Cook, Eisner Try New Model for Online Video

Michael Eisner, the former Disney head, has spent much of his life on movie sets, and he'll tell you: They can be tedious places. A Saturday Night Fever dance number or a Raiders of the Lost Ark stunt sequence — he produced both of those films — can take a week or more to shoot.

His latest production, which debuts Tuesday, is a different story.

Foreign Body is the third low-budget, quick-and-dirty Web series produced by Vuguru, Eisner's year-old broadband production company, which is part of his larger media group, the Tornante Co.

On the set, a tiny crew, equipped with little more than what your neighbor uses to shoot his daughter's basketball game, blasts through scenes in a matter of minutes.

The project marks the beginning of yet one more experiment in media convergence. Viewers can download 50 free videos for their computers or cell phones. Each daily episode is two minutes long. At the end, the characters continue on with their story in a book, which will be published on actual paper by G.P. Putnam's Sons in August. The book isn't free.

It's a marriage of old and new media.

Eisner, 66, got a charge out of reading the press coverage of his first two productions: "The reviews were basically, 'How surprising that this kind of old world, aging, dyspeptic movie executive actually can make a show that may be relevant to the Internet generation,'" he recalls.

Coma's Creator Awakens Online

Those reviews caught the eye of Robin Cook, an aging novelist who had noticed that his readers weren't getting any younger. Cook virtually invented the medical thriller with his book Coma in 1977.

"The trouble is, now there are so many other things trying to get people's attention – in particular, the younger people — and rather than try and fight it, you really have to kind of use it," says Cook.

Cook pitched the idea to Eisner over dinner last fall. He has a book coming out this summer about Americans going to India for cut-rate operations. It was full of suspense, murder and sexy nurses. How about a series of videos that would be a prequel? Maybe the same young people who turned Lonely Girl 15 into a phenomenon would watch it and buy the book.

Eisner said let's do it.

A Small Price Tag by Hollywood Standards

The whole series will cost about $500,000 to produce. The technical term for that investment, when you're playing at Eisner's level, is "chump change."

"I have no idea whether that's going to work or not. It just seemed like, 'Hey, well, why not? We'll try it,'" says Eisner.

And that sense of, hey, let's give it a whirl, is one of the fundamental principles of his whole business model.

"Advertisers are falling over themselves to find good opportunities to advertise on the Web, where they know that their brand is going to be next to something which is engaging, interesting, is not violating any copyright laws and is not sexually explicit, and those opportunities are rare," says Kenneth C. Wilbur, a marketing professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

A Sea of Home Movies

That puts a known commodity like Eisner at a great advantage. Wilbur says $500,000 might be nothing in the movie or television world, but it buys production values that stand out in a landscape littered with mediocre home movies. And when Eisner or another big-money player gets involved, they're free to be aggressive in ways amateurs can't.

"You and I could start a company right now, but if we're any good, that would take us away from other projects that might be more likely to pay us money," says Wilbur. "And the thing Eisner brings is the credibility to say to a talented group of people that, 'If you work with me, we're going to be able to monetize this.'"

So far, even Eisner hasn't been able to find a way to make big money in Internet video. But he says that money will come; he can feel it. It may be the next great entertainment medium. It may be the future of culture and commerce.

"It may be all baloney," he adds.

But at these prices, he'll take a shot.

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