AS the rambunctious entertainers of the Internet make their plays for the showbiz big leagues, these overnight superstars are enjoying the standard introduction to Hollywood. Which means not just glad-handing agents and Kafkaesque “lunch meetings” but also the bitter falling-out with your partners from the ‘hood, complete with morning-after mudslinging.
Take the case of the former partners in the popular video blog (or vblog) Rocketboom, who are now in the midst of a blood feud that has turned into the nastiest, highest-profile divorce yet to quake the Web. A wry, dead-on rendition of a network news show, featuring a comely, blond 20-something anchor offering scattershot deadpan around clips of “found news” from across the Net, Rocketboom showed the potential to adapt a traditional TV format to the Internet when it debuted in fall 2004. In the process it attracted an estimated 300,000 viewers a day — more than many cable-news network shows — and held a high-profile auction of its ad space on EBay, which drew a winning bid of $80,000. The site’s quick success earned flavor-of-the-month media attention for its anchor, Amanda Congdon, and its creator-producer, a design and technology teacher named Andrew Baron.
And then, last July, the partnership broke up; Congdon left Rocket amid a hailstorm of acrimony that would make Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman proud. But coming from nowhere as they had, the pair had no clear script to follow in their break-up, no ritual of prenups and clearly defined intellectual property guidelines. And so, six months later, in what is likely a harbinger of things to come for many a Web team, the pair continue to sling invective at each other on message boards and blog entries across the Web. Bystanders, meanwhile, have mostly rolled their eyes at the level of animosity.
Reconstructing the history of Rocketboom through the eyes of its principals is a bit of a he-said/she-said proposition. In a series of interviews, both Baron and Congdon told of a partnership that enjoyed a brief creative flourish that soon morphed into a frenzy of activity, and then into an increasingly fraught working relationship, which led to the very public meltdown. In the lingering custody battle over the soul (and wallet) of Rocketboom, the former partners each accuse the other of betrayal, slander, bad faith and, worst of all, old-media values.
The trouble surfaced July 5, when at the height of the vblog’s success, its hostess, rather than filing her usual segment, posted a video on a Blogspot page she called “Amanda Unboomed.” In it she declared, “I apparently have been unboomed. Apparently my partner Andrew Baron is no longer interested in being my partner and since he owns 51% of Rocketboom and I only own 49% of Rocketboom, that’s just something I’m kinda going to have to live with.”
According to Baron, “She’s left and painted me as a monster and I never got a chance to air my side.” Describing what he saw as Congdon’s ultimate betrayal in her abrupt exit, he said later, “It’s so mixed up and I’ve started to think she, like, wasn’t capable of doing something this horrible, so she’s not really capable of doing something this evil or something like that, and I was thinking maybe it was her agent advising her to do all this, like they thought they wanted to separate her from me in Rocketboom months before but they were trying to transition out of it. All these kinds of things I can’t help wonder because it seems so extreme.”
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Congdon responded, “because I didn’t do anything. I just want this to be over with. It’s been so drawn out. The sad thing is he just keeps going so public so things always say, ‘In a dispute with her former partner . ' It’s just like, ‘Leave me alone, Andrew!’ ”
Having been cast in Baron’s brainchild after replying to a notice on Craigslist.com, being granted a just-shy-of-majority stake in the still theoretical enterprise (plus an initial 50 bucks per episode), the odd couple — Congdon by her description is a highly organized Type A to Baron’s freewheeling creative persona — entered into what was a slightly awkward but highly productive partnership. After fits and starts, the Rocketboom formula was found. As Congdon described the collaboration, “He’d write half the script and I’d write the other half and we’d just make a transition . We were creatively in tune.”
But as links to their site spread, their fame grew and their options expanded, so too did the tensions between them. While many issues rankled the relationship (business plans, working hours, involvement with new partners and a revolving technical crew), at the heart of the growing chasm seems to have been Congdon’s determination to move to Los Angeles. In L.A., she planned to pursue her show-biz career while maintaining at least part of the Rocketboom production.
