H'wood welcomes back prodigal exex -- and their tech skills

HOLLYWOOD — It appears you can go home again.

Dozens of execs who ventured outside of Hollywood’s walls in the last three years to seek their fortunes from online entertainment are quietly returning to more traditional gigs in showbiz.

The return has been a relatively easy one for most, with returning industryites popping up everywhere, landing jobs as production or development execs at television and film shingles, business development toppers at major record labels, and as lawyers and agents — not necessarily the same positions they had previously, but, for some, better gigs than they had before.

In the last six months alone, Chris Buchanan, who founded Flixer.com, an online community site for filmmakers, has become prexy of Joss Whedon’s Mutant Enemy Prods. (TV skeins “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and the new series “Firefly”).

Hilary Meserole, one-time chief marketing officer at online entertainment destination Z.com, has joined CAA’s corporate consulting division as an agent.

And Tom Lassally, founder of Web-based entertainment production entity Fusient Media Ventures has segued into producing films, with two pics (“Stay” and “Brad Pitt Wants My Girlfriend”) set up at New Regency.

Where it once became fashionable to laugh at the so-called “dot-commies” who struggled (and often failed miserably) to build businesses out of showcasing short films or other fare on the Internet, the apparent undesirables have now become attractive must-hires.

Previous industry relationships with those who “stayed behind” have helped with the transition back into the Hollywood fold, but so have a number of other factors:

  • The returnees are seen as risk-takers: Hollywood isn’t known for breeding gutsy execs who often break with the status quo. While many complained about their development jobs, few left them. But something funny happened to Hollywood’s dot-commers: They’re being heralded as e-trepreneurs whose ideas were great but launched too soon.

  • They have deep Rolodexes: At the height of the Internet boom, networking and attending countless parties was the name of the game. Meeting everyone who might help your business was key, including fostering relationships with toppers at the studios, broadcast webs, record labels and the tech sector.

  • They work on Internet time: Execs who were used to developing projects at Hollywood’s slow pace had to quickly acclimate to the Web’s fast-moving world, building businesses from the ground up and making deals or producing content on an almost daily basis.

  • They understand technology: With video-on-demand plus digital projection and film distribution rolling out, Hollywood is being forced to become more tech-savvy. Thus, in a biz where studio bosses still get their assistants to videotape Web sites, knowing how all things digital work is an asset.

  • They know what works: Well, at least they know what doesn’t work. Using the Web as a platform to market movies is finally beginning to boost ticket sales.

Launching short films, animation or other interactive entertainment online enabled these track-hopping execs to test what auds want and to market projects directly to them.

Interactive features are now being built into TV shows. Programming design — especially that of cablers like CNN Headline News — is starting to resemble Web sites. David Neuman, a former topper at Digital Entertainment Network, helped shepherd CNN’s new look.

If MTV inspired the quick-cuts editing of films and TV shows a decade ago, online entertainment today has made pics and series even faster-paced and graphically more complex.

“All the stuff that we’ve been talking about since 1994 (the start of the dot-com craze) is starting to take shape,” says Matti Leshem, who left running Barry Diller’s WAMI-TV station in Miami to found AntEye.com, a site that aimed to discover new filmmakers online.

Leshem is now producing shows as exec veep at Michael Davies’ (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”) Diplomatic shingle, which bows reality strip “Dreamchasers” on A&E on July 6. Show’s plots were found through online submissions from Netizens.

“Everything’s now about creating traditional entertainment that is colored with interactivity,” Leshem says. “Everywhere you look on television and the media, it is tinged with what we were doing.”

Leshem is referring not just to the interactivity of TV fare, but integrating advertising within shows, as well. In the dot-com heyday, Web site founders quickly realized that they couldn’t make money from banner ads appearing on sites, so they inked deals with major brands and integrated them inside the projects they produced and posted online.

Not every former dot-com exec who left Hollywood has returned home. Toppers of Icebox.com, Pop.com and Z.com, are still missing in action.

And not every one of those who has returned looks fondly on their Web experiences, with some, who wish to remain unnamed, left burned, embarrassed or disheartened by their Internet backgrounds — to the point where they don’t even acknowledge having worked for a tech venture. They look back on happier times when they brought home handsome paychecks for plowing through screenplays, giving script notes and tracking talent.

But many feel the dot-com experience was worth it.

“The boom of interactivity attracted all kinds of people — people who were idiots and just in it for the money, and those who were there to be creative and build businesses,” Leshem says.

“The people who were really good at it had a relevant experience. If I had the opportunity to do it again, I would. I moved the ball forward a little bit. I’m constantly seeing the results.”

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