You have to wonder, why doesn’t Cartoon Network produce its shows the way Rooster Teeth Productions creates its comedy hit machinima series Red vs. Blue? Nielsen Media Research says the cable network pulled in one and a quarter million viewers a night, prime time, in the week of September 11th, 2006. Bet they spent a bundle on their original programming for those nights – Teen Titans, Camp Lazlo, Xiaolin Showdown, the Adult Swim block, and all the rest. Sure, Cartoon Network can charge tens or hundreds of thousands for a 30-second ad spot, but even so, it’s hard to swallow the price tag for all that animation: $150,000-plus per half-hour, over $600K for a two-hour block.

Meanwhile, the audience for Red vs. Blue is currently over a million, comparable to Cartoon Network’s, and with its DVD sales, plus semi-annual sponsorship fees from some percentage of its half-million forum accounts, Rooster Teeth may well beat the network in clear profit per two-hour block. Rooster Teeth’s total production costs: the price of four Xbox 360s, four copies of Halo 2, desktop computer with video capture card, editing software and Wal-Mart microphone – top to bottom, maybe $4K. By Cartoon Network standards, basically zero.

OK, the comparison is admittedly stupid. A cable network must fill hours of air time daily; the six guys at Rooster Teeth, who have just started Red vs. Blue Season 5, produce just a few hours of material a year, five minutes a week. Due to a nondisclosure agreement with Halo publisher Microsoft, they don’t talk about their income, so it’s pure guesswork whether they clear more profit annually than Cartoon Network does nightly. And, of course, the network can rerun its cartoons forever, amortizing animation costs to a pittance; Rooster Teeth must use bandwidth, lots of it, to deliver Red vs. Blue and its other series, The Strangerhood and PANICS. Oh God, does Rooster Teeth use bandwidth. In a single month in 2004, they pushed 488 terabytes. Yes, terabytes.

You could list a dozen ways Rooster Teeth’s little operation in Austin, Texas won’t undermine cable’s dominance. That’s not the point. This comparison illustrates how an indie (not to say “amateur”) sitcom, created in a videogame engine with practically no money or resources, is reliably building numbers that rival the lower echelons of cable TV.

How long until someone realizes that in Hollywood?

***

Among many measures of Rooster Teeth’s success is a comprehensive suite of Red vs. Blue Wikipedia entries. The main treatise, one of the encyclopedia’s Featured Articles (under “Media”), recaps the origin and premise of the series, as well as the entire 78-episode run since its premiere on April Fool’s Day, 2003. Each season has its own article with meticulous episode summaries.

Still, as with most attempts to summarize comedy, these efforts miss the essence, the prana of the subject. Episode transcripts help, but without the voices, you can’t parse the vibe. Red vs. Blue (RvB) features sharp dialogue delivered with flair and cesium-clock timing. Almost uniquely, amid hundreds of machinima shorts apparently voiced by semi-literate Jackass rejects, these actors actually understand what they’re saying.

The direction stands out, too. “I think the attention to detail that we pay to every episode really helps,” Rooster Teeth’s Gustavo “Gus” Sorola said in a December 2003 interview on Machinima.com. “Sometimes hours of work can go into a shot that just appears on screen for two or three seconds, but in the end it really pays off.”

“In many ways, RvB is comparable to a Blizzard game like World of Warcraft,” says machinima pioneer Hugh Hancock. “The idea of doing a sitcom set in a computer game isn’t new; what is new and brilliant, though, is the polish and quality of the product. Other people have made game sitcoms, but very few of them have actually been, you know, funny. RvB consistently is, and that’s what makes it different.

“They’ve tapped into the perfect market – they’re using games to make films about games. Their audience are gamers, 100 percent of whom already in tune with and accepting of their production techniques. Their first episode, which really is the make-or-break for a machinima series, is absolutely stonking, perhaps the best thing they’ve done – pretty much the canonical example, still, of smart, tight comedy writing within machinima. They’ve got a smart distribution method, combined with carefully thought-out scope for their films, meaning they can release weekly and build their audience in the same way as a web comic. And, of course, they’re very good writers and actors. That’s rare, and it’s the major factor behind their success.”

