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.”
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Serving under Wong at Imagineering, and his likely replacement had he stayed on, was DiNunzio, who is now heading up the hot start-up Z.com, out of Pasadena‘s IdeaLab incubator. Says DiNunzio “Our people are from film, Internet, interactive theme parks . . . what ties them together is the idea that we’re pioneers. It‘s a great opportunity for creative freedom.”
Z bought Comedy.com and is showing a slate of original programs, including streaming media documentaries of Ellen DeGeneres, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Alanis Morissette. Z, which officially launches in September, already has a hit show in Dare for Dollars, essentially another European-import-type game show where people do gross stuff for money, like lie in a tub full of bugs or chug down milk to the point it comes back up. It’s neither particularly creative nor original — so, of course, it‘s a runaway smash that’s likely to be syndicated for television.
Z‘s new animated series The Prom Queens has more heart. The show follows three young women from the University of Wisconsin as they launch a band in Los Angeles. With music by singer-songwriter Joan Jones, the comedy-drama also features a section that resembles a real band site, although fans of The Spot may recognize the Web verite of fake characters conducting “real” lives online.
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During an early draft of this article, Venice’s WireBreak.com was a “digital destination.” If you were Wirebreak‘s target 18–34 male audience member, you somehow got past a nearly impenetrable interface to watch original, mostly comedic shorts created for the Net. Now WireBreak has gone for a wholesale model, syndicating its shows to other, higher-profile sites.
WireBreak chairman and CEO, former Paramount Digital Entertainment president David Wertheimer, is the Moses of the Internet Exodus, glorying in having left the desert of studio bureaucracy in 1998: “It takes years to do things at a studio that you can do in a start-up in a week. A studio has too many things to consider and too many people to run it by — there are sign-offs, approvals, lots and lots of stuff. We made the decision to move into the syndication business in about a week, and within two weeks we had re-launched our Web site.”
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Matti Lesham of West L.A.’s AntEye.com believes the Net expands the talent search beyond the 101 freeway. “Hollywood‘s stuff is created from a programmatic environment,” he says. “They plug in variations of what’s already there. But I‘ve looked at submissions from all over the country, and the stuff that’s good is a different kind of good from what‘s good in Hollywood.” AntEye ran a talent contest and garnered an eclectic group of creatives, from festival-winning independent filmmakers, to puppeteers, to truly amateur filmmakers. “I think we spent seven dollars,” said one director.
Lesham’s staff will work with his winners for six weeks, and, at the end, perhaps something serendipitous will have been created. Trying to explain, winner Paul Fuchs said, “We don‘t know what we’re expected to want.” His words could stand as a rallying cry for the industry.
Like many sites, AntEye is showcasing user-submitted short films. Audience favorites will be looked at by AntEye executives for possible Web-development deals.
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Not surprisingly, Icebox.com, headed by a former ICM agent, believes Hollywood can find talent. “There may be a handful of people who are overlooked, but not thousands — the next Shaquille O‘Neal isn’t hiding,” says Icebox CEO Steve Stanford. Stanford, however, believes that the talent to sign is not the celebrities but the people who make them, i.e., writers and program creators. Icebox just signed an exclusive three-year agreement with John Kricfalusi, creator of Nickelodeon‘s seminal The Ren and Stimpy Show and founder of Spumco, the Glendale-based animation company that was first to produce a cartoon series created exclusively for the Internet.
It’s hard to argue with Stanford‘s reliance on proven talent after you’ve seen Icebox‘s Zombie College, created by Futurama writer-producer Eric Kaplan. It’s gross and funny as hell, and even a little tender — kind of an animated Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets a really, really sick episode of South Park. And of course, between the first and final drafts of this article, it abruptly went on hiatus until September (old episodes are still online). Starship Regulars, a show created by Icebox co-founder (and The Simpsons co–executive producer) Rob LaZebnik, recently sold to Showtime.
But for a site that showcases some of the best of the new bunch, Icebox also features two of the worst: Hard Drinkin‘ Lincoln, a painfully obvious attempt to be outrageous (Lordy, when is this trend going to end?), and, most infamously, Mr. Wong, a mind-bogglingly offensive throwback to burlesque Asian characters. Despite protests, Icebox has left the series up. It remains a black hole that sucks up Icebox’s reputation for originality. Why present a stereotype so trite it makes Charlie Chan look cutting edge?
However unintentionally, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got one thing right when they decided to ban from Oscar consideration films that are distributed first on the Internet: Filmmakers thus far have treated the Internet merely as a new distribution medium, not as a new creative one. Neither the independent shorts nor the offerings from these new companies come close to the Net‘s long-sought Holy Grail of immersive entertainment, which is still best approximated in the gaming world, from text-based MUDs (multi-user-dungeons), to graphics-heavy newcomers such as Ultima Online and Everquest.
Too many of the new Net shows look like variations, if not rip-offs, of things that already exist: all edgy and different in the same way, with interfaces resembling CD-ROMs circa 1994. The mind-blowing stuff is coming from outside the U.S. The sites are minimalist, elegant, odd — they don’t look or react like every other damn thing you‘ve already seen. Check out London’s www.soulbath.com (press s when it asks). Instead of streamed video, it uses animation to create a hypnotic, interactive play space. “Overseas, they have the freedom to experiment,” says veteran Internet industry consultant Jeanine Parker. “We have the creativity, but the money wants its ROI [return on investment] now, which inhibits what we could and should be doing — we‘re ceding it to Europe because we’re greedy and risk-averse, both creatively and financially.”
It may be that the most creative person in Hollywood, however, will be whoever manages to finally “monetize” e-tainment. All the current companies are looking beyond advertising-based models; most want to sell properties to television and movies. Almost everyone agrees there are too many people trying to do the same thing. Says Creative Light Entertainment‘s Zakarin, “I would not be able to launch The Spot today. Now I need a partner to create a phenomenon.”
Count on some spectacular failures, count on at least one — or more — break-out hits. Count on consolidation. In other words, just re-read the early history of the movie industry. Except add one problem Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and their peers didn’t have to face: The audience has to bring its own projector and screen.#
Buzz Words for Bonzo
A Web Streaming Media Production
Plug-ins Required: Microsoft Windows Media Player or
RealMedia Real Video or Apple QuickTime
System Requirements:Pentium II 300 MHz or higher, Macintosh G3 or higher
Bandwidth Requirements: Broadband connection–cable modem, DSL, ISDN, T1
56K (thanks for your patience)28.8K (thanks for the laugh)
Buzz Words for Bonzo
INT. MOGUL‘S OFFICE — CIRCA 1935 — DAY
A 50ish MOGUL is sitting at his desk.
In a puff of cliche special effects, DotComGuy, 26, appears. He’s carrying a Sony VaIO laptop in one hand and a martini in the other.
I‘m DotComGuy! I’ve come from the future! In the New Economy, digital distribution will have disintermediated entertainment consumption.
What the hell is this crap?
We will re-monetize pop culture!
For crissakes, how the hell do you make money?
Those plans are still being contextualized.
You have no goddamn idea, do you? And what in hell is an apple slice doing in your martini?