October 1, 2000

Real Player: The Gantz Brothers Bring Reality to the Web

When Taxicab Confessions premiered on HBO in 1995, normally cynical television reviewers from coast to coast tossed around words like “riveting,” “fascinating,” and “an amazing wild ride.” The show, in which hidden cameras document conversations between cabbies and their passengers, went on to win an Emmy later that year. Subsequent episodes have aired to similar praise, and audiences can’t seem to get enough of the gritty peek at human nature. In fact, the five years since Confessions debuted have seen a mass proliferation of so-called reality television, from the traditional documentary style of A&E’s Inside Story to the reality-as-game-show of CBS’s superhit Survivor. And if that’s not enough, there’s even the bizarre meta-reality of England’s The Making of Big Brother.

Now Joe and Harry Gantz, the filmmaker brothers responsible for Taxicab Confessions, have again placed themselves squarely in the vanguard of reality programming. With the “Internet network” Crushed Planet (www.crushedplanet.com), the brothers Gantz are taking on the limitless frontier of the World Wide Web, offering a mix of live streaming content and more traditional edited fare. From raunchy stand-up to their high-tech spin on the webcam, the Gantzes are attempting to offer programming they couldn’t do on traditional networks.

“When we were in San Francisco,” says Joe Gantz, “my brother and I used to joke that we were making Internet programming before there was an Internet--that kind of quirky, small project that’s weird and interesting and provocative. When we moved down to LA, we started doing more mainstream things. It wasn’t always optimal. We wanted to be creatively free to make it interesting, or unusual, and to follow that to the creative end we were interested in.”

But it was more than a desire for artistic freedom that led the brothers to the Web. Though their recognition has increased, they still find it all but impossible to negotiate even part ownership in the projects they create for the networks.

“In television,” Joe says, “you can come up with a concept, pitch it to somebody, spend a year of your life working on it, and have zero ownership in it. That’s not really the exception, it’s more the rule.”

In one recent negotiation with a major cable network, the brothers sought the internet rights to a program they created. “We said, we’ll take the rights six months to a year after it’s aired on the network. If you look at the amount of viewers we have, compared to theirs, it’s nothing to be afraid of, but the most they would give us was two one-minute clips at the time of airing. Basically, they were asking us to do promotional clips on our network.” So committed are the brothers to ownership that they passed on the deal.

Crushed Planet offers five programming options, and plans are underway to create more. Chief among the current crop is the webcam-inspired First Apartment. This “live, unedited documentary” is a round-the-clock look into the lives of Jason and Crystal, a horny and argumentative young couple living in San Francisco and enjoying the freedom of humping in any room without fear of getting caught. Never mind that Mom and Dad might be watching. For $5.99 a month, viewers can catch the drama at any hour of the day or night (juicy highlights air when the couple is asleep or out of the apartment).

Crushed Planet’s other shows are available at no charge and will contain interstitial advertising, as on the traditional networks. Among these are a stand-up comedy hour taped in gritty South Central LA; a vérité look at a group of urban youth; a study of couples arguing; and a show that takes the Gantz’s signature hidden camera out into the world. The last, Eavesdropping, like The War on Comedy, offers new installments regularly. 24/7, Crushed Planet’s answer to The Real World, is a series of taped and edited episodes following five Harlem twentysomethings over the course of one week. Rounding out the schedule are short vignettes from the brothers’ first project, 1985's Couples Arguing.

Joe Gantz admits that it’s tough to find time for Crushed Planet among their other projects, namely the latest installment of Confessions, and a feature documentary on swingers entitled Sex with Strangers. Still, he and brother Harry are well-aware that their mainstream work is bankrolling the website, at least for now.

“When we started in January, we got caught up in the whole dot.com craze. We were a bit naive to think we could make money in a year. I think we’re talking about two, maybe three years.”

In the meantime, the brothers are considering new programs. They hope to exhibit other directors’ work alongside their own one day, and would even like to expand beyond nonfiction programming. Surely, this is one network that’s more than willing to give filmmakers a stake in the action.

 

Jason Lyon is a documentary producer and freelance film publicist. His film Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me was recently named on Outstanding Documentart of 1999 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scieces Documentary Screening Committee. 

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