Congdon said Baron “had always known that I wanted to move to Los Angeles.” She claims he dragged his feet in making a decision about how the move would be handled, including plans for an envisioned “Amanda Across America” video road trip (corporate sponsorship included).
Baron tells a different tale, of Congdon seemingly determined to break out on her own, taking whatever she could of Rocketboom with her. Baron contends that through the first half of 2006 he was both searching for a formula to divide the Rocketboom workload between partners who would be 3,000 miles apart and attempting to set up sponsorships for the vblogs that would underwrite a bicoastal enterprise. Baron was in discussions with the online division of ABC as well as HBO. But Congdon grew frustrated that Baron seemed unable to close a deal. “As per the usual,” she said, “Andrew couldn’t get it together. There were always things that were supposed to happen. You never knew whether it was going to happen because it never did.”
The cold warTHE house of Rocketboom soon divided on itself, with Congdon moving back to her family’s home in Connecticut, writing and producing her own segments there, which she delivered as completed products. There was a near complete breakdown in communication between the partners. Messages were exchanged via intermediaries.
Finally, in late June, a showdown was brokered. The partners, who had not seen each other in months, agreed to meet for a two-hour, mediator-facilitated discussion in a borrowed conference room, attended by the Rocketboom partners as well as Congdon’s father. Despite every sign that their relationship had become entirely dysfunctional, the pair would not just let go of each other. They e-mailed each other constantly, striving to maintain, in some form or another, dual involvement with the goose that was laying the golden eggs of media attention and other door-openers, by the sackful.
The Battery Park showdown was, by all accounts, a catastrophe. Congdon claims she heard no workable plan for her move to Los Angeles. Baron claims that Congdon presented an unworkable divide-the-baby scheme that involved an absolute separation of Congdon and Baron, a condition Baron refused to accept. Tempers soared. The meeting ended, according to Baron, when Congdon’s “dad flipped out and lost it. He stood up, pointed at me and said, ‘This could work, and there are people who have professional relationships who never speak to each other.’ ”
The meeting was shortly followed by an ultimatum from Baron, delivered through an intermediary, “exercising his 51% option,” insisting Congdon return to New York to produce shows for a month while they worked out a solution for her move. Congdon says she found these demands unacceptable. The letter was followed within days by the Unboomed announcement of her departure and the commencement of the era of finger-pointing.
In the epilogue, the partnership continues to fight over final payouts and credit. After leaving the company, Congdon did indeed film and broadcast on the Internet an “Amanda Across America” tour. In the last month, Congdon has kicked off a Rocketboomy weekly vblog at abcnews.com and is developing a show for HBO.
Congdon insists that all of her new gigs are personality-driven vehicles and that she remains sole owner of the Amanda Congdon persona. What’s more, she says, the shows she is now involved with are substantially different than anything that was under discussion with Baron. Now represented by the Endeavor talent agency, she also states that “I was approached by every single major network aside from one, and six cable channels, to do stuff after Rocketboom. It wasn’t that I had to only go with ABC or that it was my only option.”
Yet Baron wonders why, if she had so many offers, she ended up doing business with the very people with whom he had initiated projects.
Were this a big-time film partnership, the case might be winding its way through litigation (and accompanying keep-your-mouths-shut clauses). But on the Net, with its message board and blog postings, battles wage indefinitely — or at least until the troops get bored with fighting.
At the end of extensive conversations about their partnership, Congdon and Baron seem willing to, if not to bury the hatchet, at least back away from it. Congdon said, “I just really want to move on with my life, and I hope that we just settle whatever we need to settle with our lawyers and we won’t continue to battle publicly.”
And Baron at last said, “I do wish her well. It’s sort of a love/hate thing where it’s like your sister who even if she really screws up and does really bad and you’re really [angry], you still can’t help but want her to fare well. It’s just so frustrating to have it be so extreme.”