Peta Wilson, Danny DeVito, Stephen Baldwin and a number of Michael Ovitz's upcoming minions -- these are just a few of the Hollywood celebrities who've attended the "Digital Coast Executive Dinner," a forum where Internet bigwigs hobnob with Hollywood types to discuss the future of the industry over pricey merlot. You might think that starlets like Wilson would rather don the Versace for red-carpet parties than debate the merits of e-commerce with the CEO of an infrastructure company, but, as host Jason McCabe Calacanis likes to brag: "I have this dinner party and these kind of people just show up. They really want to get into it."
These days, stock market be damned, everyone wants to do a dot-com, and Hollywood starlets are no exception. Cindy Crawford has a Net business. So do Melanie Griffith, Michael Jackson and Tracey Ullman. Shaq is the proud founder of Dunk.net, Britney Spears is on board at Sweet16.com and Pamela Anderson is about to launch PamTV.com. Meanwhile, assorted insiders are busy spreading gossip about dozens of other stars who are rumored to have dot-com projects in the works.
Celebrities are migrating to the Net in a slow but steady trickle, and no longer merely as spokespeople for sale to the highest dot-com bidders. It used to be a big deal that Whoopi Goldberg was hawking Flooz.com, William Shatner was reciting song lyrics accompanied by a jazzy band for Priceline or that Sophia Loren was purring about Giftcertificates.com on national television. These days, the stars are going one step further, popping up on the board of directors of Hollywood start-ups, or as co-founders and executive directors of their own dot-com companies.
But surprisingly, there's hardly any buzz about these celebrity start-ups. It may be a nascent trend that the stars aren't yet broadcasting to People magazine; but also it is indicative of a certain blasi response from the Net. Normally the shenanigans of, say, Michael Jackson get half the world in a tizzy; you'd think that his new movie-props auction site would be electric with buzz. But so far it's generated barely a notice from online fans.
One reason next to no one seems to care about these celebrity dot-coms is that they're not breaking new ground. A new e-commerce site -- with, yes, an affiliated celebrity! -- is met with about as much excitement as the launch of a new pet portal. Anyone looking for a little celebrity fix can already turn to a Web full of fan sites and naked photos of just about every actress and model who ever revealed herself to a camera -- what's to draw them to a run-of-the-mill self-help and fan-club site that has some loose connection to Melanie Griffith? Besides, the titillation celebrities provide to fans has rarely transcended the entertainment industry to help anchor an otherwise traditional business. Doesn't anyone remember the failed Fashion Cafe, started by Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Elle Macpherson?
If anything, the emergence of the celebrity dot-com makes some nervous that the industry has gotten too hyped for its own good. "When the shoeshine man gives you tips on the stock market, that means it's time to sell," scoffs Max Keiser, CEO of Hollywood Stock Exchange. "When you have celebrities doing start-ups, does that mean that it's over?"
Last month, a few well-placed press releases announced that Michael Jackson has co-founded HollywoodTicket.com, a site that plans to make its millions by giving away backstage passes to 'N Sync concerts and auctioning off set items from movies. What kind of expertise can the quirky King of Pop offer to a dot-com? The elusive Jackson, not surprisingly, declined to be interviewed, but his partners, Derek Rundell and Court Coursey, were happy to enthuse over his involvement. Jackson won't be perusing the risumis of potential engineers or puzzling over business plans, they said, but he does check in on a daily basis to advise and serve as a kind of corporate muse.
"Michael's experience with music videos in the '80s can be applied to the Net," Rundell explains seriously. "As evidenced by successes, he really knows what people want, and has helped leverage his insight and genius into this site ... It's taken us in new directions!"
One can only assume that Melanie Griffith serves in a similar role for OneWorldLive, a Web site she helped co-found that provides "lifestyle and transformational content." Here, you can read advice on how to remove "toxic relationships" from your life, or join a "star club" for a celebrity like "Baywatch" babe Yasmine Bleeth. Griffith's title is managing director and partner, and she's already been titillating industry suits with her tour of venture capital meet-and-greets and press conferences.
