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Why Spielberg's short film site went belly up

Digital entertainment sites spell trouble — not profits — for Hollywood, says Ty Burr

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Why Spielberg’s short film site went belly up

In the future, Tuesday, Sept. 5, may come to be remembered as the day that Hollywood finally admitted it doesn’t get the Net. I’m talking embarrassing, clueless, ”no matter how stylin’ my assistant’s goatee is I have no idea how to download an MP3,” desperate out to lunchness here. That’s the day that Pop.com tanked, laying off 70 of its 79 employees and leaving a lot of wannabe digital filmmakers in the lurch.

For those with hazy recall, Pop.com was started last October by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen of Dreamworks, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment, with hefty financial backing from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. The timing seemed propitious: Web stocks were blowing through the roof, short film sites like AtomFilms and iFilm were getting tons of press, and — for a few weeks at least — the phrase ”digital entertainment” actually sounded sexy. If snotty little kids wielding their dads’ digicams could reach viewers via the Web, why couldn’t the planet’s most powerful filmmakers and media moguls tap the entertainment industry’s players in similar fashion?

For a while, Pop.com looked like it was on the right track. Eddie Murphy, Julia Roberts, and Steve Martin were reportedly lining up to create or appear in short films — ”pops,” in the new company’s arch lingo — while contracts flew out to dozens of young, untested filmmakers. But the original spring 2000 launch date came and went with nothing showing up online. Offline, rumors circulated that Spielberg and company were having trouble getting quality content and commitments from their celeb pals. Worse, their dealings with aspiring filmmakers and rival Web broadcasting companies were reportedly high handed in the extreme. ”They feel they can get pretty much whatever they want because of who the founders are,” said one online entertainment exec this past June. ”But, to be frank, no one cares.”

Oh, well — if you wanted to throw your hubris around like a cement gunnysack, it certainly was the time, place, and bull market to do so. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t. In short order, tech stocks foundered, valuations dried up, and, as Hollywood realized that the broadband future wasn’t really arriving the day after tomorrow, ”digital entertainment” became, once again, a dirty phrase. Content sites began toppling like hollow houses of HTML: The Digital Entertainment Network closed shop, Scour.net is conducting massive layoffs — even the apparently savvy Shockwave.com, which has signed up David Lynch, Tim Burton, and ”South Park”’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone to create animated shorts, is now ”refocusing” on games and letting staffers go.

But Pop.com is clearly the biggest flop.com to date, and it underlines how difficult it is for a profitable, centralized industry like this country’s entertainment/ media oligarchy to come to grips with the fundamentally NONprofit, DEcentralized Internet. If anyone out there in La la land could bend the Web to their will, surely guys with names like Spielberg and Katzenberg and Howard could, right? But what does it say that they couldn’t get it together, while Mika Salmi was able to launch AtomFilms in under a year? Why was someone like Mike Ovitz seen as a visionary when he invested heavily in Scour.net a year ago and is now, after Napster has turned file sharing into the tool of the devil, seen as a deluded traitor to his own industry? What changed?

That’s easy: The entertainment community has realized, fully and finally, that once their goods go out over the Net, they can’t be controlled. The old rules — and the old rulers — don’t apply. Thus the RIAA’s suit against Napster, the MPAA’s suit against perceived DVD pirates, and the contracts that Pop.com had indie filmmakers sign, which tied up their work for seven long years. Where those films will go now that Pop has pooped is anyone’s guess. Perhaps Spielberg can use them as poker chips in his next game with Ovitz.

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