THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE. Beyond Bellingham-born Hilary Swank's Oscar for Boys Don't Cry, the Northwest had another link to Sunday's Academy Awards hype: two short titles exclusively licensed—although not made—by Seattle's own AtomFilms. While no statuettes went to Humdrum (in the animated short category) or Killing Joe (live action short), Atom's site is avidly boosting those titles, and seven other nominees the company is only licensing or distributing offline.(Frustratingly, however, five of these nine films can be only previewed and not watched in their entirety.)
Atom's Oscar presence bespeaks the company's fast rise as a sort of miniplex on the Web. Launched in March 1999, the site has drawn private capital exceeding $20 million from various new-media investors. It boasted February traffic of 835,000 individual users, who sampled from the thousand-odd films in its library. (Only about 20 percent of these are available for viewing at any given time.) Still, you can bet Atom is losing money, since their content is free for us to enjoy. Meanwhile, filmmakers receive a paltry $500 advance and a promise of future revenue participation, plus options—cheaper than coffee!--for their wares. However, Atom grabbed headlines at Sundance by acquiring five titles to distribute online and license to other outlets—including TV, cable, VHS and DVD, and even in-flight airline screens.
Indeed, syndication—both online and off—now provides 55 percent of Atom's revenues, company founder and CEO Mika Salmi told The Wall Street Journal. (Ads contribute another 40 percent.) For now, Atom's revenue model is apparently to acquire low-cost licensing and distribution rights from filmmakers desperate to get their works seen, then wait for new markets and high-speed Internet connections to give its library some real value. Salmi has plans for an IPO later this year, and the company may even venture into producing—and owning—its entertainment products.
Before you can buy its stock, you might want to watch Atom's movies. Or would you? The Oscar-nominated shorts lend an air of prestige to the company's roster, but the quality runs only so deep. For every Killing Joe, a nicely done B&W coming-of-ager set in 1963 England, there are hundreds of titles like Saving Ryan's Privates. That short Spielberg parody is most notable for its many penile euphemisms; yet it's the most popular film of "all time" on Atom's Audience Choice charts.
ATOM'S ANIMATION is more telling. There, the Atom charts are dominated by the crude drawings of Joe Cartoon, the nom de plume for one of the Web's most successful—and somewhat controversial—animators. In Mr. Cartoon's oeuvre, the puppy dragged behind a 4x4 in Where My Dog? is like the gerbil in a microwave, which is like the fish in a blender, which is like the cliff-diving lemmings, which is like—you get the idea. Their violence betrays an undercurrent of anger and frustration in their audience of bored office workers with fast Internet connections. Do we really need to watch a gerbil explode a hand grenade inside the president's rectum in Gerbill? Sadistic interactivity is also a selling point to these 'toons, which invite viewers to click buttons furthering the destruction of unlovable fish and rodents. It's funny, but only up to a point.
Some of Atom's popular live action shorts show a similar spirit. The funny Bad Bosses Go to Hell starts promisingly, juxtaposing job interviews with various self-absorbed psycho bosses, but ends with seemingly inevitable killing. It's the hallmark of bad comedy writing: When there's no ending, pull out a gun and start shooting. (Thankfully the postal service is too antiquated to allow its disgruntled letter carriers access to the Net.) Free Parking, about one woman's desperate search for an open parking space, is better, but shares a similar coda.
At its best, however, Atom shows a more promising, less punitive bent. Humdrum is an inventively animated British 'toon featuring two amusing shadow puppet-like figures you don't want to blow up. Similarly, Oscar-nominated Kleingeld intelligently portrays the uneasy relationship between a Yuppie and the panhandler who insists on washing his car. However, as with all live-action Web flicks, the poor image may just make you want to see it on video—perhaps by purchasing it from Atom's online store. For now, cartoons simply work best as desktop cinema.
AtomFilms ultimately occupies an uncharted and evolving portion of the cinematic landscape that lies somewhere between Lawrence of Arabia and a Dilbert screen saver. Busy Americans love brevity, and breaking up the workday with a few short movies isn't a bad idea. As our own tech expert Angela Gunn has noted, Atom is a fun place to blow an afternoon. Yet given the level of inventiveness and sophistication brought to TV ads, or the original short Simpsons bumpers on The Tracey Ullman Show, or South Park (perfect for the medium!), it seems there could be more comedy and less carnage in Atom's microcinema.