CollegeHumor is enjoying a measure of success with its first feature-length movie, a comedy called "Coffee Town," but the website first thought it was headed for Hollywood gold years ago. In 2005, CollegeHumor struck a deal with Paramount Pictures to bring a movie called "Winter Break" to the big screen.
That venture didn't go well.
"When you're a 22-year-old and someone says you have a deal at Paramount you're like, 'I'm going to be sitting at a movie premiere in a year,'" recalled Ricky Van Veen, co-founder of CollegeHumor and a producer on the doomed project. "You're just an idiot."
"Winter Break" became stuck in "development hell" partly due to a series of regime changes at Paramount, according to Mr. Van Veen, and was ultimately shelved. The relationship with Paramount, where a representative did not respond to a request for comment, dissolved around 2007.
Now Mr. Van Veen's desire to produce a feature-length movie has finally came to fruition with the release of "Coffee Town," which it financed itself, on iTunes, Amazon, Playstation Network and cable on demand services last Tuesday. By Friday morning, it had cracked the 10 most-downloaded movies on the iTunes store. It now sits at No. 11, just behind the Halle Berry thriller "The Call" and ahead of 2010 spy comedy "Red." Mr. Van Veen even got a movie premiere: The CollegeHumor staff attended a private screen screening of "Coffee Town" at Sunshine Cinema on New York's Lower East Side.
Based on a script from "Arrested Development" writer Brad Copeland, "Coffee Town" follows a website manager who fights a plan to turn the coffee shop where he spends his days working into a bar. The movie was shot in just five weeks for roughly $1 million.
"With the web, we're so use to having an idea and seeing it a couple of days later," said Mr. Van Veen, who founded CollegeHumor in 1999 with his high school friend Josh Abramson. "We just applied that do-it-yourself mentality to this."
Worldwide marketing budgets for big-budget studio movies can reach hundreds of millions dollars. Mr. Van Veen said CollegeHumor spent $60,000 marketing "Coffee Town" with targeted Facebook ads and Tumblr promotions. It also promoted the movie across all of CollegeHumor's social media accounts and with banner ads on its own website.
Mr. Van Veen declined to say how much money "Coffee Town" has earned. It sells for $9.99 on iTunes, where other movies near the top of the most-downloaded list range from $9.99 to $14.99.
CollegeHumor is by no means the first comedy publisher to start making movies -- with widely varying results. The most famous is probably National Lampoon magazine, which spawned iconic films such as "Animal House" and "Vacation" in the 1970s and '80s as well as "Van Wilder" in 2002.
The news satirists at The Onion signed a two-picture development deal with Miramax in 2001 that didn't yield anything, then shot the sketch-based "The Onion Movie" for Fox Searchlight in 2003, only to see it accumulate dust and finally go straight to video in 2008.
The CollegeHumor competitor Funny or Die in April released "iSteve," a 78-minute parody of the yet-to-be released biopic of Steve Jobs starring Ashton Kutcher, on DVD and Hulu Plus. That was a lower-budget affair than even "Coffee Town": Writing the script took three days, according to The New York Times, and shooting took five. A spokeswoman for Funny or Die said Tuesday that "iSteve" has been viewed more than 1 million times on streaming video and through the Funny or Die website, where it was free to watch for a limited time.
The initial reception for "Coffee Town" has encouraged CollegeHumor to delve further into movies, according to Mr. Van Veen. There's no next project lined up yet, but producing and marketing "Coffee Town" has expanded the site's business model, he said.
"We've built this model where we know it can be profitable on its own marketing platform," Mr. Van Veen said. "I can see us having this dual revenue stream of advertising and stuff that we sell and promote from our own properties."
The site, which sold a majority stake to Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp. in 2006, currently draws nearly all of its revenue from advertising. "Making movies is not that much of a risk because we're doing it on the cheap," Mr. Van Veen said. "We would never fund a $20 million movie, but for us to do something in the low, low [millions] and promote it is a new business for us."