Discs Lack Star Power

With Hollywood mostly looking on from the side-lines, the interactive entertainment industry has expanded rapidly over the past year, with an increase in sales of CD-ROMs and more people logging onto the Internet and commercial online services.

One crucial difference between multimedia companies such as Broderbund, Electronic Arts, CompuServe and America Online and their Hollywood counterparts is in reliance on big-name onscreen talent to make or break a project. Studios routinely turn to the likes of an Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis or Michelle Pfeiffer to attract auds to a picture. But there’s no comparable practice on the multimedia side of the biz. To some Hollywood observers, the youthful interactive industry won’t be legitimized until the bankable stars routinely attach themselves to multimedia projects.

Budget restrictions account for some of the difference between the industry segments: It’s still big news when vidgame producers have a few million dollars for production.

But even execs in the interactive industry concede that for the right project, a big-name star might spend a few days lensing original material for a CD-ROM, even though the financial rewards wouldn’t come close to what they would be on a feature – or even a TV show.

Agents fear stigma

Representatives of the vidgame industry say various stars have been approached about appearing in CD-ROMs, including Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Johnny Depp. For various reasons, all reportedly turned down vidgame deals. In one of those cases, the company producing the game wanted to create a title that would have a movie tie-in; the company would then get a piece of the feature’s profits. The star rejected that offer. In another case, a star was said to have been interested in doing a CDROM, only to have his agent nix the deal, saying an unsuccessful computer game would be more damaging to his career than an unsuccessful film.

One former network exec currently working in the online arena says the reason for stars’ lack of interest is simple: “Most of the titles are bad. Why would they want to get involved?”

Adds another exec familiar with the traditional entertainment side of the business as well as new media, “A lot of stars are nervous about making that jump, because when companies take an actor, like Tia Carrere in “The Daedalus Encounter,” the game has never been very successful. Overall, the technology has gotten better, but it still doesn’t look like a movie. It looks like a video character thrown over a 3-D background. As the technology improves, it’ll become more appealing for stars.”

Howard Blumenthal, editor-in-chief of CompuServe’s new online venture Project Wow – and creator/exec producer of the PBS series “Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” – agrees that advances in technology should bring about more interest from Hollywood stars.

“Right now, there’s not a compelling reason for them to do a CD-ROM,” he says. “For example, why would it be better for Madonna to release a CD-ROM instead of a musicvideo or an audio CD? Maybe you could read some of her song lyrics, or look at a video or two, but the medium of CD-ROM doesn’t take her performance to the next level.

“Maybe with a bigger screen and more interactivity, when users could make their own musicvideo or create their own arrangements of songs, a CD-ROM becomes an interesting Madonna project. But just a disc with some biographical material thrown in with the songs – I don’t think performers or consumers would get excited,” Blumenthal says.

Jon Richmond, president of Fox Interactive, agrees that in some cases, CD-ROM or other vidgame projects need not be star vehicles: “In twitch style videogames, there’s little value to having name talent onscreen, only because it’s all about game play, and stars add little, if anything, to those

For example, Fox’s upcoming vidgame package “Die Hard Trilogy” is an action game using animation. “It’s not about speaking or acting; it’s about game play. The inclusion of specific character talent would add nothing,” says Rich

But Richmond points to a planned Fox title based on the TV series “The X-Files” as an example of a product that could benefit from the presence of identifiable actors – in this case, the stars of the TV show.

“Under certain circumstances, the player expects to see characters onscreen that add credibility and value to the product,” says Richmond.

While Richmond disagrees with those who believe Hollywood talent is key to giving the interactive industry a boost into the “big leagues” of entertainment, other studio execs say the presence of top talent could make a difference.

“It’s difficult to say for sure, but my first reaction is to say yes, A-list stars would assist in the growth of this industry segment,” says Ron Frankel, exec VP of MGM Interactive.

But like others in the industry, Frankel believes that technological developments will pave the way for greater creative possibilities – which translates to more opportunities for well-known talent: “The most important attribute of these products is great creative and compelling adventures. It’s a new medium, and there are many creative approaches to products not yet undertaken. I think we’ll see new approaches and dominant methods emerge, that might utilize A’ talent in a way that would really benefit the product.”

Frankel concurs with many execs in believing that day will arrive sooner rather than later. Probably within the next two years, most surmise, a major star will jump onboard a multimedia project because it ties in with a character he’s known for playing, or simply because the project has grabbed his interest.

Until then, said one exec, mainstream Hollywood will likely keep its distance from the blossoming landscape of new media. “If the actors aren’t scared to death, then their agents are,” said the source. “If they make the wrong suggestion, it’ll come back to bite them. Even though all the agencies have new media departments and talk about getting involved, at the end of the day, the agents hate for a client to step into something that could hurt them, especially if the client is someone hot.”

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