Three years or so ago, Mark Gantt found himself dissatisfied with the way his acting career was progressing. In fact, it was barely inching forward. His girlfriend had booked a film and a TV pilot, but Gantt was spinning his wheels, unable to get many auditions or meetings with casting directors. His one dependable creative outlet was his acting classes at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
One day a woman in class complained that her career was, like Gantt’s, stalled, while her sister was booking work regularly. The teacher, Allen Barton, advised, “You’ve just got to build your own door and walk through it.”
Barton’s edict touched a nerve with Gantt, setting him on a course that would result in a starring role in an original web series and feature film, both entitled The Bannen Way. Gantt would play Neil Bannen, a suave chick-magnet of a thief who finds himself torn between the examples set by his chief-of-police father and his criminally inclined uncle.
It hit me that I knew how to make films…
Gantt says of the moment he decided to produce original content. “I’ve been on sets and I actually directed a couple of shorts and some music videos back in 2003 and 2004. So I knew how to create stuff.”
Gantt had begun working in the industry in 1991, starting as a production assistant, then a driver, and finally an assistant prop master. He had developed a pattern in which six months each year were devoted to prop-department work and six to his acting and other creative pursuits. Now he was ready to push forward fulltime with the latter.
He found a collaborator, writer/actor/director Jesse Warren, who already had a script in development featuring an early version of the Bannen character. Warren had shown Gantt the script six months earlier, remarking that Gantt was a perfect match for the part of Bannen. “And, of course, as the actor, I was like, ‘I’m all over that. Let’s make it!’”
Originally, Gantt and Warren planned to make a short film or a promotional trailer for a feature. But eventually they decided Bannen might be at home on the Internet: “We realized we could do the short-film route and possibly get into a film festival—Sundance or something—and come back and still not have any kind of movement…. Somebody had talked about the web, about web series and ‘mobisodes’ on Verizon. So we Googled ‘web series’ and looked at some of the shows. There wasn’t a lot of great stuff out there. We thought, ‘Wow, we could really kind of dominate this!’”
Gantt and Warren had a target audience in mind from the beginning: the “A.D.D. generation”—young men fascinated with technology, fast cars, and the aggressively voluptuous women of Maxim magazine and Maxim Online. The team was inspired by “The Hire,” a series of short online films starring Clive Owen that were used to promote BMW autos. Gantt and Warren also took a page from such film directors as Steven Soderbergh, Guy Ritchie, and Shane Black. “The Bannen Way” is not pure “comic book,” Gantt says. But it definitely has a more heightened reality than a lot of onscreen dramas.
There were also some autobiographical elements in the scripts. Gantt had grown up with a father in law enforcement and, like Bannen, he’d found himself getting in trouble as a young man.
The creative duo hoped to shoot content that could be configured both as a web series and a feature film. They realized, however, that the original “Bannen” script needed sprucing up in order to work in any format. They met daily, hammering out ideas for characters and a storyline.
“The first couple months, we were coming up with a lot of ideas, but didn’t understand how to do a web series,” says Gantt. For instance, there was the issue of episode length. Some web episodes they’d seen were a single minute long, some were five minutes. And exactly how much content should they produce? “Six episodes? Ten episodes? There was really no format, [as with] a TV series, where you could say, ‘This is what we’re gonna do: 13 episodes or 22 episodes.’”
Knowing they were also creating a feature film actually helped Gantt and Warren determine content for particular episodes in the series. They knew, say, that the conclusion of ‘Act I’ of the feature would coincide with episode 7 of the series.
With the first six episodes scripted, the duo launched a “pitch website” online that included Maxim-esque images and a headline with a photo of Gantt looking over his shoulder in full Bannen mode: cool and confident. The site even included information on where to buy the chill Ray-Ban sunglasses Gantt would sport onscreen. Still, at that point, not a frame of “Bannen Way” footage had been shot.
The pitch site helped drum up interest in the project on the part of potential viewers, but potential investors were not persuaded, says Gantt. “They said, ‘On the web, nobody’s making something that costs as much as this is gonna cost.’ They said that if there was a name like ‘Clooney’ or ‘Soderbergh” attached, it might be a different story.”
Gantt confesses that, at that point, he and Warren were both depressed for a few weeks. “Then I said, ‘Fuck it. Let’s just shoot the first two episodes.’” They embarked on a four-day shoot, with some of their actor friends taking on supporting roles. Then, in September 2008, they released a trailer on a redesigned website. Before long, an agent whom they had been courting at ICM saw the trailer and told them, “I love it. Let’s sell it.”
That was it: Buzz about “The Bannen Way” began to pick up. Several parties were interested in buying the show. Gantt and Warren decided to go with Sony, because of the company’s specific marketing plan: “They had the vision of a feature film that they could sell traditionally on all the other platforms, and also have as a web series with their own network.”
Sony mandated that certain roles be recast, so the whole series needed to be shot again from the beginning. It was painful for Gantt and Warren to tell certain actors from the pilot that they were being replaced. But business was business.
Gantt felt at one point that he himself should step down as lead actor and merely work as a producer. But once he arrived on the set for the 19-day shoot in October 2009 (with Warren directing), he was glad he had resisted the impulse. “The first day I showed up, I was in heaven. It was completely satisfying.” And when the finished feature screened at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, Gantt was perhaps even happier. “I realized then that, before that night, I’d only been onscreen in a feature film in a movie theatre for 15 seconds. To see me up there, in 75 of the 90 minutes…was overwhelming.”
The first four seven-minute episodes of version of “Bannen” launched online on January 10, 2010 with the remaining twelve episodes released subsequently, one day at a time. The series remained on crackle.com for 10 weeks with 13 million views. Meanwhile, customers interested in the feature version could purchase it via I-Tunes and Amazon. The DVD was released in July.
The success of “Bannen” proved heartening to Gantt and Warren. The web series won a number of awards at the 2010 Streamy Awards for excellence in online programming, including citations as best dramatic series and best actor in a drama (for Gantt). The show was also nominated for two Webby Awards. But after a brief period of basking in acclaim, it was back to the hard work of pavement pounding and strategy building for future projects.
Having now passed through the metaphoric door that Allen Barton had advised building, Gantt finds that new portals are opening for him as well. He has been booking many more auditions and meetings with casting people than he did pre-“Bannen.” He’s now working as director for a soon-to-be-announced branded web series. And he and Warren have a half dozen other projects in the hopper. Meanwhile, he has begun conducting workshops for other actors who want to work in New Media.
As for “Bannen,” Gantt and Warren are now shopping it to networks as a potential television series. The idea would be to condense the content of the feature into the first episode and then extend the saga of Neil Bannen from there, with the antihero protagonist continuing to be pulled like taffy by his law-enforcing father and his criminal uncle.
And if networks don’t buy the series? Then he and Warren will likely do a second season of “The Bannen Way” online.