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AOL ventures where others have failed: Hollywood

Meeting October 28, 1997
Web posted at: 3:20 p.m. EST (2020 GMT)

By Karen Kaplan

Over the last seven months, about 60 producers, artists, actors, computer programmers and others have been camped out in an avant-garde concrete building along Culver City, California's multimedia row, drinking Diet Coke and eating bagels and trying to do something that so far has stumped the best and brightest of Hollywood and Silicon Valley: Create a new genre of entertainment programming on the Internet.

Now, their efforts will be put to the test with the launch of Entertainment Asylum on America Online (Keyword: Asylum) and on the World Wide Web at http://www.asylum.com. Funded by AOL, the nation's dominant online service, and with early guidance from the late TV programming whiz Brandon Tartikoff, Entertainment Asylum is shaping up as an important trial of the notion that interactive, Net-based entertainment will evolve into a major leisure-time diversion.

And the stakes are high for AOL's business strategy as well. The company is trying to reposition itself as a media company and a creator of original programming -- a crucial switch if it is to be anything other then a big, low-margin provider of Internet access services over the long run.

The precedents for programming ventures of this sort are not encouraging: Even the mighty Microsoft, which a year ago had grand ambitions for Hollywood-style online "shows," has found it all but impossible to develop entertainment shows that attract a significant audience.

Scott Zakarin

Scott Zakarin, Entertainment Asylum's president of programming, was responsible for a pioneering Web soap opera called "The Spot," but the show's widely publicized success turned out to be short-lived.

Yet many remain convinced that it's only a matter of time before the Net either rivals -- or combines with -- television as an entertainment medium. How this happens is of no small import in Los Angeles, whose talent pool in technology and entertainment makes it a logical center for the Internet entertainment industry.

Like hundreds of showbiz-oriented Web sites, Entertainment Asylum features movie reviews, celebrity interviews and television listings. Its major competitors are established online brands such as Mr. Showbiz (http://www.mrshowbiz.com) and E! Online (http://www.eonline.com), and its innovations build on existing online entertainment concepts rather than offering a fundamentally new approach.

But Zakarin's eclectic team aims to break new ground with some of its interactive elements, notably the Screen Team -- six online hosts who will interview stars, trade e-mail with Asylum visitors, and generally try to develop themselves into compelling online personalities.

"We think we're funny," says Zakarin, summing up the entertainer's dilemma common to all media. "But what if we're not?"

It's three weeks before launch date, and Adam West is in the house.

The star of the hit '60s television sitcom "Batman" is promoting a CD-ROM game based on the "Goosebumps" book series. As he chats in the Asylum's television-style studio with Screen Teamer Jim Wise, a crowd gathers in the control room. Some want to see how well the equipment works in this dry run of a live interview broadcast. Others are West fans who want to see the cult TV star in action.

After admitting that he has not played the video game he is there to promote -- sending his audience into fits of laughter -- West starts to hesitate.

"I don't know if I can say this, but ... "

"You can say anything you want," Wise says. "This is the Internet!"

Also new to cyberspace is Monica Dodi, Entertainment Asylum's president and chief executive. The Harvard Business School grad fell into the entertainment industry by accident and cut her teeth at MTV Europe, Walt Disney and Warner Bros.

"I love this new media," says Dodi, who joined Asylum in August. "This is very similar to the start of MTV. It was a young, enthusiastic crowd. It feels the same, and that's reassuring."

Dodi spends most of her time explaining the Entertainment Asylum concept to studio executives and going over licensing deals, advertising, content and cross-promotions. She also calls on Fortune 500 companies such as Intel, Honda and Coca-Cola to sell ads that will hopefully make the service profitable in a few years.

Recently, Dodi, Zakarin and AOL Studios President Ted Leonsis spent two days in New York making presentations to industry analysts and media. After watching a promotional video and a guided tour of the site, analysts fired off a barrage of questions: How big will Entertainment Asylum get? How long will it take? How does this fit AOL's strategy for growth?

"AOL has now become a diversified media company," Leonsis says. "This allows us to create new brands and take advantage of 100 percent of the Web instead of just the market share that AOL has."

Working for a huge parent company -- one based near Washington, no less -- releases the Asylum team from concerns such as finding distribution and meeting payroll, though it also means no one is likely to become a millionaire if the service succeeds.

Zakarin rides the details as the launch date approaches. Before approving the design for the new navigation bar, he asks that the search button be enlarged. He makes suggestions about the Screen Team's wardrobe. He even contemplates modifying the invitations for Entertainment Asylum's launch party before sending them to the printer.

But without question, the paramount concern is enhancing the interactive nature of the site. During a production meeting, for example, an agenda item on e-mail addresses for Screen Team members balloons into a discussion about how the online hosts will respond to all of their expected e-mail.

Then they debate the logistics of coordinating mailing lists for each of the Screen Teamers and the various content areas within the site, such as comedy and science fiction.

The whole point of the Screen Team is to cement the link between the site and its fans. Screen Team members must take AOL's community training class to learn how to host an online chat, and they must understand the difference between television and the Web. After one month at the Asylum, a Screen Teamer is let go when it becomes clear that "she doesn't really understand what we're doing," Zakarin says. She was replaced with Julie Brown, the onetime MTV veejay who hosts a gossip show on E!

Even before Entertainment Asylum is launched, Zakarin is hatching plans to bring his act to television. Brandon Tartikoff, who served as chairman of the Asylum's small board of directors, had been developing a show called "Beggars and Choosers" that was designed for both TV and the Internet. But that project has been in limbo since Tartikoff died of cancer in August.

Instead, Zakarin envisions an alternative to shows such as "Entertainment Tonight'' and "Extra." "It's my secret ambition," he says.

Wildly optimistic, Leonsis says he expects Entertainment Asylum to hit the 1-million-page-views-per-day mark within 100 days. Even with that level of traffic, though, profitability would be two full years away. And few Web sites of any kind have been able to generate that much business.

With half a dozen themed Greenhouse channels scheduled to follow in Entertainment Asylum's footsteps, AOL will be watching the numbers closely. And with a whole new branch of the entertainment industry poised to emerge, Hollywood will be watching closely too.

(c) 1997, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate
 
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