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Finding the next celebrities

Finding the next celebrities -- From Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's yet-unnamed website to Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope.com, becoming the next big name might be just a ''submit'' button away

Schwab’s Drugstore, meet the new millennium. The Hollywood soda fountain/dream factory where Lana Turner clones pined for their big break is long gone, but its spirit lives on in a flood of new websites promising aspiring talent the chance to point and click their way to stardom. Wannabe writers, actors, filmmakers, and musicians can snap up everything from insider business tips to recording contracts and TV pilot deals on sites such as Tonos.com, AntEye.com, iUniverse.com, and IAM.COM. And the industry is paying attention: Early success stories include SEV, a Washington, D.C., band, that just inked a record deal with Farmclub.com, and Jason Ward and David Garrett, whose ifilm.com short Sunday’s Game led to a TV development deal at Fox. ”Hollywood is starving for good material,” says AntEye.com CEO Matti Leshem. ”And the stuff we’re getting is really good, so Hollywood is pretty darn interested.”

Interested enough that industry players are starting their own websites. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who have vowed to find promising filmmakers through an online contest on their yet-to-be-named URL, will finance a budding auteur’s debut feature later this year. Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope.com has been welcoming screenplay and short story submissions (for his Zoetrope: All-Story literary magazine) since 1998. Interscope Geffen A&M cochairman Jimmy Iovine and Universal Music Group chairman Doug Morris are the heavyweights behind Jimmy and Doug’s Farmclub.com, which rewards their site’s most popular unsigned bands with record deals and TV gigs on their self-titled USA network show. And Tonos.com founders Carole Bayer Sager, Kenneth ”Babyface” Edmonds, and David Foster have recruited everyone from Diane Warren to Backstreet Boys songwriter Max Martin to ”mentor” clueless artists by posting tough-love advice on the site. ”This is all because people are realizing they can change the way talent is discovered,” says Sager. ”We’re saying that maybe there’s a kid out there who sings beautifully in her church choir but doesn’t have access to the industry, and we’re saying that’s not a problem anymore.”

Well, not as big a problem — the doors to record labels aren’t swinging wide open just yet. If anything, websites like UBL.com and musiceditor.com mean record execs are flooded with even more next big things. ”It makes it easier to click a button to find bands, but at the end of the day, it’s still the same kind of unsolicited music we’ve been getting for years,” sighs Ron Fair, RCA senior VP of A&R and a recent Tonos mentor. ”The best way to get attention is not an MP3. It’s still about having a local following or a publicity buzz.” Phil Clayman, SEV’s co-lead singer, notes that his band had sold 15,000 of their own self-produced CDs, and had a strong East Coast following before uploading their music to Farmclub.com. ”Without our fan base, we couldn’t have gotten so many hits requesting our song on the site,” he says. And even for winners like SEV, becoming a big fish on the Web doesn’t mean much without a real-world jump start like Farmclub.com’s TV exposure. ”If someone can get a million-dollar deal on Atlantic, they should take it,” says Sager. ”I still haven’t seen anything on the Internet that resembles what a real live label can do as far as advertising, for example.”

For filmmakers, the rewards can begin with the first click. Though development dollars will only reach a lucky few, sites like eveo.com and AntEye.com have created a new market for short films. ”Film festivals serve their purpose, but it’s an expensive way to get your film seen by a few hundred people in South Carolina,” says filmmaker Bill McNally, who has had meetings with Universal thanks to the buzz generated by his reelshort.com entry The Sick Sense. For screenwriters, the advantages are less immediate. ”The submissions we’ve received are better than one might have supposed, but they are comparable to traditional submissions,” says Francis Ford Coppola. Though Zoetrope has considered several screenplays submitted through their website, the company has yet to option one.

On the other hand, writers with the Great American Novel on their hard drive could be in luck. Print-on-demand policies can make small runs economically viable for e-publishers like iUniverse.com, allowing fledgling authors to get published and even occasionally distributed in bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble. ”In the traditional industry, if a book doesn’t sell more than 100,000 copies, it’s considered a failure,” says iUniverse CEO Richard Tam. ”That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good book.”

But the site making the headiest promises — and getting the most media buzz — is IAM.COM, which allows dancers, models, musicians, and actors to post MP3s and head shots for all the entertainment industry to see. Though some question the fee (a $9.95 monthly charge), IAM.COM president Edward Menicheschi argues the investment will pay off for most users, thanks to the site’s industry connections and fine-tuned search engine. ”There are still no guarantees, but it used to be about luck and talent,” he says. ”We’re hoping the Internet will mediate the luck factor a little bit.”

If nothing else, these starmaking websites may prevent secret shower-stall vocalists and midnight-lyric scribblers from taking desperate measures. ”The site gave me access to an inner circle that’s almost impossible to get into,” says Tonos songwriting winner Damian Fontana. ”Honestly, if I just went to Babyface’s house with a tape in hand, I’d get hauled away by the cops.”