At first, FirstLook Inc. ran a Web site for movie fans interested in viewing movie trailers and previews of other entertainment content. That business model, like most pure content plays, fizzled. Today, the company is all about syndication. And the strategic shift, while still risky, appears to be paying off.

Last week, Sherman Oaks-based FirstLook announced distribution deals with major content providers and Web site operators Microsoft Corp., InfoSpace Inc. and Tribune Co.

Even though FirstLook still has a flashy presence on its own Web site, the company that was once known as FirstLook.com has shed the ".com" from its name, a sign that it is serious about syndication.

The company was founded in September 1999 by former Virgin Interactive Entertainment executive Rand Bleimeister to provide online previews of movies, music, television shows and digital games.

Originally backed by Idealab Inc., the company has received about $35 million from a group of investors including Cox Communications Inc. and Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers.

Bleimeister said the company aborted the B2C strategy last October in response to stagnating revenues and to the growing demand from major portals and online retailers for entertainment-oriented broadband content.

"What we noticed was that more and more Web sites were looking for ways to add broadband content in response to consumers getting DSL and cable modem connections," he said. "All of the major Web sites will be adding broadband content in the future."

Company realignment

As it shifted its business model last October, FirstLook laid off about 30 of its 100 employees.

In its new position as a syndicator, FirstLook acts as a kind of behind-the-scenes middleman between the content owners (like the major movie studios) and the content providers (like newspapers that want to provide readers with the ability to view movie trailers online).

Because there are few barriers to other companies entering the space where FirstLook has pitched its tent, its success is by no means assured.

"What they have to do is not an inconsiderable challenge," said Rohit Shukla, CEO of the L.A. Regional Technology Alliance. "They're doing it early and they're doing it aggressively, which is good because a lot of people are looking to do the same thing. The question is: What's to stop others, like a well-capitalized Yahoo, from doing it?"

Indeed, Bleimeister said he expects other companies to enter the marketplace.

"It's clear that content syndication is becoming more significant, and there will be other competitors," he said. "But we have spent $3.5 million and considerable time building the infrastructure for our distribution partners."

That investment enables FirstLook to do its own encoding, which means that the company can tailor its offerings to meet the needs of its distribution partners.

Sizable content library

FirstLook's database of around 3.5 million video and audio previews can be integrated into customers' specific Web environments. FirstLook's encoding also offers streams at connection speeds ranging anywhere from 56K to 500K.

"The goal is to provide our entertainment industry partners with a cost-effective means to promote their properties and to help our distribution partners drive entertainment consumption online and offline," Bleimeister said.

FirstLook's bread and butter comes from that latter group of distribution partners. Among its newly signed partners is Bellevue, Wash.-based InfoSpace, which supplies content from third-party sources like FirstLook to thousands of Web site operators, including AOL Time Warner.

Another new partner is Tribune Co., the Chicago-based newspaper publisher and owner of 11 daily newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, New York Newsday and Los Angeles Times. Those newspapers already include FirstLook's movie trailers with certain online movie reviews and articles.

Microsoft will also tap FirstLook to stream video and audio at its WindowsMedia site.

FirstLook has a content library stocked with movie clips and trailers from all major studios, which share the content in exchange for the free marketing, Bleimeister said. The library also includes celebrity interviews and behind-the-scenes film and television footage.

It is that easy-access library that FirstLook is banking on.

"After all, entertainment content is some of the most popular content around," Bleimeister said. "The popularity of celebrity-driven magazine shows are proof positive that people are hungry for information on the latest music, television shows and movies. That's why we started in the first place."

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