Someone sees a funny video on a Web site and e-mails the link to his friends. Those friends send it to their friends, and so on.
Like an outbreak of the flu, the video spreads. Only, instead of aches and sneezes, it brings laughs for viewers and maybe some cash for small-time filmmakers.
It's called viral marketing, and it's catching on. If you have a digital video camera and an imagination, you can be a filmmaker with an Internet audience. It's easy, and at least for now, it's free.
Alfred Thomas Catalfo, a New Hampshire lawyer and writer/director, made the 35-minute-long "The Norman Rockwell Code" with borrowed equipment. He then persuaded a local Internet server to host the parody of "The Da Vinci Code" for free.
Catalfo also put a three-minute "Rockwell" trailer on YouTube, a free Internet film-sharing site that directed Web traffic to www.thenormanrockwellcode.com to see the entire film. By June, the cute and clean film made glitzy Entertainment Weekly magazine's The Must List (Ten Things We Love This Week).
Just as he had hoped, Catalfo says he has had some Hollywood interest in this and other films made by his Big Cannoli Pictures. He doesn't know if this means "Rockwell" will make it big, "but there is always the possibility."
The Internet is making it easier for a legion of filmmakers to have their work seen, possibly hooking the notice of a production company that can put money behind future works, said Jeffrey Rohrs, president of Optiem, a Cleveland interactive marketing firm.
"The Internet can get them over the hump to get their film to an audience," said Rohrs, who is also a screenwriter with a law degree. "For the creators, it's the new resume."
What comes next in the Internet marketplace? According to Rohrs, filmmakers might charge a buck to view their films or sell T-shirts and other movie-related merchandise.
Johnny Wu, a Cleveland filmmaker, started putting short films on the Internet in 1998. Since 2002, he has collected "$300 or $400" in royalty checks from advertisers on www.atomfilms.com, the Web network on which his sci-fi work "The Chase" has appeared.
"I never expected to get anything for it," said Wu about the three-minute film about a guy chasing a girl on a city street and her two rescuers.
Wu hopes the fan base built through free Internet showings of his short films will prove to film companies that his new feature-length movie, "The Rapture," is worth investing in.
He'll build hype for the film, to be shot in July, by putting teasers on the Internet while he is taking the 90-minute movie to producers. "If I weren't an Internet-savvy person, I would have a much harder time promoting my film," said Wu, who is a computer network administrator by day.
Comedy films such as "The Norman Rockwell Code" have the best chance of drawing an Internet audience, said Douglas Craver, an adviser for Knotice, an Akron, Ohio-based technology company.
"Any time you can find something that makes you laugh or smirk, it makes the day a little more exciting," he said.
The time will come, Craver predicts, when leading film companies will invite amateurs to make parodies of theater-released films before individual filmmakers such as Catalfo take the initiative. "It would be a very cost-effective marketing vehicle," Craver said.
Meanwhile, the Internet might allow small filmmakers on a budget - such as Catalfo - to make big money if they are talented.
"Is he the next Michael Moore? I don't know," said Craver, comparing Catalfo with the independent filmmaker who took on General Motors and the National Rifle Association. Moore's scathing "Roger and Me" and "Bowling for Columbine" became feature hits without the advantages of viral Internet marketing.
"But if Michael Moore was getting started today," said Craver, "I guarantee he would go this route."