of Crackle’s fall lineup, one that is slimmed down from previous seasons to feature just a handful of premium, more polished online series from Sony Pictures Television. It’s the latest from online creative shop Electric Farm Entertainment, the guys behind web series like NBC’s Gemini Division and more recently MTV’s Valemont.
Heder stars as a six-year USC grad turned office drone, Drex Greene, who suffers an inexplicable accident that leaves him, well, undead. Now a confused newbie zombie, Drex tries to figure out what exactly is going on with the help of his wannabe filmmaker roommate Matt (Josh Gad) and an eager young med student turned love interest, Cassie (Krysten Ritter).
We had a chance to head to set this summer and catch a day of shooting at their downtown LA warehouse set. Electric Farm’s Stan Rogow, a veteran TV producer in his own right, is now considered a Web TV veteran with a number of commercially successful projects under his belt. He talked about the comedy heavyweights they were able to assemble for the cast which alongside Heder, Gad and Ritter include Wayne Knight (Seinfeld), Jean Smart (Samantha Who?), Meital Dohan (Weeds) Daniel Roebuck and even web star Taryn Southern (Private High Musical, Sorority Forever).
“When we started the casting process it was ‘who we we go to if we’re making a movie’ and that was who we went to and who we got,” said Rogow. “We ended up with an extraordinary cast of gunslingers in comedy, we just let them rip, see what happens and laugh.”
Rogow and his partner Brent Friedman are known for artfully weaving major brand sponsorships into their series. Gemini Division in fact had no less than five major brands having their products getting prime placement including Cisco, UPS and Microsoft. So it’s no surprise that they’ve managed to land Kodak for Woke Up Dead, with the new HD Zi8 camera being actively used by the main characters. Rogow in fact met the Kodak team at the 2009 Streamy Awards while he was there as a nominee for Gemini Division, which ultimately led to a sponsor deal. (Disclosure: Kodak is also a sponsor of The Streamy Awards, of which Tubefilter is a co-host.)
“They’ve been a great partner because they get the joke,” he quipped. “In fact, we came this close to using it as our actual camera for the whole shoot. They sent us a pre-release copy and we were blown away—1080i with a 10-to-1 zoom and 32 hours of high def space.”
Rogow said the decision to release a clump of episodes at once is something they learned from asking fans of Afterworld which they preferred. “99% preferred having a clump of episodes, but they still wanted regular content, like a clump every day,” said Rogow. “The answer is that there are different people that want to consume it in different ways, so we try to allow that to happen.” He pointed out the surprisingly strong video on demand (VOD) numbers for Gemini Division after its initial release through NBC.com. “People liked coming home on Friday, watching 15 minutes of it on their plasma screens and seeing Rosario Dawson in all her glory.” Rogow added. “Millions did. We did not think this was going to be substantial, but it was.”
“We’re trying to find the balance and create stuff that is internet entertainment that has a web site that is vital and active, community oriented and allows for some level of interactivity,” said Rogow. “And that allows the viewer to expeierence it any number of ways that they want to experience it.”
I asked Rogow how he defines the genre, and ‘zombie comedy’ is the answer he and his crew are going with. “The conceit of the show is that it’s a reimagination of what zombies are about—is he is he not, what does it mean to be a zombie,” Rogow added. An introspective zom com?
Director Tim O’Donnell calls the project, “a noir zombie comedy—Shaun of the Dead meets Dawn of the Dead.” Coming from a TV and film background this is his first taste as web budgets. “I didn’t take this gig for the dough, I took it because I was convinced it hadn’t been done before on the internet,” he noted.
Writer-creator John Fasano, who has had this project in the works for years, echoed similar sentiments about the appeal of creating for the internet. “On this budget you could not have gotten Wayne Knight, Josh Gad, Krysten Ritter and Jean Smart if it was a movie,” said Fasano. “But because it was for the internet, people did it for the love of it.”
For star Jon Heder, who keeps busy with a number of film offers and an upcoming Comedy Central pilot with his Blades of Glory co-star Will Ferrell’s company, he found the lure of being on the cutting edge enough to get him on board. “It’s a cool medium, there’s no hard set rules and anything can happen,” said Heder in between scenes on set. “I watched Afterworld and I loved it. It’s another reason I got into the project. There were these cool 3 to 4 minute episodes with a big giant mystery behind it all but they only give you little pieces. So that’s fun, I can really watch that.”
Woke Up Dead clocks in at around 5 minutes each. Five episodes out of a total of twenty-three came out today, with new episodes out every weekday through October 30.