Ex-Hollywood Agent Seeks to Reconnect With Dot-Coms

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The dot-com gold rush of 1999 attracted more than a few Hollywood executives with promises of quick fortunes and nonstop excitement. Former William Morris agent Deborah Skelly was among them.

"I wanted to go in a new direction and keep learning," the Brentwood resident said.

Skelly took a job in March of last year as chief operating officer of Los Angeles-based Shoppingtheworld.com, an online fashion venture. But her reign at the 70-person firm lasted only seven months.

Like many other dot-coms, Shoppingtheworld.com ran out of cash. Skelly helped the company's principals shut the firm, and since then she has taken on some freelance book-editing and consulting projects while she contemplates her next career step.

Despite the dot-com world's inherent risks, Skelly, who also was a vice president of production for Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures, said she'd like another go at the helm of a digital firm.

"It was the most fun I ever had, and I had to get up to speed quickly with a lot of skills," Skelly said. "I was working with a lot of very bright, talented people."

Skelly brainstormed with Santa Monica-based entertainment attorney Mark Bisgeier, who represents digital media companies, about possible options.

Bisgeier suggested Skelly first clarify her vocational goals, then determine which of her skills will be most useful to dot-com firms. Many Internet entertainment businesses seek individuals with strong Hollywood connections and production experience, he said.

But Bisgeier warned Skelly that she may have some challenges ahead because the online entertainment industry is still struggling to define itself.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen," Bisgeier said, echoing the sentiments of Jack Valenti, president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, who during a speech last year said "the future is blurred and murky" regarding Hollywood's foray into online entertainment.

Nonetheless, the much talked-about convergence of Hollywood and the digital world is moving forward. And Hollywood creative people and executives will find their talents more in demand in coming years, said Bruce Forest, vice president of diversified services for Sapient, who worked with Sony Pictures to develop Moviefly (http://www.moviefly.com), a site where consumers will soon be able to download Hollywood films onto their PCs.

"When I was working on the project, I came across a lot of analog people--editors and agents--who were worried about [the developing digital entertainment industry]," Forest said. "They were saying, 'You're going to put us out of business.' But there are going to be huge opportunities for them in this arena."

Hollywood executives and producers who have demonstrated they can profitably oversee large-budget projects possess skills extremely valuable to their digital counterparts, said Steven Chester, founder of Culver City-based Digital Planet.

Despite the economic slowdown and the online entertainment industry's uncertainties, a few such individuals already have made impressive forays in the digital world, capitalizing on their Hollywood business experience.

Kevin Wendle, co-founder of Fox Broadcasting and executive vice president for Fox Entertainment Group, now oversees Ifilm (http://www.ifilm.com), which offers more than 15,000 short and feature-length movies for viewing.

David Blake, founder of Cinema Shares International Distribution, and John Piano, formerly with 20th Century Fox, now head Reelplay.com, a business-to-business digital marketplace for buying and selling feature films and television programming.

Last year, Reelplay was the only online entertainment company to make Forbes' list of the 200 most important business-to-business Web sites.

Eventually, Forest predicted, there may emerge "digital movie studios" that exclusively produce films and series for Internet home delivery.

Should Internet home delivery prove a profitable alternative to theatrical releases, studios--which today primarily use the digital medium to advertise their upcoming releases--may become bolder in exploring ways to exploit it.

But until high-speed broadband access is adopted by more Americans, wide-scale home delivery of feature films isn't likely to occur, Bisgeier said. Last year, only 2% of U.S. homes had high-speed Internet access.

Because of this, development of online features has been somewhat slow. Internet-based films are typically much shorter--and exponentially cheaper--than standard Hollywood fare, often meaning lower wages for people who work on them. The films also are overwhelmingly targeted at a young male audience.

Still, there are opportunities in the digital arena for Hollywood players like Skelly if they capitalize on their skills, learn more about digital entertainment technology and are able to wear many hats, Forest said.

Agents are moving into Internet entertainment as headhunters and digital talent brokers. Creative Artists and William Morris have new media divisions.

Film and television editors who become adept at data compression (storing multimedia files in smaller formats) will be increasingly important in coming years, when Hollywood releases are more frequently converted into digital format, Forest said.

Screenwriters who wish to craft stories for games and online features will have to develop new storytelling skills.

When writing interactive tales, they'll be called upon to construct several concurrent plots, said Ariella Lehrer, president of Los Angeles-based Legacy Interactive, which produces games based on popular television shows such as "ER" and "Law & Order."

Versatility is a much-venerated trait in the digital entertainment world, Chester said. For example, a digital artist may be asked by a company to create images, edit music, write stories, direct and produce a project.

"It's really stretching people, and some aren't able to make the leap," Lehrer said.

A few vocations may be adversely affected by Hollywood's convergence with digital media. Distributors--the middlemen who bring releases to theaters--could see their roles eliminated as technological advances, including satellite delivery, allow studios to send their movies directly to movie houses.

Craft workers--including lighting technicians, cameramen, grips and prop managers--may be forced to learn new trades if digital tools are able to inexpensively duplicate their work.

Actors may see their opportunities change with the continued development of "synthespians" (synthetic thespians)--realistic digitally created actors.

Audiences have seen some of these virtual actors at work in James Cameron's "Titanic." They walked the ship's decks and, at the film's conclusion, fell to their deaths in the icy Atlantic.

But their human counterparts also may discover new possibilities as voice-over artists and featured performers in video games.

With her diverse background as an agent, producer and dot-com executive, Skelly might wish to consider another vocational option: consulting for Hollywood companies about financially lucrative digital business opportunities.

This was the career chosen by Mary DiMaggio, president of Frederiksen Entertainment, who advises cable networks and celebrities how to generate revenue through electronic retailing.

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Meet the Coach

Mark Bisgeier is a Santa Monica- based entertainment attorney who represents companies and individuals in the film, television and digital media industries. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkley, Bisgeier was a founding partner of a media investment bank and a senior executive at TriStar Pictures.

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