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Vivendi to launch online video service

Vivendi Universal's MP4.com piggybacks on the concept of MP3.com and will feature a collection of amateur flicks. The company expects it will be a star attraction, but analysts are betting otherwise.

    Aspiring filmmakers will have a new theater to showcase their work, thanks to an upcoming online video service from Vivendi Universal that promises to give artists the ability to reach a wider audience.

    Vivendi Universal Net USA said Wednesday that it plans to launch MP4.com, a Web site that features a collection of short-form videos including animation shorts, feature film-related content, trailers and games. The site's launch, according to Vivendi, is expected in a few weeks.

    MP4.com piggybacks on the concept of MP3.com, an amateur music-aggregation site that the French media giant acquired in May, and follows the trail of other entertainment companies that have created similar sites.

    In September, Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment launched Screenblast, a site that provides ambitious film and animation makers with the publishing tools to create video, animation and music. With its hybrid mix of video clips and audio sounds, Screenblast's publishing service attempts to attract young, savvy individuals who have grown up with interactive services or who have always known life with a PC. The company said it is targeting 18- to 24-year-olds, an age group most likely to have access to broadband in dorm rooms or on college campuses.

    To entice that age group, Screenblast crossbreeds trends and fads popular among the youth culture. For instance, the company will be launching an interactive Web series conceived by ex-Smashing Pumpkins musician Billy Corgan. The project, called "Glass and the Machines of God," is a story told over a span of 16 chapters that centers upon a popular rock star called Glass, who is bored with rock and roll and soon discovers that he is faced with a mysterious event that changes his life.

    Although Vivendi and Sony are aiming to make homemade videos as ubiquitous as MP3s, analysts said they face a difficult road.

    "The concept of MP4 is good if Vivendi can afford the bandwidth and the streaming costs that could attract a big audience," said Phil Benyola, a digital media research associate for investment company Raymond James Financial. With MP4.com "people will be able to upload amateur video and other people will be able to watch and stream it over the Net, which represents huge costs to Vivendi if they're going to subsidize that kind of streaming...(but) we'll see what comes out of it."

    In recent years, media companies hoping to to transform online entertainment have faced a long string of disappointments. Renowned Hollywood directors Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard backed Pop.com, but that company, along with a host of others, ended with a bang. AOL Time Warner's Entertaindom, Digital Entertainment Network, Pseudo Programs, CMGI's iCast, and Icebox all fell victim to the dot-com dead pool.

    Still, Vivendi is wagering MP4.com will become a hit among the artist community. The company said the service, which is still in a beta stage, will be free to consumers, but some features may include a fee.

    "Seeing the success and the popularity of MP3...it seems like a natural next step to focus on," said Laurie Rubenstein, a spokeswoman for Vivendi Universal Net USA. "It's building off the same concept, but focusing on video-related content."

    At the end of last year, French media giant Vivendi formed Net USA to gather the company's music, games and educational Web sites under one umbrella. The company tapped Robin Richards, chief executive of MP3.com, to head the Los Angeles-based unit.