OneWorldLive's Web site describes her role as providing "unique insights and opportunities" to the company due to her relationships in the entertainment industry. These relationships apparently include Greg Isaacs, Griffith's personal trainer, who offers diet tips to the site's visitors; and Antonio Banderas, Griffith's husband, who invites visitors to join his star club and learn about his "thoughts, passions, and points of view."
Why would a high-profile movie star or rock star feel the need to join the hectic and decidedly harsh world of the dot-com start-up? One can only guess, since most of the celebrities involved decline interviews, claiming they are too busy to chat. It's probably a safe bet that the money is enticing -- even after the millions you might make on a TV sitcom or concert tour, wouldn't you want to parlay your big name into something resembling Shatner's multimillion dollar success with Priceline?
Of course, anyone with an entrepreneurial bone in his body is eyeing the Net these days; certainly there must be a few stars who have also been bitten by this bug. Stephanie Cone, the partner to Tracey Ullman in the online boutique PurpleSkirt.com, avows that Ullman picks out all the clothes herself, and is participating for the sheer excitement. "She enjoys being in an adventure," explains Cone. "There's something intoxicating about being in a new business and not knowing where it's going."
And among the attractions of the Net, one surely resonates with the Hollywood crowd: Dot-com success brings its own celebrity. Dot-commers like Jeff Bezos are rivaling stars like Meg Ryan for media attention; Silicon Valley venture capitalists are posing for Vanity Fair fashion shoots and even nerdy looking start-up entrepreneurs are constantly being heralded as the most desirable bachelors. Stars may not turn to dot-coms to heighten their celebrity, but surely to hit a double whammy and make it in both the world of entertainment and technology wouldn't hurt their egos.
Yet Rob Fried, a movie industry veteran and CEO of WhatsHotNow, a fan paraphernalia e-commerce site that has signed up actors like Michael J. Fox and Will Smith as investors, says that much of the Hollywood set simply see their start-ups as a new way to build up a fan base. "Virtually all my friends who are actors are interested in the Internet," he explains. "Most actors have a desire to communicate with people, a desire to entertain. Most are also very committed to the art form of acting, but there's also a sense of a need for a relationship with audiences."
So Crawford signs on with Babystyle.com as a "strategic advisor" and director, and in "Cindy's Corner" she now offers tips to pregnant women wondering which trouser style is most flattering in the first trimester. It's hardly an intimate relationship with an audience, but it's something beyond appearing in the pages of Elle or hosting MTV's "House of Style."
Or, perhaps it's just a form of spin control. Take PamTV.com, a top-secret dot-com start-up helmed by none other than Ms. Pneumatic herself, Pamela Anderson. Although it was impossible to get through her layers of agents to find out what, exactly, this start-up will be, the placeholders on the site explain, in Anderson's purported own words, that "You've seen many Web sites about me, my friends and my lifestyle, built by other people. Well this one will come straight from me ... so hold on!"
No, it's not surprising that celebrities aren't immune to the lure of the dot-com; the dot-coms aren't immune to the lure of celebrities either. Despite Max Keiser's blithe remarks about stars signifying the downfall of the Net, he himself has signed up a Baldwin brother -- Stephen, the blond one who stars in that M&M commercial -- as his company spokesman. When Baldwin showed up on Rosie O'Donnell talking up the Hollywood Stock Exchange, Keiser says, HSX signed 50,000 new member accounts and logged 5 million new page views.
Having a celebrity on board is great for free PR, too. Oprah recently invited Ullman to be on a show about online shopping; this opportunity to shill for the site has helped boost PurpleSkirt.com's site membership to a healthy 13,000, according to Cone.
But beyond the occasional PR boost from having a star hype your site, does anyone really care that Griffith or Crawford or Jackson are partners in start-ups? Does that Hollywood-style celebrity aura really mean that much to the online masses? Perhaps a good gauge would be this: Have you been hearing much buzz about OneWorldLive or HollywoodTickets or WhatsHotNow or BabyStyle?
While there are plenty of people in the industry who seem to believe in the draw of star power (many of whom, perhaps not coincidentally, come from Hollywood), there is another school of thought that says that the Net isn't very much interested in stars at all.