Given this professionalism, ordinarily you’d expect the Rooster Teeth creators to capitalize on their web success by moving into traditional media – you know, a cable series, books, a licensed magazine, audiobooks, et al. But so far, they seem happy to stay on the web.

Maybe they figure this is where the action is. Maybe they’re right.

***

Machinima production is charging forward on many fronts. Machinima.com, which streams hundreds of thousands of films each year, offers a long list of machinima production companies. Some of them – not as many as you might think – use the Halo engine, taking inspiration from Red vs. Blue. Fire Team Charlie reached a respectable 19 episodes, some quite long, before conking out in January 2006. Sponsors vs. Freeloaders is meta-machinima about the support, or lack of it, provided by Rooster Teeth sponsors.

It’s not all comedy, either. The Codex is a drama in 20 parts, with a prequel (The Heretic) about to start production. Dennis Powers has used the Halo engine to create a multi-part drama, the Halo CE Chronicles. Then there are oddities like This Spartan Life, a talk show staged live on a public Halo multiplayer server; host Damian Lacedaemion and his guests pontificate while avoiding weapon fire. You can find plenty more at Halo Movies and Halo Grid.

Yet Halo, like RvB itself, represents only one theatre in machinima’s invasion. “The impact of RvB on comedy machinima has been considerable, and on Halo machinima, huge,” says Hancock, though “no one has really equaled Rooster Teeth’s success. They’re a medium-sized community on the web themselves, above, beyond and separate from the rest of the machinima scene.”

Rooster Teeth hasn’t reshaped the community. “There isn’t really a single machinima community,” Hancock explains. “Instead, there are a lot of disparate but similar communities and a small number of umbrella organizations, notably the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences, which try to serve all of them. Whilst we see a lot of movies being made which were obviously influenced by Red vs. Blue, the output from the communities around games like The Sims 2 and The Movies dwarfs that in quantity. The impact [Red vs. Blue] has had on the Sims 2 music video scene, for example, has been minimal to none. Likewise on the old-school machinima people who grew up with Quake 1.”

Aside from Rooster Teeth, the most interesting machinima company today may be Hancock’s own Strange Company in Edinburgh, Scotland. Strange recently released Episode 9 of BloodSpell, a full-length fantasy feature film in the Neverwinter Nights engine. Writer-director Hancock describes BloodSpell as “the largest machinima production ever.” BloodSpell is currently competing with Rooster Teeth in the new GameShadow awards. Other successful filmmakers include Rufus Cubed Productions, whose Return and “Billy Maclure” films (done in World of Warcraft) have gotten close to a million downloads; “Deviation” from Hard Light Films, which clocked over half a million; and “Anna” from Fountainhead Entertainment.

But for all this activity, not many other machinima titles will hold a film fan’s interest. Given the low barriers to entry, why haven’t we already seen an explosion of great machinima, a thousand hilarious Reds vs. ten thousand brilliant Blues? For the same reason we didn’t see a million great novels after we got word processors, or a flood of tremendous indie films when video cameras got cheap. It’s hard work! Go to Lionhead’s The Movies site and blow a heart-sinking half-hour browsing some of its thousands of two-minute mediocrities. You’ll confront the perennial problem with user-generated content: Most creators stink.

Here, professional filmmakers will eventually see an opportunity. They’ll look at RvB‘s success and smell serious money, at least by indie movie standards. And, unlike Hollywood’s past ventures into gaming (full-motion video cutscenes, anyone?), they might not screw up this one – because, for once, their storytelling skills really do apply. But for starters, they’ll certainly consult with machinima makers already skilled in the form.

The field is wide open. Often, by the time we hear of fortunes being made in a new way, it’s already too late to get in. But in machinima, the barrier to entry remains absurdly low, the need for professionalism desperate. If you’re funny or interesting, can voice-act well, and produce reliably over the medium term – and you don’t quit – there’s absolutely nothing blocking you from success.

To restate: How long until Hollywood realizes that?

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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