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Web start-ups

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Web start-ups

The death of online content has been prematurely announced almost cyclically over the years, from the time the creators of the pioneering online soap The Spot went under to the recent string of shutdowns like Digital Entertainment Network and Reel.com. But while there would have been a lull in the past before the next round of start-ups was announced, the stock market’s downturn hasn’t stopped seasoned entertainment execs from sailing into the rough waters off the digital coast.

Among the new explorers are former Blair Witch Project website developer John Hegeman, whose DistantCorners (www.distantcorners.com) is a horror and sci-fi fan’s dream; Jennifer Lopez manager Benny Medina and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air co-creator Jeff Pollack, who have concocted a teen portal in Thirsty.com (www.thirsty.com); Pink Floyd and Nine Inch Nails producer Bob Ezrin, whose Enigma Digital (www.enigmadigital.com) includes six Net-radio and music community sites; and producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Maverick Records partner and co-CEO Guy Oseary, who are among those teaming up to create the original online entertainment showcase Z.com (www.z.com). The eclecticism of these sites shows not only that online entertainment is far from deceased but also that there are still some undeveloped regions in the Web universe. Unfortunately, not all of them are worth visiting.

Aside from having a large online sci-fi fan base to draw from, DistantCorners is among the most promising of the new entrants thanks to John Hegeman’s background: He greenlit the first promotional movie website ever (for MGM’s Stargate), gained attention for Showgirls with a hilarious virtual lap-dance game, built a site for Hackers that got hacked, and then shepherded the Blair Witch website to fame. Hegeman’s new project premiered this month and incorporates an online network with seven channels of original programming, one devoted specifically to new ideas from sci-fi and horror creators like Judge Dredd scriptwriter John Fasano. A partnership with Revolution Studios, headed by former Disney chief Joe Roth, gives DistantCorners a production arm to turn new programming on the site into films or TV shows.

Traveling in almost the exact opposite direction — from traditional media onto the Web — is Z.com, which offers a mix of official sites for Tyra Banks, Ellen DeGeneres, and Oliver Stone, as well as a string of tepid original shows. Despite its high-profile backers, the site, which is in a soft-launch test phase, looks like it was designed by someone’s high-school-age nephew, and the programming isn’t much better. Don’t expect the kind of hits these powerhouse execs produce offline — unless there’s some untapped demand for animated series about rock bands made of rotten fruit. The gross-out game show Dare for Dollars does have potential, but watching someone sit in a tub full of bugs for $2,500 isn’t that much more exciting than seeing Ramona eat rat meat on Survivor.

Thirsty.com, a teen-targeted lifestyle portal, seems even less impressive at first glance, especially when Booty Call director Jeff Pollack describes his programming strategy as ”content is product and product is content.” But it turns out that Pollack and cofounder Benny Medina have a rather tasty strategy. Thirsty.com, which officially launches in August, is home to lifestyle-specific genre sites — rave, wrestling, extreme sports — that will mix news, community, and commerce. Each section is staffed by seasoned fans who will now have access to Pollack and Medina’s artist-management and production company, Handprint Entertainment. If the duo can port their pop-culture acumen to the Web, they’ll have a chance of surviving where many others have failed.

A similar pop-culture organizing tactic shapes Bob Ezrin’s Enigma Digital, an umbrella company for heavy metal site KNAC.com, neo-lounge music shrine LuxuriaMusic (www.luxuriamusic.com), electronica station Groove Radio (www.grooveradio.com), modern Christian music site Acaza (www.acaza.com), band discovery zone Artist Underground (www.aumusic.com), and underground hip-hop nexus Curbserver (www.curbserver.com). The sites, which have opened quietly over the past year, are shaped by the like-minded people they attract — KNAC.com, for example, is run by heavy metal enthusiasts who take requests for the radio feed, dive into the message-board debates, and introduce users to new music. Soon, visitors will start posting content for the rest of the audience. ”When you get them all together, they create things,” says Ezrin. ”They begin to develop content that we never could have dreamed of.” That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good, but you get the point — even if webisodes and short films are voted off the island, online entertainment is here to stay.

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