It started as a hobby years ago, when video game fans recorded their virtual shooting matches. Now Hollywood startup Machinima.com Inc. is trying to turn what had been a whimsical pastime into a money-making business.

"Machinima" is a niche genre of filmmaking that uses backdrops, characters and action from computer and video games instead of traditional animation. It's been popular among the initiated for instructional videos that teach video game players new tricks, and is now being used to make scripted short-subject films with dramatic plots, action scenes, and comedic banter worthy of a Judd Apatow movie.

For example, in a typical episode of the Machinima.com series "Arby n' the Chief," two of the main characters from the hit video game "Halo" swap insults and banter about topics in video game culture. The episodes typically run for seven to eight minutes.

Now Machinima.com is trying to professionalize the genre. And to do that, this new-media company has turned to some old media talent.

Machinima.com recently signed 15 experienced television writers, whose collective credits include "Cheers," "The Simpsons" and "The Late Show With David Letterman," to create original machinima shows for its Web site. Machinima.com executives hope some will attract large enough followings to turn into profitable franchises, and perhaps get enough buzz that they would become must-have properties for a cable channel such as Spike TV.

It's a trailblazing move for this small company, which has mostly relied on user-generated content and videos produced in-house by machinima-makers using clips from video games such as "The Sims" and the hit "Gears of War."

Machinima.com could also be the first company to combine the emerging genre of machinima with Hollywood-caliber talent on a large scale.

"It's certainly a significant step," said Paul Jackson, a London-based analyst with Forrester Research who tracks new media. "Getting professional writers raises the bar and makes it more likely it will jump to a broader audience appeal."

Machinima the term is a combination of "machine" and "cinema" appears poised for significant growth as the multibillion video game industry continues to boom. Advertising in video games is projected to draw $829 million this year and just shy of $1 billion by 2011, according to Emarketer Inc. (For comparison, total ad sales for the L.A. radio industry have been about $1 billion a year in recent years.)

That potential made it easy for professional writers to leap into machinima as an emerging mode of storytelling, said Patric M. Verrone, president of Writers Guild of America West and one of the 15 writers who signed up with Machinima.com.

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