Mickey Mouse and Goofy are chatting online. You can see them in their respective homes, cartoon hands typing away as music plays in the background. E-mails and thoughts pop up like bubbles in a comic book. Click where prompted, and you’re watching dissolves, flashbacks, screen wipes, and other animated special effects.
Welcome to interactive fun, Web-style. And it’s just one peek at what’s coming from many movie studios in what can now, officially, be dubbed the second wave of online entertainment. Learning lessons from all those failed online soap operas and Microsoft Network “shows” of years past, entertainment conglomerates are ambitiously relaunching their sites: Disney recently unveiled the new and improved Disney.com, Sony Pictures Entertainment plans to showcase a fully redesigned TV and film network in May, and Warner Bros. (owned by EW parent Time Warner) is gearing up to launch the paradigm-busting Entertaindom this summer. For all of these companies, it’s time to showcase advances in streaming sound and images, boost shopping and community options, and ultimately create one-stop-entertainment cul-de-sacs.
“It’s all in one place,” says Ken Goldstein, senior VP and general manager of Disney Online. “We’re now organized more the way the guest thinks about the Disney experience.” He’s referring to the new Disney.com, which has rolled in the Blast Online fee-based kids’ club that had previously occupied a separate site. Now animated “channels” help surfers find the latest on Tarzan, shop for Disney gifts, book Disney World vacations, and even learn how to draw Simba. Meanwhile, the Go Network search engine (Go.com), a joint venture between Disney and InfoSeek, sits on top of every page waiting to whisk you elsewhere in the magic kingdom.
Sony has a similar game plan. “Part of our network philosophy is to give people choices,” explains Lynda Keeler, VP and general manager of Columbia TriStar Interactive/Sony Pictures Entertainment. “[Down the road] we want to make sure they can get Lauryn Hill, buy a cool PlayStation game, and maybe buy a DVD player. People will come because they love Dawson’s Creek, but they may stay because there are other sites that they like.” Plenty of choices, in other words — as long as they’re all Sony.
Warner Bros. Online’s Entertaindom is taking a vastly more ambitious approach. Promising to host more than just WB-owned content (e.g., Bugs Bunny, ER, Seinfeld), the new site will broadcast original Web-only shows produced by Warner — as well as other studios. “If it’s good, we’ll take a show from Sony or Disney or anyone else,” says Jim Banister, executive vice president of Warner Bros. Online. “You’d be surprised who’s approaching us.” The buzz phrase here is “vertical entertainment hub,” but Entertaindom is really just taking a leaf from the network-TV playbook. “It’s like the WB network: Felicity comes from Disney and Dawson’s Creek from Columbia and Buffy from Fox,” says Jim Moloshok, president of WB Online.
First on the agenda is Drive-On.com, slated to launch with Entertaindom. Shrouded in secrecy, the “first original broadband episodic program on the Internet” will incorporate not only audio and video but text, animation, and 3-D graphics. In many of the new shows, Warner Bros. will showcase character-driven animation instead of actors (think South Park), since video is still too bulky to stream easily; it will also encourage viewer-created home pages that interact with the show.
Community, clearly, is big in the new online studios. Warner has already seen 250,000 people join AcmeCity.com, an offshoot of Entertaindom that launched in January, where fans can build free sites around favorite properties from The Wizard of Oz to The Rosie O’Donnell Show. Disney.com has its own community-building features such as chats, message boards, and an upcoming instant-messaging device, due out by summer, called Disney’s BlastPad.
Not everyone buys into the entertainment portal idea, though. Viacom remains staunchly decentralized, with parent site Viacom.com catering to the financial community and the press; MTV and Nickelodeon operate on their own online, as does the Star Trek site (http://www.startrek.com). Still, Viacom is introducing two new sites this year: the Buggles Project, a code name for the new music site launching in June, will be an extension of VH1 and MTV that offers news, reviews, radio, shopping, concert tickets, chats, and message boards. And Project Nozzle, an extension of Nickelodeon online that debuts in September, will be a free kids’ site with all the games and community features it can cram in.
Okay, they’re building some beautiful ballparks, but will anybody come? To Hollywood’s chagrin, no one can predict what, online or off, will “drive teenage girls to see Titanic seven times in a row,” as Banister puts it. “We all have very different perspectives on this,” says Sony’s Keeler, “but we all agree that 1999 could be the year that [online] entertainment becomes a little more relevant and real. As you know, the Web never sleeps.” And neither does Hollywood.