By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The latest thing in Hollywood, apparently, is to leave Hollywood. Paramount, Warners, ICM, MTV -- name a place people used to kill to work, and executives are fleeing it for the greatest immunity challenge of all: founding an Internet start-up that will live longer than six months. Internet entertainment is hotter than the Valley in August. Just ask former Disney Imagineering executive Joe DiNunzio. His Burbank-based start-up Z.com has already been featured in the National Enquirer.
The lures are obvious: Internet greed, and the chance to pioneer a whole new art form, to be both D.W. Griffith and Louis B. Mayer. It‘s an all-star game. The world’s best pitchers, catchers and home-run hitters, people like Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, want in. The only problem is, no one has invented baseball yet.
John Hegeman helped jump-start the trend. Currently president and CEO of Distant Corners, a New York-- and L.A.-based Web site for fans of science fiction and other cult genres, Hegeman was last in charge of Internet marketing for the Blair Witch Project. “The success of Blair Witch wouldn‘t have been possible without the integration of the Internet into everyone’s everyday cultural experience,” Hegeman says. “It wasn‘t until the last year or so that people looked at it like their TV or their radio.”
But, as in Macbeth, it takes three witches to cast a spell. The second witch driving the boom is broadband, high-speed Internet connections that let video come over the Net in real time. Moving pictures, not text or that strange interactive stuff -- now that’s something Hollywood understands. In 1995, Scott Zakarin created The Spot, the first-ever online soap opera, with still pictures, audio and text. Says Zakarin, who now heads up independent production company Creative Light Entertainment, “It‘s starting all over again, because we have video.”
Finally, the weirdest sister of all: the stock-market alchemy that turned everything Internet into gold. But the April 14 NASDAQ crash -- and the realization that broadband wasn’t rolling out as fast as originally anticipated -- has both cynics and enthusiasts wondering if online entertainment will become a staple or just another trend, this season‘s Pashmina shawl: expensive, quickly outmoded and often consumed by bugs.
The I-told-you-so crowd was out in force last May when the Santa Monica--based Digital Entertainment Network (DEN) declared bankruptcy. But DEN’s reliance on streaming media at a time when there were barely two-and-a-half-million high-speed connections nationwide had industry death pools going even before its launch. As one former DEN staffer put it, “Streaming media on a modem blows.”
The naysayers also point to an earlier generation, circa 1995--97, of failed ventures like American Cybercast (AmCy), which bought The Spot from Zakarin and tried to create a full slate of programs for the Internet. Several other local companies, ranging from Venice‘s Interactive Fantasy Network to Culver City’s Digital Planet and Santa Monica‘s Cobalt Moon, also created fascinating experiments in Web entertainment which, like early silent films, are known only to veterans and buffs.
And even more than in the early days of filmmaking, these new companies are confronted by a technological challenge: Just how is this thus-far largely theoretical audience going to access its online entertainment? The problem goes beyond the obvious digital divide of who can and cannot afford a computer. Depending on age and income level, target-audience members could be using a desktop, laptop, cell phone, cell phone with video screen, PalmPilot, PalmPilot with wireless modem . . . not to mention pager, television with set-top box, and Internet-enabled videogame machine. And when there are already brand names on the Internet, how do you reach them with something brand new?
What follows are some standouts in the crowded local field of companies that are trying to do just that. They include everyone from MediaTrip, distributors of the wildly popular short film George Lucas in Love, to Romp, a raunchy Maxim magazine--style site headed by Michael Eisner’s son Eric. But don‘t hold us to any of the stuff the principals say -- there are brunches that last longer than some dot-com business models. As one CEO remarked about a former rival, “Last week those people were my direct competitors. This week they’re helping to promote my company.”
The award for buzz goes to pop.com, DreamWorks SKG and Imagine Entertainment‘s long-overdue online baby. When it launches (and there’s lots of talk that “when” is changing to “if”), Pop plans to offer original programming, including interactive entertainment, and shorts by independent filmmakers. At least one industry insider wonders what Pop‘s entrance will do to other sites with the same model, such as MediaTrip and industry leader AtomFilms: “Every single filmmaker will want to be on Pop because of the Spielberg connection. Where will that leave the rest of them?”
A story making the rounds is that DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg hired someone to surf the Web for him -- and watched his surf-surrogate on videotape. Yet the appointment of Kenneth Wong as CEO says that Pop‘s founders understand that “interactive entertainment” is a different beast. Wong’s last job was as president of Walt Disney Imagineering, where the mandate is to keep reinventing entertainment. “This is about envisioning something that doesn‘t exist,” says Wong. “It’s about the way you define the problem, rather than force a solution.”