Frustration, fatigue leading some to ditch studios

In the last year, dozens of young execs have migrated from studio development jobs into dot-com companies — trading fast-track jobs for longer hours, less pay, dubious prospects for profitability and the fact that, like film development, things can move mighty slowly in the dot-com world.

But for the time being, they are not fazed.

In fact, despite an environment that in recent months has sent dot-com companies retrenching from their best laid plans, many of the new prospectors are unflinchingly optimistic.

How can that be?

On the surface, their new jobs are not as cushy as they had been within the cloistered walls of the studios. The dot-execs spend their days in front of work stations in open spaces. Few have offices or assistants or doors behind which they can hide to take confidential calls. And few command salaries equal to what they took home at the studios.

Still, for the dozens of D-girls and boys who have migrated to dot-coms, the change is welcome: it means embracing a new work ethic with less bureaucracy and more egalitarianism where each employee has a financial stake in the company’s future.

Roll with the changes

“I am only 27,” said Michael Dahan, who spent several years as a development executive at Paramount-based Mutual Films before launching his own still-unnamed dot-com shingle. “I am too young to be cynical, but all the work that I was doing wasn’t getting made. I came out here to make movies and tell stories. I wasn’t doing a lot of that. I wanted to do something more exciting.” (He did wind up getting an associate producer credit on “The Patriot.”)

Dahan’s sojourn into the dot-com world is no solo trek.

Dozens of execs from such established companies as Wind Dancer, Cort-Madden, Sonnenfeld-Josephson, Roth-Arnold, Scott Free, Joel Silver Prods., Mutual, Jerry Weintraub Prods., MGM, Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros., who brought home handsome paychecks for plowing through screenplays, giving script notes and tracking talent, are working for less upfront money at start-ups such as Ifilm, Pop.com, KPE, Urbanentertainment.com, Z.com, Creative Planet, Icebox.com, DNA Studios, EZFlicks, Intertainer, Showbizdata, Filmtracker, Eruptor.com and Threshold.com.

Looking for adventure

With new-media stocks hurting on Wall Street and pioneers openly acknowledging that they don’t know the exact form of the entertainment they are trying to create, why are so many from the old media world scrambling to enter the new one?

  • The squeeze factor: A pervasive reduction of development jobs combined with the fact that fewer films are being made at the studios has made opportunities fewer.

  • Frustration: D-people have tired of the slow pace and high price of studio movies and are driven by the dream of creating content directly and quickly for the Internet.

  • Fatigue: Execs are weary of the types of stories they have been programmed to find and oversee. The Internet is thought to offer possibilities for a new aesthetic and a chance to “think outside of the box.”

It is this category in particular that has a host of ex-development execs most inspired.

Jerry Weintraub Prods.’ Glenn Abernathy and Scott Free’s Ed Kashiba are at I-film, exploring interactivity. Chris Buchanan, vet exec who was last senior veep of Weintraub’s company, has also launched an Internet shingle.

In addition, Michael Roberts and Jason Hoffs, once top execs at Disney and DreamWorks, respectively, are experimenting with Internet storytelling at KPE.

Roth-Arnold’s Jennifer Leshnick and Meagan Weaver, now both at Pop.com, are hunting for titles for the Webcaster’s ongoing online film fest, run by ex-Miramax exec Sophia Sondervan and site partner John Sloss.

Damon Lee, formerly a veep at MGM, is developing content for Urbanentertainment.com.

And the list goes on.

At least a dozen other execs, who preferred to remain nameless, are working at a fever pitch on Internet content models soon to be announced.

While most dot-comers say their companies are still in a research and development phase, each adds that they are trying to redefine the relationship between viewer and storyteller — something they consider a truly revolutionary act, since in their view the entire studio development process has grown stale, mired in tired formulae.

Development execs grew disenchanted with the three-act structure, of the requisite conflicts and resolutions, of the set-ups and payoffs and of fashioning story “beats” to fit those formulas. They felt frustrated by the accepted process of looking for and shaping material.

For new inspiration, the execs-turned-dot-comers turned to the type of interactivity created in videogames.

“We are trying to create experiences that are different, that are not confined by a single viewing that needs to be cohesive,” said a former high-level studio exec who has formed an Internet company he doesn’t want to announce too soon.

“The problem with some companies,” observed another new dot-exec referring to several shingles that in his view have announced themselves too soon, “is that the shows they created were crappy and the viewing experience was crappy. They were simply transforming the current Hollywood way of doing business to the Internet and it didn’t work. People like interactivity, not to be told what they want.”

While still operational, DEN and Loadtv are among the companies that have already reduced their staffs.

“We are seeing the evolution of a new aesthetic,” said Buchanan, whose own interactive venture is currently in stealth mode. “Our first taste of it in the offline world is ‘Blair Witch,’ ‘Matrix,’ ‘The Limey’ and ‘Go.’ Kids who grew up with the Internet are used to nonlinear thinking. You can go down a path and then back out. Navigation is very important for the Web. It’s all about creating a comfort level for nonlinear storytelling. It’s not just lean back and let it all wash over you.”

The new frontier

While their reasons to cross over are clear, just how are the ex-execs liking their new gigs?

“One thing maps over very nicely to the next,” said Roberts, who came to KPE from Disney, where over his 10-year tenure he had risen to executive veep of production.

“The lines between old media and new media are beginning to blur. I haven’t jettisoned the past. Half my phone list remains the same. I haven’t left the entertainment business.”

Buchanan noted: “This thing is happening and it’s a freight train. You can jump on top of it or get run over it.”

Meagan Weaver, who after leaving Roth-Arnold Prods. as director of development had spent three months with Wild Web before joining Pop.com, said: “It’s amazing to get so many submissions and to be able to say ‘yes’ so often. In development, I had to say ‘no’ all the time. There’s a great feeling of freedom here. The excitement is really contagious.”

At Pop.fest, Weaver serves as an acquisitions executive, looking for emerging new directors in all genres.

“A lot of the skills I developed as an executive are completely useful for this job,” she said. “DreamWorks is always dedicated toward working with new talent, and with Pop.com you realize there are tons of talented filmmakers out there who are not able to work within the studio system.”

“The process is similar,” added Roberts. “You are analyzing ideas, using your gut to develop them. You are developing programming, producing it. There is also a design aesthetic to it, just like making a movie.”

Still, Roberts acknowledged he is only “cautiously optimistic” about his new gig.

“The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not going to be there for everyone,” he said. “You have to make sure that if you switch jobs you bring a lot of passion.”

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