Pop.com fizzles -- Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard's website has a big budget and bigger names, but not much else

It has $50 million, Hollywood’s biggest names — and nothing more than a seven-month-old splash page to show for it. Anxious onlookers are wondering: Has POP.com lost its fizz?

When DreamWorks heads Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg joined with Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard and financier Paul Allen last October to create original online ”pops” — short films and animations — they announced a spring 2000 premiere. But as the debut in May turned into a soft launch in mid-June — if then — heightened expectations turned into questions about whether POP.com would live up to its hype. The amount of hands-on direction the founders are providing is unclear, and despite media reports of discussions with Eddie Murphy, Julia Roberts, and Cameron Diaz, their publicists officially say none of the stars have cemented deals with the company yet. Meanwhile, POP.com has unsuccessfully opened talks to acquire at least four competitors, and is trying to strike content deals that one indie webisode creator said might be acceptable for a kid coming off the bus from Iowa.

”They feel they can get pretty much whatever they want because of who the founders are, but, to be frank, no one really cares,” says an online entertainment exec who is working with the company. ”They come out with big press releases about how much money they have and then don’t spend any.” A POP.com source claims they are offering competitive pay for content, but says people unfairly expect them to offer big-screen prices.

Such troubles aren’t unique: Almost all well-known media players who attempt to digitally enhance their companies have a hard time competing with upstarts that are free to take bigger risks and change their strategies quickly. Missing a launch date, too, is a given in the dot-com business. Still, plenty of Net properties, like Inside.com and AtomFilms, have been able to get a site up in under six months.

Competitors say POP.com’s bigger problem is its attempt to graft traditional industry business practices onto the Net. ”If you’re a major studio you have to look very closely at the risks you take in the online world,” says WireBreak.com CEO David Wertheimer. ”Because it reflects on everybody up and down the ladder.”

Spielberg et al. can’t afford to produce the kind of appallingly bad webisodes that appeared on the defunct Digital Entertainment Network. But there’s confusion over what the company is going to do. POP.com says it has 30 projects currently in production, and that someone with the last name of Howard is directing and hosting an animated show about celebrities’ dreams — POP.com says it’s Ron Howard, while Imagine Entertainment says it’s his brother, Clint. Still another source says that Ron Howard and Spielberg are directing under-five-minute shorts that will star Murphy, Diaz, or Steve Martin. Imagine sources, however, say that Howard is simply providing ideas for ”pops” that other directors helm. Is this a sign of confusion at the top — or just state-of-the-art secrecy?