Sites like The Romp, Nibblebox program for youth without big names

Last spring, the strategy du jour for nascent Netcasters was to ink deals with any and all A-list artists. Actual plans to develop projects were put on the back burner. But now, as belts are tightening and revenue models are being re-vised, many sites are realizing what some young Hollywood types have known all along: Big names may draw eye-balls, but killer content will keep them coming back.

And for Eric Eisner, the 26-year-old son of Disney chairman Michael Eisner, that means the Romp (www.romp.com). The Romp’s content is sophomoric, lewd — and entertaining. Romp features an animated series about mentally retarded office workers (“Tardz”), streaming videos of animals mating (“Those F*cking Animals”) and interactive games (“Too Drunk to Piss”).

Bruce Foreman, a 29-year-old venture capitalist, co-founded Hollywood-based

The Romp with Eisner. The two, who attended UCLA’s Anderson School of Business together, came up with the idea for the site after a conversation lamenting the lack of good online programming. Because they are the demographic whose eyeballs they seek, they felt Eisner and Foreman knew what young users wanted, and decided that creating quality content quickly was a better idea than milking star power.

“On the Internet, there is such a strong demand for getting the product immediately,” explains Foreman. “You don’t have the same luxury of time (that you do) with television or producing (theatrically). Big-name talent takes a long time to get back to you.”

“The short-term buzz and promotion may be viable, but at the end of the day, what do you really have to broadcast besides the hype? So we’ve taken the tack of getting a lot of good product online and staking (our) reputation on that. And the audience has responded.”

The total response, says Foreman, numbers north of 500,000 unique users a month.

Finding generation next

Doug Liman, the helmer of Gen X and Y favorites “Swingers” and “Go,” has a similar strategy for NibbleBox ( www.nibblebox.com), the site he started with HBO pro-ducer David Bartis and tech consultant Liz Hamburg, his buddies from Brown University.

In the beginning, Liman planned to create content himself. “I thought I could be the Hollywood poster child for the Internet,” he says, “I’ve been using a computer since the fifth grade. I have both the technological and the creative qualifications.

“I did two movies that were extremely popular among the earlier-adopter audience. So it would make sense that I create content for the Internet, as opposed to Steven Spielberg, who is my idol as a filmmaker, but may not know how to use e-mail.”

But it didn’t take Liman long to realize that he “was a dinosaur compared to the kids that were coming home from school and logging in. I decided that I would be a much better coach than a player.”

So, like Foreman and Eisner, Liman went to his audience in search of ideas for entertaining content. At NibbleBox, high school- and college-aged students submit ideas to the site. A development team pulls out the most promising and develops the idea with students via e-mail and phone.

Audience input

Selected projects then are granted technical and financial resources, and content creators are assigned mentors to help guide them through the process. Mentors include Steven Soderbergh (“Out of Sight”), Wim Wenders (“Wings of Desire”) and Amy Heckerling (“Clueless”).

“The difference is that when someone from my generation or older tries to create something for the Internet, it’s extremely focused on the fact that we view it as revolutionary,” says Liman. “The problem is we get a little heavy-handed. It’s like setting out to make a really important film. The truly great films never seem as if they are trying too hard. Our kids are just creating entertainment for their friends. It just happens to be on a computer.”

And while other sites have content from Jerry Bruckheimer and Tim Burton, NibbleBox has “Virtual Rob,” an inter-active animated series created by three USC students about a goofy guy in his dorm room. And that’s exactly what Liman wants.

“‘Swingers’ and ‘Go’ were made with first-time screenwriters and new actors,” says Liman. “The thing is everyone is new talent on the Internet. No one is established talent in this space. I’m a huge Tim Burton fan, but I’d still put my money on the really smart college freshman coming up with better online content than Tim Burton ever could.”

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