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Jon Healey on Hollywood's love-hate relationship with technology.

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Deja vu (wireless version)

February 5, 2007 |  2:22 pm

Ampd_mobile How appropriate: the day after Prince rescues the category of big-game halftime shows, Amp'd Mobile makes an announcement that's straight out of 1999. The one-year-old mobile-phone company, whose service caters to Net-obsessed and entertainment-gluttonous youths, said it has signed deals with three production shops to develop content exclusively for Amp'd subscribers. The most recognizable name in the bunch is Jack Black, who (along with two producing partners) will create short videos for the service. The other recruits are Donick Cary, creator of the "Lil' Bush: Resident of the United States" mobile-optimized cartoon, and ICEBOX, an online animation firm founded by a group of TV writers.

The way Amp'd trumpeted its new ties with Black and Icebox co-founder Howard Gordon (an executive producer of "The X-Files") reminded me of Shockwave.com's dalliance with Hollywood talent in the late 1990s. The site (an arm of Macromedia at the time, but later merged into Atom Films) signed development deals with Tim Burton, David Lynch, Matt Stone/Trey Parker (whose X-rated cartoon never aired), Jim Belushi and others, only to abandon video after the dot-com bubble burst. Shockwave.com's experience suggested that it's dangerous to try to build a nascent medium by hiring expensive talent from other media. One of the lessons from YouTube, MySpace and such dot-bomb survivors as Atom and iFilm is that the road to solvency is rarely paved with Hollywood development deals.

Just look at ICEBOX. Launched just after the bubble burst, ICEBOX styled itself as a proving ground for cartoons. The goal was to develop an large audience for characters and concepts, then move them to TV networks. But the high cost of creating original animations forced ICEBOX to go into the deep freeze less than a year later; instead of producing shows on spec, it would fund projects only when it had a buyer lined up.

Maybe the timing is better for Amp'd than it was for Shockwave, ICEBOX and other first-generation dot-com video plays. Online video is so commonplace today, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to extend it to cell phones. The problem is, relatively few people in the U.S. have been willing to pay to download videos or surf the Web on their cell phones. Amp'd designed its service specifically for those types of customers; according to the Wall Street Journal, the average Amp'd user spends more than $30 a month on such things (out of a total bill of about $100), compared to less than $8 a month for the big carriers' customers (whose total bill is $50 to $60). Of course, it remains to be seen whether these Amp'd customers (whose ranks topped the 100,000 threshold in January) are typical of a new, media-hungry generation of users, or if they're just well-off and bored.

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