Populating the annals of the digital media business are hundreds of individuals who were ahead of their time. They’re the early-stage impresarios and on-the-cusp dreamers who introduced grand ideas and evangelized categories before getting steamrolled by the realities of the day: limited technology footprints, a skeptical investment community or the inability to captivate mainstream consumers.
The cable industry, of course, has seen its share of these inventors and the companies they created: Sega Channel. XPRESS Information Services. @Home. INDAX. Diva Systems. Your Choice TV. And more. Many were typified by sudden bursting onto the scene followed by an exit from prominence when the VC cash ran out or bigger competitors stormed the gates.
Such was the case with a largely forgotten start-up that deserves a share of the credit for bringing to life one of today’s most disruptive and intriguing video-entertainment categories.
The company was Intertainer, a Los Angeles start-up that attracted a marquee investor list: Comcast, Intel, Microsoft, NBC, Sony and Qwest Communications. Founded in 1996 by three friends in Hollywood, Intertainer set out to pursue a revolutionary notion: distribute video entertainment – movies and music videos, mainly – over the Internet using a new breed of high-speed DSL and cable modem connections.
The idea seemed as preposterous as it was bold, considering that the prevailing residential Internet experience of the day was derisively known as the “world wide wait,” or the patience-trying exercise of watching static text pages slowly unfold. Skeptics dismissed the idea that Intertainer could conceive a combination of encoding agility and network performance that would allow a full-blown motion picture to traverse the public Internet without encountering fatal damage along the way.
That is, they dismissed it until they came face-to-face with the convincing front man who had been tapped to make the case for online delivery of movies and videos.
In many ways, Intertainer’s CEO Jonathan Taplin was exactly what the budding category of online video needed. Tall, imposing, gravel-voiced and wicked smart, he possessed a rare combination of hipster connectedness and earnest approachability. Taplin had the ability to make you feel like the conversation he was having with you, in the moment, was the most important thing going on in the world, even though you knew that in the next instant he could whip out his cell phone and speed dial Bob Dylan.
It’s true: Taplin came to Intertainer after starting his career as tour manager for the 1969 Bob Dylan and The Band tour. Four years later, he launched a moviemaking career, producing Martin Scorsese’s first feature film, “Mean Streets.” Taplin went on to produce a dozen feature films including 1995’s “To Die For,” and the music documentary “The Last Waltz.” He also worked as a media industry M&A advisor for Merrill Lynch in the 1980s.
The combined entertainment-and-business pedigree was perfect for elevating Intertainer beyond the category of starry-eyed start-ups. Starting around 1997, Taplin was a regular at media industry conferences and press interviews, patiently explaining how a new era of on-demand entertainment was at hand thanks to the Internet’s broadband transformation. Armed with a laptop computer, Taplin showed anybody who would listen Intertainer’s spoke-and-wheel menu design that invited users to find and select titles.
Taplin’s persistence and smarts paid off as six of the seven major Hollywood studios – Paramount was the exception – agreed to license films, and as partners including Comcast’s CEO Brian Roberts bought in. “Everybody else is so invested in the technology; they’re focused on what people will accept, use and enjoy,” Roberts told the Los Angeles Times in 1998.
Like many early-stage developers, Intertainer fell victim to familiar enemies: a market that was slow to develop, and an idea that was difficult to protect. By the time there were enough broadband Internet lines to constitute a meaningful marketplace, others swooped in. Among them was Movielink, an online movie venture backed by Sony, Universal Pictures and AOL Time Warner. Its entry signaled that key Hollywood players wanted to control their own Internet presence, and sparked a lawsuit (settled in 2006) from Intertainer.
The company halted operations in 2006, but its presence lingers. The Hollywood-backed Digital Entertainment Group reported that digital and on-demand movie delivery in the U.S. generated $1.2 billion in revenue for the first half of 2011. Taplin, who is now director of the Innovation Lab at USC’s Annenberg School, can rightly claim at least partial credit for teaching Hollywood about a new way to put movies on the screen. And on the Internet.