Are movie bloggers part of weblogging's natural evolution, or just a sign that another cool Net thing has been co-opted?

Published February 24, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

Helen Jane Yeager stands on the sidewalk in a gritty section of downtown Los Angeles checking the flash on her digital camera. A few stories above her, the German actress Franka Potente shoots the last of her scenes for an independent film called "I Love Your Work."

If Potente is alone when she emerges from the building, it will be a cinch to get a snapshot with the actress, best known as the red-haired heroine of "Run Lola Run." But if the film's line producer is anywhere in sight, Yeager will be out of luck.

"I'm not supposed to bother the actors," she said. "They're in character ... don't ask them questions ... they're busy."

Yeager could easily be mistaken for a film buff with a weakness for German indie actresses, but the 27-year-old graphic designer is actually the latest incarnation of Hollywood's P.R. machine -- the official movie blogger. Part journalist, part copywriter, Yeager is finding out that being a pioneer movie weblogger presents myriad challenges, not the least of which is how to stay true to the form.

Yeager's gig is a clear sign that blogging is becoming more mainstream than ever. Software such as Blogger (purchased by Google in February), Movable Type and UserLand has given anyone with a dogged interest in anything -- from Iraq to Britney Spears -- a soapbox from which to broadcast his or her thoughts. Communities of webloggers, dashing off ideas and sharing links, can spring up overnight and grow with just a double mouse click on the Respond button.

But is blogging ready for its close-up?

"It can be done well or done horribly," said Meg Hourihan, the co-founder of Blogger, who has been maintaining her own site, Megnut, since 1999. "If everything that is interesting about a weblog is stripped away, or put in P.R. speak, there will be anger on the part of webloggers for the commercialization of something they hold pretty dear."

Blogger Peter Merholz, who has also been online at PeterMe.com since 1999, takes a more purist perspective. "It sounds to me like Hollywood trying to co-opt what those kids are doing," he said. "And we all point and laugh because they don't get it."

So what kind of weblog can come out of an industry notorious for controlling, packaging and airbrushing every ounce of information fed to the public? By definition, weblogs are immediate, honest and unfiltered. The question is: Can Hollywood blog?

If Yeager's one photo attempt is any indication, bringing these two worlds together may take some old-fashioned Hollywood magic. When Potente finally appears in the doorway, the line producer is dutifully following two steps behind. He rushes past Yeager, helps Potente into the white van waiting for them, and they disappear.

"I knew that was going to happen," Yeager said.

The idea for an "I Love Your Work" weblog originated with one of the film's producers, Cyan Pictures, an indie film company in New York run by 20-somethings Joshua Newman, Yoav Fisher and Colin Spoelman. Newman, an avid blogger, used the format on Cyan's Web site to keep friends, potential investors and his parents abreast of the company's progress.

When Cyan began shooting its first short film, Newman tried to blog about it, but soon found that there wasn't enough time for sleeping and going to the bathroom, let alone writing. With "I Love Your Work" gearing up for filming, the three partners decided to try blogging again, only this time they would hire someone to do it for them.

Newman and his partners wanted someone who understood blogging and could write for an audience without sounding like a P.R. shill. "We were like, let's hire someone who doesn't seem mean and vindictive enough to destroy us all, but then following that, let's give her as much autonomy as possible," he said. "It was actually Colin who thought of Helen Jane."

Newman met Yeager when they were contestants in a game called Blind Date Blog, and he, Fisher and Spoelman became fans of her blog, Helenjane.

Persuading Yeager to accept payment for hanging out on a movie set for six weeks was easy. Persuading everyone else involved with "I Love Your Work" to open the set to a blogger was a little more complicated.

"I still think we have absolutely no idea what anybody is going to say," said Newman. "There is no precedent for this."

To make matters worse, Hollywood and the Internet have an uneasy history. In the late 1990s, renegade movie fan sites like Harry Knowles' Ain't It Cool News began reporting on costly shooting delays, difficult actors and key plot points.

But when the "Blair Witch Project" Web site (now defunct) helped the low-budget horror flick gross more than $140 million at the U.S. box office, the industry had to take notice. Now movie Web sites are as ubiquitous in Hollywood as cellphones.

But for most of the people associated with "I Love Your Work," a blog was still an alien concept. The only part they understood was that an outsider would be poking around on the set. There would have to be some ground rules.

At this point, Yeager has heard the rules so many times, she can spit them out like a cadet in training: Behave, stay out of the way, don't mess with the actors in between takes, be quiet, and turn off your cellphone during filming.

But most sacred is the no-gossip rule. Torrid love affairs, bickering producers and on-set temper tantrums are not to be reported, Yeager said. In other words, anything that could make a People magazine editor wet his pants is off-limits.

"If there's an actor or producer acting inappropriately, I couldn't write about it, really," she said. "Or anything that would make anyone look unprofessional. Pretty much if I have a question about if it's a good idea, I don't write about it."

She has shared her lighter with actor Giovanni Ribisi, talked about her wedding plans with Christina Ricci, and assessed the quality of the catering company's salads with model Shalom Harlow.

"And that's stuff I can include," said Yeager.

Yeager has also captured some of the everyday melodrama that comes out of moviemaking. For example, Potente accidentally overstayed her U.S. tourist visa. The German actress had to leave for Canada, giving director Adam Goldberg less time than expected to finish filming her scenes. This happened during a period when everyone was running on barely any sleep, and Goldberg was subsisting on coffee and cigarettes.

"You don't have to talk smack to find a good story," Yeager said.

But even with rules and guidelines, the blog still had its detractors, not the least of whom was the director. To calm Goldberg's nerves, Cyan agreed that he could look over everything Yeager wrote before it was published. But then Christina Ricci's publicist said she wanted approval, too. As did the other producers of the film. So Newman wound up with a long list of people who all had to read (and be able to edit) the blog content.

With Yeager churning out four double-spaced pages each night, it wasn't long before there was a serious backlog. Although the "I Love Your Work" blog was supposed to launch on Jan. 20, two weeks into shooting, it didn't actually make it to the Web until almost three weeks later. And Yeager hasn't given Newman the last of the content.

There are other bugs to be worked out, too. Newman isn't sure how Cyan will sustain interest in "I Love Your Work" between the time the blog ends and the film comes out, perhaps a year or more down the road.

Meanwhile, since the blog launched on Feb. 13, traffic has been growing. After a week, ILoveYourWork.com was visited by 3,800 readers, up from 178 its first day. If all goes as planned, Cyan hopes the blog's numbers will help the film hook a sweeter distribution deal and get readers curious enough to remember to see "I Love Your Work" when it comes out in theaters.

As for Yeager, the success of this experiment might open the door for her and other blog enthusiasts to turn a hobby into a moneymaking career.

"You get sent on a crazy adventure and you get to write about it," she said. "How cool is that?"

As long as it's honest and articulate, whatever type of blog comes out of the Hollywood machine will be cause for excitement among bloggers, Hourihan of Megnut says. "It's a great extension of weblogs into another space," she said. "People are going to talk about it, certainly for being first."

By Alisa Weinstein

Alisa Weinstein is a freelance writer and student at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley.

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