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After American Movie

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Mark Borchardt, the lovable lunk who stars in the documentary American Movie, is one of the more memorable embodiments of the midwestern work ethic to penetrate the media in recent years. In the 1999 cult hit, the barely employed Menomonee Falls native struggles with an ailing and unsupportive crank of an uncle, the unwed mother of his children, a tiny talent pool, and an endearing lack of Hollywood savvy to make a direct-to-video horror flick called Coven, which in turn is supposed to finance the completion of Northwestern, the semiautobiographical feature he's been working on since high school. Director Chris Smith and his frequent collaborator, producer Sarah Price, don't romanticize or sugarcoat the story, but neither do they mock their subject. It's obvious that in many ways they identify with Borchardt's determination.

American Movie won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. Since then Smith and Price have completed two more documentaries--Price's Caesar's Park, about the pair's Milwaukee neighborhood, and Smith's Home Movie, which took him back to Sundance this year. But with their latest endeavor--ZeroTV.com, a compellingly bizarre Web site that presents episodic shows, short films, and interactive music, trivia, and comics--they're back in Mark Borchardt's shoes, hatching entertaining schemes for no one's benefit but their own.

ZeroTV is actually the project of Smith and Price's larger artistic community--a core of about a dozen filmmakers, artists, and musicians, plus a dozen more like-minded friends and associates. Everybody does a little bit of everything; nothing is the exclusive province of anyone. "We've always been interested in collaboration and how much more powerful ideas can be when there's a bunch of people involved," says Scott Reeder, a creator of ZeroTV's self-parodic soap opera Milwaukee. "Whether or not it turns into anything big, the possibility that people are seeing it just spurs people on."

Smith says the site was inspired by the success of Americanmovie.com, which was getting more than 10,000 hits a day and has helped Borchardt sell more than 4,500 copies of Coven. And in fact the best feature on ZeroTV is Mark and Mike, a show that follows the continuing adventures of Borchardt and his burnout sidekick, guitarist Mike Schank. In the 15 episodes up so far, the two tape their name to the new mailbox of Northwest Productions, persuade Mormon missionaries to help insert xeroxed covers into video copies of Coven, and meet with porn star Jasmin St. Claire.

But ZeroTV's other major franchise is Milwaukee. The plots, which revolve around the fictional Schlaptz Brewery and rarely resolve themselves, are peppered with moments of deadpan brilliance. In one episode, for instance, an off-duty brewery supervisor is traumatized when a stretch limo runs over his remote-control monster truck; in another, the company lawyer's dissatisfied girlfriend pleads with him at length to just once try...eating fish. At the end of the most recent bit, the entertainment at the local hipster watering hole announces, through layers of reverb, "Once again, I'm local pop star Bradley."

The site also includes interactive content like the Song Factory, where users submit lyrics to be put to music by the ZeroTV crew; the 58 songs produced so far include titles like "Everybody Loves Pickles," "Dear World, What Do You Think of Hot Dogs Now?" and "Tonight Is Not the Night." Both Price and Smith play in rock bands--Competitorr and the Friday Knights, respectively--and turn up on a number of these performances. Mental Challenge is a dadaist Cosmo quiz ("Would you rather drive a car called the Ford Mouse or the Chevy Pizza?" "If there was an edge of the earth, would you rather fall off wearing a garbage bag or just leg warmers?"), and Add-a-Panel allows the user to contribute to a never-ending comic strip.

"The Mark and Mike show was one of our original ideas," says Smith, sitting on a beat-up couch in Bluemark Studio, the loft where he and Price put American Movie together and which houses ZeroTV's operations. "We had been thinking about doing the first on-line sequel to a movie....We were excited about being able to capture that energy and put it into something else." Last summer they and their friends, some of whom had worked on their other projects, began sketching out the site, and by October ZeroTV had gone on-line.

"We decided not to do a launch," says Smith. "We just put it up quietly and tried to let people find it. We didn't want to be put in a situation of setting people's expectations and then have to live up to that. We thought it would be better if people just discovered it."

While the crew has begun to generate some income with Caveman Compression--its video compression business, an outgrowth of maintaining the site--ZeroTV is still a volunteer-run outfit that doesn't pay for itself. So far Smith's income from shooting TV commercials has taken care of most of the operating expenses. In the coming months the group hopes to attract advertisers to the site and will begin selling custom-made CDs culled from the Song Factory archives. There are also plans to sell DVDs that collect episodes of Milwaukee and Mark and Mike, and Smith hopes to mount "a version of the Home Shopping Network which will sell one-of-a-kind items." None of these plans seems likely to make anyone rich, of course.

"Like so many Web sites we had this mind-set where it had to succeed or fail within two months," says Reeder. "But now it seems like we can go two or even ten years if we can just meet the expenses. We're doing everything so cheaply. Everybody that works here is trying to figure out a way to scrape by, to have jobs that will allow the most time to do this. It's like being in a band. It's really fun and maybe it will turn into something."

Both Reeder and Smith cite geography as key to the survival and strength of the project. "I think one of the strengths of living in Milwaukee is that you capitalize on these weird things that happen instead of catching some wave, getting millions of dollars, and then having everyone get pissed off at each other and go broke," says Smith. "Some of the best times Sarah and I had were when we were struggling on American Movie--having 200 film cans on our porch because we couldn't afford to develop them. It was such a pain in the ass, but in hindsight it was part of the fun. It would be sad to see a bunch of money come in. When you don't make much money it's easy to live on nothing, but if you start making 25 or 30 thousand dollars a year it's suddenly not enough."

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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