Ninja Showman Tackles Net
It was the late '80s, and the man now turning Microsoft Network into an on-line entertainment supermall, Bob Bejan, was pitching a rather wacky idea. Bejan told the company licensing the rights to what were then comic book characters called the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that he wanted to create and tour a Turtles rock 'n' roll band. Crazy as it was, the idea was being pitched at the same time by a far more experienced producer, Steve Leber, whose New York company had managed tours for Aerosmith and other musical stars. Leber recalls that even though he had the credentials, Bejan was the one who wowed the licensing company. As a former Broadway song-and-dance man who once appeared in Chorus Line, the 36-year-old Bejan is a master showman who knows how to sell an idea.He also knows how to cash in. In the end, working together on the "Coming Out of Their Shells" tour, Bejan and Leber attracted a million-dollar financing offer from MCA Music and Entertainment. The pair turned it down so they wouldn't have to give up ownership rights, choosing the unprecedented route of going it alone. Then Bejan started singing, as the lead vocal on a Ninja Turtles album that he and Leber sold exclusively to Pizza Hut. "We sold 3 million albums at three bucks a piece," says Leber. "That's $9 million. And that's how we financed the show." When the show, beginning in 1989, proved phenomenally successful, grossing $75 million, Bejan and Leber became rich men. "I did the day-to-day marketing, but Bob definitely created the marketing plan," Leber allows.Microsoft Network vice president Laura Jennings insists that she hired Bejan this spring as the network's executive producer because of his creative vision, not his marketing savvy. Like her, Jennings says, Bejan believes the Web has to become less text-dependent and more "active" with video and sound. But it also seems likely that Microsoft execs gravitated toward a man of the same ilk, a good talker with an aggressive business style who made his fortune by spurning a big corporation to seize an opportunity, just as Microsoft did by spurning IBM. "He's the same kind of personality," agrees Patty Stonesifer, the outgoing head of the Interactive Media Division, which includes MSN. "He wants to win."Moreover, there's no question that Bejan intends to apply his business sense to his new job. "Hey, it's all about distribution, marketing, and advertising," Bejan says in his office on Microsoft's Red West campus one day recently, a couple of weeks after helping to stage a press preview for a revamped MSN. "Think about a big studio. Of course, it's all about the product, but you have to get people to see that product. That's the difference between a student film and a blockbuster. It's all about banging the drum loud enough for people to hear."Bejan knows he won't pack 'em in with software jargon, one of the differences he does have with typical Microsoft execs. Funky in appearance, his face dominated by glasses splattered with colors like a child's finger painting, he has something of the lounge lizard in him, able to coast into easy-listening patter. MSN, he cooed at the press preview, was the place to "get dialed into what's hip and happening."One of his key initiatives since moving here from Hollywood in March was to repackage sites on the network as "shows," which can be found on any of six "channels" and which are tried out for a "season" or two. Bejan backs away from the obvious TV analogy, saying the concept of a show is as old as antiquity. "The Greeks were putting on shows in amphi-theaters," he says. Indeed, Bejan often compares the Internet to the theater. He elaborates, "There's the community of it, the way that the audience interacts with the creative element, the choreographed experience." That experience, in reference to the Net, is Bejan's way of describing his attempt to provide some guidance for users, by presenting a smorgasbord of places to go, rather than leaving them to search aimlessly for something interesting.It's an artful comparison, one that looks to a future, more active experience--Bejan would say "articulated"--rather than to the magazine-like feel of Web sites today. At the same time, Bejan's new terminology fits neatly into Microsoft's stated strategy of turning the Net into a mass medium like TV, a goal that has pushed the company into the content business and caused it to morph virtually overnight into a media powerhouse.The endeavor has cast Bejan in the role of Hollywood producer, despite his standard-issue Microsoft cubicle. He says yea or nay to a steady stream of pitches that are already coming into a development company Microsoft has recently set up called M3P (Microsoft Multimedia Productions), which has offices in Los Angeles and New York. Ever ready to replace a failing "show" with a new one, Bejan will oversee production of between 35 and 50 new programs this year. He says he wants to almost double the number of programs available on each channel, to between seven and 10. Shows currently on MSN range from Michael Kinsley's highbrow Slate, to the adventure travel site Mungo Park, to the teen soap opera High School. Bejan is not the Hollywood player Microsoft might have picked to fill this role. After the Ninja Turtles tour, he founded a company that produced interactive films for movie theaters, which had audience members vote on plot turns with the use of a joystick by their seats. His Interfilm Inc. ultimately collapsed, sending him to the interactive arm of Warner Bros., where he spent a short spell as creative director. A credible career, but Steven Spielberg he wasn't.Those who know him, however, almost always talk about his unapologetically commercial instinct, a trait that Microsoft was bound to value in its pursuit of a mass market. "He himself is the ultimate consumer," says John Sanborn, a Berkeley director who worked on a project for Interfilm. "He goes to movies, he listens to records." Like him, Sanborn says, Bejan was raring to go see Mortal Kombat 2 when it came out. "He's not like a lot of Hollywood executives you meet who are insulated from their audience," Sanborn says.Bejan's hunch about the Ninja Turtles--that their incarnation as a rock 'n' roll band would entertain adults as well as kids--obviously proved commercially sound. His trouble at Interfilm, however, may have stemmed from being too commercial, if that can be a euphemism for dumbed-down. For example, the plot of the Bejan-directed movie Ride for Your Life concerned a couple of bike couriers fighting off an alien invasion. Even the movie's Seattle-area publicist, Robin Buxton of Bill Lanese Advertising, says, "The storyline was very, very simplistic." According to Bejan, Sony canceled a deal to distribute several pictures, forcing Interfilm to close. The matter is now the subject of a lawsuit.Yet, Bejan walked away from that experience with his reputation still intact, having won kudos in the new media world for innovation. "It was a nice, noble effort," says Gary Hare, president of Fathom Pictures, an Internet and CD-ROM company in San Francisco. "It was the kind of thing that you try." Failures are considered par for the course in an industry that is still taking shape.Bejan is still experimenting at MSN, as anyone working in new media must. He describes the effect he's aiming for in this way: "I have only one rule, and that concerns the concept of suspension of disbelief. In a linear medium, you try to get the audience to suspend disbelief as quickly as possible, so that they lose themselves in the narrative. In an interactive medium, suspension of disbelief exists when the audience starts to believe they're in control. You need to take the audience from being spectators to being collaborators." He points to Mungo Park, saying that audience members felt like they were part of the writers' recently completed expedition down an Ethiopian river that runs through the deepest gorge in Africa, because they could send email to the writers mid-expedition.Whether sending email amounts to real collaboration is a debatable point. And the truth is, the best site on MSN is the most conventional of all, Slate, which even Bejan admits is an on-line magazine, not a show. Nonetheless, Bejan is, if anything, an optimist. He believes the Internet industry today is where the film industry was shortly before its first masterpiece, Birth of the Nation. He says, "We're getting closer to Birth of the Nation every day."