Many experienced comedians, talent agents and financiers see the Web as a way to showcase talent while trying to turn a profit.
LOS ANGELES — For Will Ferrell, who commands up to $20 million for movies like “Anchorman” and “Blades of Glory,” starring in a short Web video may not seem like the best use of time.
But one afternoon in early March, Mr. Ferrell walked to a guest cottage at his Los Angeles home with a small crew that included Adam McKay, who is his production partner and the director of “Anchorman.”
With a camcorder rolling, Mr. Ferrell improvised a sketch as a down-on-his-luck tenant being harassed by a foul-mouthed, booze-sodden landlord. The actor playing the landlord was Mr. McKay’s 2-year-old daughter, Pearl.
“The Landlord,” which took 45 minutes to shoot and cost next to nothing to produce, was posted on the new Web site FunnyOrDie.com on April 12.
As of yesterday, the sketch had been viewed about 30 million times, and the newly posted outtakes have been watched more than 1.6 million times. (This being Hollywood, Mr. Ferrell and Pearl have already shot a sequel: “Good Cop, Baby Cop.”)
Another punch line of the story, though, is that Mr. Ferrell and Mr. McKay started the site with the financial backing of Sequoia Capital, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm that made a name for itself, not to mention billions of dollars, by investing early in YouTube and Google.
The Internet, of course, is already filled with cheap laughs — YouTube alone offers a lifetime’s supply of home videos (some funny, most not). But now many experienced comedians, talent agents and financiers are seeing the Web as a way to showcase talent while trying to turn a profit. In January, for example, Turner Broadcasting began SuperDeluxe.com, which features videos created by comedy pros and amateurs. And last year, IAC/InterActiveCorp, controlled by Barry Diller, bought a 51 percent stake in the parent company of CollegeHumor.com for an estimated $20 million.
Already, the seven-week-old FunnyOrDie.com, which highlights short videos by veteran comics like Mr. Ferrell as well as videos submitted by amateurs, is in discussions with potential advertisers.
The actor and his colleagues have enlisted some famous friends to volunteer their services. Brooke Shields, who is married to Chris Henchy, a writer and partner in FunnyOrDie.com, is a playground mom in one short video. And Bill Murray is planning to make a video, too, Mr. McKay said.
Clients of Creative Artists Agency, which helped broker the deal with Sequoia, have also made short videos for the site — including the actor and comedian Ed Helms, who created a series of clips called “Zombie American,” and the boxer Oscar De La Hoya.
In an interview last week at his second-floor office on a side street along Hollywood Boulevard, Mr. Ferrell acknowledged that he had been ambivalent about the site at first. “But then we thought, ‘Maybe this could work,’ ” he said. “We are not putting so much pressure on every piece that it be perfect. Everything isn’t, ‘Oh my God! This has to be so funny.’ It’s amusing, observational. We’re trying not to make it so slick.”
The pairing of Hollywood talent and Silicon Valley financiers has all the familiarity of a movie sequel. When the first Internet boom reached its peak in the late 1990s, many actors, writers and directors made the pilgrimage to the headquarters of the venture capital firms along Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, Calif., to seek financing to create entertainment for the Internet.
Many of those ventures failed, largely because traditional Web shows were expensive to create and the technology at the time made it cumbersome to watch videos online. Among those that faltered were Pop.com, Digital Entertainment Network and Icebox.
Another cruel reality is that it is hard to be consistently funny, even with the help of deep pockets. Last summer, for example, Time Inc. closed its OfficePirates.com Web site, a satirical look at workplace issues, because it did not have a big enough audience.
A big change from the late 1990s, though, is that there is now better technology to stream videos, and audiences seem more willing to watch them, leading many investors and Hollywood talent to see a new opportunity.
“Our responsibility is to continue to make it better,” said a Sequoia partner, Mark D. Kvamme, referring to FunnyOrDie.com. “If it doesn’t succeed, it is our fault.”
The idea for the site started with Mr. Kvamme, who approached Creative Artists in 2006 with his pitch to finance a site for experienced comics.
“If you look at all the sites out there, a large portion of them have comedy,” he said, “but it is a mish-mash. There was no place that had a good smattering of professional videos and user-generated content.”
Agents at Creative Artists introduced Mr. Kvamme to Mr. Ferrell and Mr. McKay last year. Then Mr. Kvamme visited the two men on the set of “Blades of Glory” to persuade them to join the new venture.
Mr. Ferrell and Mr. McKay, who had worked together on “Saturday Night Live,” were reluctant at first. “I don’t really know much about the Internet,” Mr. Ferrell said.
The reality of having to sit through three weekly meetings and spend hours reviewing videos and writing comments for the site also seemed daunting to them, not to mention a distraction from their more lucrative movie and television careers (the time they are devoting to FunnyOrDie.com is all sweat equity at this point, since they are not being paid).
Even so, they came around to seeing the venture as an opportunity to experiment with their own material and to be exposed to ideas from other comics that they could later develop into television shows and movies.
Once Mr. Ferrell started making short videos, he enjoyed it. “You get to exercise that same muscle you did at the show,” he said, referring to his days on “Saturday Night Live.”
Mr. McKay also came up with the categories that voters use to rate their favorite videos — “immortal” if a video was great, “the crypt” if it was not.
And while Mr. McKay and Mr. Ferrell review the 20 most popular videos posted, they also have been careful not to censor the site.
When a user posted a video poking fun at Alec Baldwin, whom they know from “Saturday Night Live,” they briefly took it down, but posted it again because they did not want to set a precedent for banning videos that made fun of their friends.
“Unless it’s a hate crime or porn, it goes up,” Mr. McKay said. The actor Nick Thune posted a video based on his stand-up routine about masturbation, which became the third most popular video on the site, viewed more than a million times.
Mr. Thune said that Mr. Ferrell’s involvement in the site lent credibility to sketches like his. “The thing about YouTube is that it is so broad,” Mr. Thune said. “If Will Ferrell is there, it must be good.”
Sequoia and Gary Sanchez Productions — Mr. Ferrell’s company, where Mr. McKay is a partner — declined to disclose specifics about their initial investments, though Mr. McKay said that he and Mr. Ferrell had been given a budget of $5,000 to create their first videos. (The rest of the money — which Mr. Kvamme estimated to be in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” — was spent building the site.)
But because of the heavy traffic on FunnyOrDie.com, Sequoia has increased its investment to several million dollars and hired 10 full-time employees, with plans to expand the staff to 25.
Mr. McKay says they hope to share revenue with other video makers once the site starts to make money. For now, though, the site gives comics and actors a way to attract potentially huge audiences without the help of a Hollywood studio.
Creative Artists, which Mr. Kvamme said also owned a stake in the venture, is already using the site to promote its clients. Michael Yanover, the head of business development for Creative Artists, said that he had approached Mr. Ferrell and his colleagues about creating a video featuring Oscar De La Hoya ahead of his May 5 fight against Floyd Mayweather.
They agreed and, in 30 minutes, shot a video, “The Fight After the Fight,” which has been viewed more than 185,000 times as of yesterday.
“Basically he got a commercial that someone else financed and shot,” Mr. Yanover said.
But Mr. McKay warns that any videos that smack of Hollywood manipulation are going to be a turnoff to visitors. “That’s when a site starts smelling bogus,” he said.