Cutting-edge Web sites for celebrities

Web site publisher DaveTV hopes to entice stars to build new Web sites--bypassing TV networks and cashing in on their talents without a cut for the middleman.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
4 min read
A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
LOS ANGELES--Hollywood funnyman Will Ferrell needed only 45 minutes, some help from a writing buddy and a breakout performance from a potty-mouthed toddler to create one of the Web's hottest videos.

The comedy skit, called "The Landlord" has been watched some 21 million times since being posted to the Web last month--and it has piqued the interest of technologists. Among some of the questions being asked are whether Ferrell, star of such feature films as Blades of Glory and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, actually needs a TV network or movie studio to distribute his work. Doesn't the Web enable Ferrell and other performers present their work directly to the public?

Rex Wong, CEO of Dave Networks, thinks it does. Wong said Tuesday that his company is building Web sites for nearly a dozen A-list stars that enable them to "own, publish, distribute and monetize their own content." He declined to name any of his celebrity clients, but sources told CNET News.com that they include actress Jessica Alba. The company has also been in recent negotiations with actor Will Smith, the sources said.

"A lot of celebrities are realizing that they are the brand," said Wong, who was one of the scheduled speakers this week here at the OnHollywood Conference. "Right now advertisers pay celebrities to endorse their products. Maybe in the future advertisers will pay to be part of a star's Web site."

Performers performing
Rock stars, actors, comedians and a plethora of other performers can be found on the Web at MySpace or on their own sites. But what you can't find, said Wong, are performers performing. "Celebrity sites don't make any money," Wong said. "Most actors or comedians don't own their content."

On the official site Willsmith.net, there's not even a trailer from Smith's many hit movies. In addition to a message board, the site offers information about his films, including the recent hit Pursuit of Happyness, rap albums and the actor's background. An official site for Alba, perhaps best known for her role in TV's Dark Angel and the feature film Fantastic Four, couldn't be found.

"Think about it--Ferrell hasn't posted a second clip since 'The Landlord.' The problem is that it takes a lot of work and time to create entertainment consistently."
--Josh Martin, analyst,
Yankee Group

Representatives of Smith and Alba could not be reached Wednesday.

In contrast to these ho-hum informational sites, Dave Networks and its DaveTV service--billed as a "social broadcast network"--intend to create communities around a star, Wong said. The founder of Applied Semantics, the company he sold to Google in 2003 for $102 million, Wong said the celebrity sites come equipped with the same features offered by the most popular social-networking sites: photo and video sharing and blogs. The company also offers a retail capability so that performers can sell T-shirts, concert tickets and other merchandise.

DaveTV will also help monitor a site. Anytime a site accepts user-generated content, it runs the risk that some users will post inappropriate content, such as pornography or copyright material.

Richard Rosenblatt, the former MySpace chairman, agrees that there's money to be made in creating online communities around niche subjects people are passionate about. Rosenblatt and former MTV host Carson Daly announced at the conference they are launching DotTV, a company that wants to help users create their own Web TV channels.

The thinking is that people will prefer going to places dedicated to their interests instead of having to scour huge sites like MySpace and YouTube for what they want.

"Advertisers will pay very high CPMs to get to these audiences because they're very focused," Rosenblatt said, referring the cost per thousand impressions--a standard to determine online ad billing.

Nontheless, analysts are skeptical that ad revenue can ever put as much money into an A-list actor's pocket as a blockbuster film.

James McQuivey, a Forrester Research analyst, crunches what Ferrell could have made had he sold advertising alongside his "Landlord" short. Even if advertisers would be willing to pay $5 for every thousand views--much more than most sites receive for ads--Ferrell would pocket only $100,000.

"To Will Ferrell, that's chump change," McQuivey said.

According to Forbes, Ferrell earns $20 million per movie.

The other large impediment to making big bucks on the Internet is that it would require a performer to create a huge amount of content to keep viewers coming back, said Josh Martin, a Yankee Group analyst. Nobody is that creative, he contends.

"How do you compete against YouTube, which aggregates clips from thousands of people posting new clips every day?" Martin asked. "The question is how long can you maintain interest? Think about it--Ferrell hasn't posted a second clip since 'The Landlord.' The problem is that it takes a lot of work and time to create entertainment consistently."

It's doubtful this will stop performers like Ferrell from trying. The 39-year-old actor created "The Landlord" with former Saturday Night Live writer Adam McKay. The two have launched a site, with the backing of Sequoia Capital, called Funny Or Die, which hosts that clip and others.

The venture capital firm, according to Wired.com, came up with the idea about a site that combined professionally made content with clips submitted by users.

Despite the venture backing, McKay told the Los Angeles Times that Funny Or Die isn't planning to go corporate.

"It's just us," McKay was quoted in the newspaper. "That's the fun--this isn't brought to you by GE or Viacom or whoever."


Correction: This story incorrectly identified the Will Ferrell skit. It is called "The Landlord."