Pop.com: So Far, It's All Talk

SAN FRANCISCO (01/04/2000) - Kenneth Wong is employee no. 1 of an Internet startup - the guy who's supposed to transform a big idea into a big company.

It's not an unfamiliar refrain. But instead of a garage in Silicon Valley, he works out of a basement in the San Fernando Valley. And his employer isn't just any Internet startup - it's Pop.com, the online entertainment venture from DreamWorks SKG, Imagine Entertainment and Vulcan Ventures.

"As soon as we grow, we'll find space - probably in the [San Fernando] Valley," says former Walt Disney Imagineering president Wong, who last month was named CEO of Pop.com. The company's formation was one of those big announcements that got the attention of a lot of Hollywood execs who are trying to figure out their own roles in the Net universe. Some of them say Pop.com would be their choice for an online partner simply because they've worked with the startup's backers in the offline world.

But right now, that qualification is all Pop.com's would-be partners have to go on. The appointment of Wong was the first - and so far only - public move by the company since its introduction at the end of October. Though it plans to debut its brand of online entertainment by spring, even Pop.com doesn't seem to know exactly what it will be.

"Anything I'd say would limit the possibilities," Wong says. He does concede that the plan is to create entertainment. "The focus will be on original content for the Internet. We're not a technology play and not a broad distribution play. In the announcement of Pop.com, we said we were a 'studio.'" With that in mind, talent agencies, talent management and production companies, as well as all the related dot-coms, have been meeting with Imagine executives Dan Sullivan and Brian Grazer to discuss the possibilities. No deals seem to have been struck, though one rumor had Pop.com making a play for AtomFilms, only to be rejected when the online distributor of short films said the price was too low.

"We've been in discussions, but we're not on a merger route," says AtomFilms CEO Mika Salmi. "Pop is looking at people like us to figure out what they should do." Among other ideas, Pop.com officials have said the site will feature short films - "pops" of five minutes or less. Wong also denies any merger talks with AtomFilms.

Other anticipated deals have failed to come together. Sources say that, early on, Bill Gross' startup incubator Idealab was set to form a partnership with Pop.com. It's unclear why the two were unable to come to an understanding, but sources speculate that talks hit a roadblock over price. Idealab officials would not comment on the possibility of a relationship with Pop.com. Wong similarly offered no comment.

Meanwhile, Idealab is developing its own online entertainment play, Z.com, run by former Disney execs Joe DiNunzio and Michael Lang. Z.com, which bills itself as an Internet entertainment studio and network, launches sometime this month.

Indeed, the online entertainment field is a well-populated one, and all signs point to more crowding to come. Pop.com's big-name backers will help it differentiate itself, but partnerships will be crucial. Lycos, which had owned the Pop.com URL and gave it to DreamWorks for free and without contingencies, would be a smart partner because of its huge audience, its technology and its Internet smarts. "We are in talks with [Pop.com] for possible roles for us," confirms a Lycos spokeswoman, but no relationship has been determined yet.

The meetings go on. People like AtomFilms' Salmi don't blame Pop.com officials for not being able to articulate what their company will be. "What's working [in online entertainment] is a constantly moving target," he notes.

And then there's Pop-Info.com, a site maintained by Web designer Aaron Steele in Santa Monica, Calif., which serves as a fan site for Pop.com. So even if Pop.com fails to entertain, at least it's got celebrity status. And in Hollywood, isn't that really all that matters?

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