Atom Films, in fact, has made a conscious choice not to pander to celebrity-driven content -- simply because its executives don't think online audiences care about that kind of thing. The star-studded short films it has acquired -- which feature names like Neve Campbell, Cate Blanchett, Matthew McConaughey and George Clooney -- haven't proven nearly as popular as the site's Bikini Bandit series (featuring scantily clad women with big guns), or the animated shorts by "Chicken Run" creators Aardman Animations or the Joe Cartoon clips where you get to mutilate gerbils.
"Certainly there's an audience that always goes to see Julia Roberts. That will always be true," explains Matt Hulett, chief online officer of Atom Films. "We'll be doing things with stars, but our focus is to not do traditional Hollywood content. We're getting 3 million streams that don't have anything to do with celebrity content -- that's all on-demand content that doesn't have a lot of star power."
Perhaps it's a disconnect between the Hollywood Way and the Internet Way. Consider, for example, the process that you have to go through just to get in touch with a Hollywood celebrity who is "going online." You'll have to call both her agents and publicists, neither of whom you'll actually speak to (they are consistently "on conference calls," their assistants will tell you); your phone calls will go ignored and unanswered. If, by the grace of God, a publicist does deign to respond, you'll typically be informed that the celebrity doesn't speak to the press, though they might answer e-mail. E-mails will then be vetted through public relations officers (God forbid you be given their actual e-mail address), and the chances are quite high that you'll never get any kind of a response at all.
It's a far cry from the rough-and-tumble realm of the Net, where interactivity is critical and no one who "gets it" is ever more than an e-mail away. Although the Net has produced few real celebrities, the stars of the Net -- Mahir the Turkish stud, Jenni Ringley of JenniCam, the "most downloaded" cyberbabe Cindy Margolis, Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News -- all share a certain closeness to their fans. They maintain their own Web sites, host chats, offer live "cams" and generally respond personally to fan e-mails or reporters' calls.
So, which would online fans rather do: stare at a static page with information about Griffith's personal trainer or an advice column from Crawford that answers one question once a week or participate in an online chat with a dynamic Net personality? There's a good reason why JenniCam is so popular that she had to charge subscription fees to members just to pay her bandwidth costs and OneWorldLive is merely a blip on our Net-celebrity radar. Fans online want stars to come down to their level.
Fried explains it aptly: "What people online want is choice, and a voice and interactivity. Hollywood is generally a closed environment -- if you drove up to a movie studio the first thing you notice is a big wall. It's a closed in environment, not inherently used to interacting with people. It's a community that has a way of telling, or providing entertainment," he says. "The Net is interactive, and interactivity is different than the traditional entertainment Hollywood is used to creating."
There are some stars who do recognize that communication is key in this medium. Chuck D, for example, started his online company Rapstation.com as a power-to-the-people endeavor, and is out on the Net trying to convert listeners to his down-with-the-labels gospel. Courtney Love similarly maintains her own Web site with the help of a 19-year-old webmistress, engaging in daily chats with her fans and posting ad-hoc photos of herself chumming around with her friends. Her Web site, Holemusic.com, is popular partly because she will do things like post unauthorized photos from her upcoming movie "Julie Johnson" without first getting permission from the hierarchy of promotions and marketing executives -- an action that recently sent the film's publicist into convulsions.
"I think that there's 'official channels' that you're supposed to go through: the Official Celebrity Channel," explains Love. "But I think those official channels have to do with old-school marketing and a subscription to big media, as well as furthering one's 'mystique' and creating a bigger lie of a persona. I think celebrity culture is about to have a nervous breakdown and I'd love to help it along."
Are the celebrities coming to the Net willing to dismantle those walls, get their hands really dirty in the day-to-day of a dot-com, or even, yes, publish their e-mail addresses so that the madding crowd can get in touch? The pedestals that keep fans at a safe distance aren't relevant online, where e-mail and chat rooms replace red carpet and television cameras. The celebrity dot-com is just another boring dot-com unless the star chooses to get down with those fans and evangelize interactively.
And that it seems, will take a long, long time to change. It's hard to imagine Melanie and Michael and Pam sending midnight e-mails to their fans and uploading snapshots of their cat. "Would Julia Roberts do this?" Love ponders. "No. Not now. But she should."