Bypassing the Old Boy Network in the Entertainment Business

Some pretty awful Hollywood movies get greenlighted because they seem to combine elements of previous hits: 2003’s universally panned Lucy Liu-Antonio Banderas action film Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, for example, was undoubtedly pitched as “Charlie’s Angels meets The Matrix for the Game Boy crowd.” Well, the new social-networking site Nextcat can be summed up as “MySpace meets LinkedIn for the arts crowd.” But that, it turns out, is a useful thing.

Nextcat co-founder Jeffrey Pucci, who runs the site out of his Quincy, MA, home office, is a guitarist and software entrepreneur who says he knows what it can be like to find a gig if you’re a musician, actor, or model. “Your chances depend less on talent per se than on who you know,” Pucci says. “It’s like that in every industry to some extent, but in the entertainment industry it seems much more pronounced. Look at Paris Hilton. She’s someone who has enjoyed incredible success with no discernible skills.”

By 2003, Pucci says, it was obvious to him and longtime business partner Richard Viard that digital piracy and the Internet were going to force the music, movie, and TV industries to find new business models. “We were very cognizant of the disruption that was taking place and the fact that TV and Hollywood seemed very vulnerable to change,” says Pucci (pictured above). “What was on my mind was, how can we take advantage of that?” Looking at it from the musician’s and actor’s point of view, the moment seemed right to shake up the old boy networks that seemed to control which artists got work.

So Pucci and Viard went to work. The pair were veterans of the dot-com era, when they built—an online toy retailer where parents could fill out lengthy Web questionnaires to find the best educational toys for their children’s needs—and successfully took the company public in 1999. This time around, they thought they could use the Web to match job seekers in the music, film, and TV industries directly with job providers, bypassing the traditional mechanisms of agents, old-boy networking, and, of course, nepotism (can anyone spell Tori Spelling?).

nextcat-250.jpgNextcat’s current beta version, which Pucci and Viard launched in May 2006, combines networking capabilities similar to LinkedIn’s with media-rich, customizable profiles reminiscent of MySpace. Photographers can publish albums or slideshows; filmmakers can upload demo reels; musicians can post MP3s of their compositions or performances. Users can formally connect their profiles, as on LinkedIn, and request introductions to friends-of-friends. But you know you’re not on LinkedIn when you see a profile that includes the member’s astrological sign.

About 40,000 people visited Nextcat in June 2007. The site has signed up 15,000 members, Pucci says, including semi-celebrities such as Christine Elise McCarthy, a character actor frequently seen on TV series such as Beverly Hills 90210, ER, and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

Like most Web 2.0 ventures, Nextcat will depend on a mix of advertising revenues and subscription fees for premium features, Pucci says. The site has been operating so far on $325,000 in seed capital from private investors. Now the company is seeking Series A venture capital funding, so that it can expand marketing operations and establish a presence at major arts and film festivals such as Sundance in Park City, UT, and South by Southwest in Austin TX. Pucci says he’s optimistic that a few of the more forward-thinking, Web-savvy New England venture funds will see the possibilities in Nextcat’s model.

Of course, as with every new product, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Investors may not get excited about Nextcat until its membership can be measured in the six figures—and with only 15,000 registered users so far, membership clearly hasn’t begun to snowball the way MySpace’s did around 2004. But because the worldwide entertainment community is relatively small, the site doesn’t have to have MySpace-scale legions in order to be interesting or useful, Pucci believes. “Whether the tipping point is 100,000 or 200,000, I don’t know,” he says. “But I have a sense it’s not necessarily going to take millions.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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