Bozlo, Meet Bugs

Here comes the Hollywood pitch. Will Marc Singer and togglethis take their swing?

February 06, 2000|By Joe Mathews

On an unseasonably cool, late summer morning in Los Angeles, Marc Singer drives a rented green Ford Mustang convertible onto the Warner Bros. lot. He is nervous enough to have taken the extraordinary step of wearing a collared dress shirt over his usual T-shirt.

In the three months since Marc launched episodes of the interactive Bozlo Beaver on the Internet, his company, togglethis, has been deluged with calls and offers from ad agencies that want to use interactive characters. But Hollywood has been slower to notice. Marc and his partner, Paul Maya, believe movie studios and TV networks are crucial to the future of interactive entertainment.

Those big companies own the familiar characters -- from Daffy Duck to Ally McBeal -- that Marc would love to make interactive. And they have the promotional budgets to let the world know about Marc's vision of a revolutionized Internet, where dull text has been replaced by interactive characters whose goal is to entertain. Marc believes that a deal with one studio will open doors to entertainment companies all over the world.

The primary purpose of Marc's visit to Los Angeles is a conference on Hollywood and the Internet, scheduled for the following week. But his friends at Launch, the Santa Monica-based Internet and CD-ROM music magazine, have helped Marc arrange a meeting with Warner, a studio that already has developed one of the most heavily trafficked Web sites on the Internet. Marc arrives nervous, but with few expectations.

Awaiting Marc is a Warner Bros. executive named Jim Banister. A physicist by training, he dropped out of academic life to work as a film animator, then as a multimedia director for Steven Spielberg's Shoah project, recording the memories of Holocaust survivors. At Warner, Banister trolls the Internet for new talent. He has spotted a few Bozlo episodes. And laughed.

Slick and tall, Banister, 39, is used to getting his way. On this day, he is full of praise and laughter as he watches more Bozlo episodes on Marc's laptop. Banister concludes the half-hour session by saying he wants to meet again on Monday, the first day of the conference, on a local golf course. His message is clear: He wants to make a deal.

Marc is skeptical. He learned long ago, working for a documentary maker who eschewed money for creative control, to be wary of Hollywood types wearing suits. Does big, wealthy Warner Bros. really share the perspective of Marc, who is saving money on this trip by sleeping on the couch of an old friend in Brentwood?

Over the weekend, Paul and Jason Scott, togglethis' financial officer, fly in to join Marc for the conference, not fully understanding the depth of Warner's interest. The three work out of the Santa Monica offices of their friends at Launch. Sitting at a spare desk, pounding on laptops, they practice their pitch for Warner, plot their conference presentation, and send e-mail back to Rajan Parthasarathy, the toy sword-swinging, foul-mouthed, reckless-driving programmer who is nominally in charge of the office.

Marc doesn't play much golf, so the meeting is set for 12:30 at a restaurant called Ivy at the Shore, a favorite deal-making place for Hollywood agents. Eager, the togglethis crew arrives five minutes early. This will probably just be more talk, Marc warns his partners. He has seen interest in togglethis cool before.

Banister arrives and goes to a table in back. Other Warner executives are coming, he says, but they should feel free to order. Paul has the soup. Jason has the red snapper and a Bloody Mary. Marc just about has a cow.

It is a full-beaver, let's-build-a-dam-now sales pitch, Hollywood style. Three Warner executives arrive, one by one, and follow an obviously scripted performance. Each is full of kind words for togglethis. One talks about Bozlo, the next about the Interactive Character software Raj has designed, the last about how interactive characters could redefine advertising and entertainment. These are echoes of Marc's own arguments, only slicker. As each executive arrives, he orders a dish for the executive to follow.

By 1:15, the food is all on the table, but Banister is holding the main course. "We want to announce a deal this afternoon" at the conference, he says, smiling. "We're going to make you rich."

He puts a press release on the table. Marc grabs it and studies the Warner Bros. logo, familiar from the end of every Bugs Bunny cartoon, the beginning of every episode of "Friends." Below it are these words:

Warner Bros. Online today announced it has selected togglethis to create interactive online animated stories, games and advertising messages. Warner Bros. Online also announced it has formed a strategic relationship with togglethis, a New York City-based software development company, to use its Interactive Character technology in the push to bring interactive entertainment to the Web.

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