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Surfing for talent

Lisa Napoli Nov 27, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Welcome to Hollywood. Or close to it, anyway. It’s five or 10 miles from our studios. You can find fame and fortune there, if you’re lucky. But increasingly, you don’t have to be anywhere near Los Angeles to hit the big time. Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli has the story of one guy who might be the symbol of the changing ways of the entertainment industry.

LISA NAPOLI: It all started a couple years ago when David Lehre and his friends didn’t get cast in the high school play.

DAVID LEHRE: So I said, well, let’s make a movie then. You know, let’s get back at ’em. Let’s make a movie.

He didn’t know how, but that didn’t stop him. He bought a video camera. And he rallied his friends, who suddenly became writers and actors and grips. A modern, hipper, digital-age version of “Let’s Put on a Show.”

Lehre called his group Vendetta Studios.

LEHRE: I’d make a movie every week. So it was great practice.

It turned out to be great exposure, too. They didn’t just screen the films for their friends in Washington, Mich. They put them online for the whole world to see. People started watching.

LEHRE: I had a pretty steady fan base growing. And it was really cool to have people all around the world saying “Hey, we like your stuff.” But then I started to notice that there was this huge sea of independent film makers and digital film makers online.

So to really make a name for himself, Lehre made a film he knew would get a lot of attention: A parody of how obsessed kids his age are with MySpace. Overnight, a million people watched it. That’s when Hollywood started calling.

SCOTT VENER: I was like, “Wow, who’s giving them all this money to make this stuff in Michigan? You know?

That’s Scott Vener with the talent management group Schiff Company.

VENER: And when I spoke to him, he was like, “What do you mean? It cost me a hundred dollars. I made it myself.” I go, “You’re making shows that are, you know, MTV is probably, it’s costing them half a million dollars, if not more, a show, and you’re making them look like what they have on the air for a hundred bucks?

One thing led to another and suddenly all the poobahs in Hollywood were taking meetings with Lehre and his dad.

LEHRE: And then I had a meeting with every single network. And then Fox . . . Fox pretty much said, you know, What do you want? And I said I want my own show. And they said OK.

It didn’t hurt that the head of Fox had a 14-year-old son who had seen Lehre’s movies online and was a fan. Now, not only did Fox give Lehre the money to do a pilot, the network gave him something usually reserved for A-list celebrities: total creative control.

He didn’t even have to relocate from his parents’ house.

LEHRE: I mean, like, I’m editing the show all by myself in my bedroom right now. And, like, during the filming process it was just me and all my friends like we normally do, just making movies.

Of course, there’s nothing normal about a bunch of 21-year-olds making a pilot for a major network in a tiny town in Michigan. Except, perhaps, in the age of the Internet. The major talent agencies are now scouring for other David Lehres out there online. Brent Weinstein heads up the newly created digital team at United Talent Agency.

BRENT WEINSTEIN: Their job is to make sure that as an agency we are aware of the most exciting new voices coming out of the Internet, and that we’re there early.

It may seem a bit needle-in-the-haystack, but for the new Hollywood players like Scott Vener, that’s half the fun.

VENER: Every night before I go to bed, I can sit and browse through all the different websites and the video sites. And I’m traveling around the country, you know, seeing who’s the entrepreneurial ones that want to put their stuff up and want to stand up and be heard.

Like David Lehre, who is already promising not to sell out now that he’s got one foot in the big time.

LEHRE: You know, we’re just trying to have fun, we’re not trying to get all Hollywood on anybody. We’re just trying to have fun, and make fun movies, and just hang out, and just, you know, be kids.

Let’s see how long that lasts. But even with his deal with Fox, he knows who the real boss is. His mom finally allowed him to drop out of college.

In Los Angeles, I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.

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