True Hollywood Stories

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This story appears in the January 2000 issue of . Subscribe »

If seeing all those noncelebrities on E!--the personal stylists, the restaurateurs--makes you seethe with envy, calm down. Where there's a will, there's a way you, too, can work it Hollywood-style. All you have to do is carve yourself an entrepreneurial niche that makes you an "expert" in something not many are. But expect some hard work, pavement-pounding and door-knocking, because, face it, if you're not Jerry Seinfeld's ex, immediate start-up exposure might not happen. Here, see how four Tinseltown-inspired companies got their big breaks.

Casting Call

By Laura Tiffany

Entrepreneurs: Robert Platts, 29; Jeff Hamilton, 31

Company: Gonzo Bros.

Description: They rent cardboard cutout "extras" at $5 a pop for crowd scenes

Location: Hollywood, California

Year started: 1997

Casting call: After working in management for a now-defunct studio, Hamilton and Platts were approached by a company seeking 2,000 cardboard cutouts. Remembering their former boss had a stash, they approached him and split the money. The partners saw gold and had 4,000 cutouts made.

Media blitz: In a very low-budget marketing campaign, Hamilton and Platts faxed every commercial, TV and film director in the Hollywood 411 directory. Since then, they've provided cutout extras for crowd scenes in commercials (which make up about 80 percent of their business) for Nike, Adidas and Gatorade, as well as for the movies American Pie and Man in the Moon and the TV series Dawson's Creek.

What theyreallywant: Hamilton and Platts, who also provide independent sales and marketing for a studio, see this as a stepping stone to their true goals: producing and acting. "The access we have to producers and directors enables us to learn faster and figure out how to do what we want to in this industry," says Hamilton. "If we had regular jobs, it would be more difficult to break into the entertainment industry."

Cutthroat business: Their current competition--$90-a-day human extras and studios with their own cache of cutouts--aren't as threatening as their future competition. What are their plans for when computer graphics takes over the crowd-extra niche? "We're very flexible," says Hamilton. "We'll adjust to whatever the demands are." But he agrees with Platt, who says, "By then, we want to be producing."

Box-Office Smash

By Michelle Prather

Entrepreneur: Tanya York, 30

Company: York Entertainment Inc.

Description: Independent home video/DVD production and distribution company

Location: Encino, California

Year started: 1990

Family ties: York's trek from London to L.A. at age 17 wasn't like your typical runaway-heads-for-the-Sunset-Strip music video. Her mom's invitation to give the States a chance prompted York to leave London's social scene. She says she wasn't seeking fame in Hollywood: "I took some acting classes, but only so I could go back [to the UK] and tell my friends how cool it was."

Tanya's ladder: Various film jobs in the extra, production and makeup departments followed. By age 19, she had produced three films.

The green mile: "It's what every Hollywood producer is trying to find," says York. Money, that is. She needed a million-plus to embark on a solo career--and private investors gave it to her. She then gave the public feature films like Frogtown II and Rollerblade Seven.

Bigger is better: York formed a partnership with Maverick Entertainment Inc. in Coral Springs, Florida, so huge chains like Blockbuster Entertainment would carry their line of 45 films. She attends film festivals and previews movie submissions with her "opinionated" 10-year-old son. Says York: "This is what I've trained in for the past 10 years--I'm very comfortable."

The Winner Is

By Laura Tiffany

Entrepreneurs: Genevieve Cibor, 32; Mark Andrushko, 32; Kelli Bennett, 31

Company: Scriptapalooza Inc.

Description: They run a script contest; winners receive access to major Hollywood players and a cash prize.

Location: Hollywood, California

Year started: 1998

Making waves: Each partner has a background in the entertainment industry, from acting to writing to producing, but Cibor and Bennett, both writers, were particularly discouraged by competitions that either required industry contacts or only gave cash prizes, with no help getting a foot in the door. With a Web site on Tripod, a few contacts from Andrushko's producing background and the guts to cold-call industry players, the partners decided to change the way script contests were run.

The write people: Participants--the production companies and literary representatives who read the winning scripts--include UPN's director of comedy development and The Jim Henson Company. Final Draft Inc., a leading writing software company, cold-contacted the partners, offering to be the sponsor of the contest. "So many huge companies were receptive and eager to be part of the contest, it was overwhelming," says Cibor.

The write stuff: Scriptapalooza received 605 screenplays for its first contest--more, Andrushko says, than several well-known, established competitions received. Based on the response from writers and participants, they started Scriptapalooza TV (for TV scripts) last August and plan to start Flickapalooza, an annual film festival, this year.

First prize: "Our big reward is being able to discover raw talent, jump-start their career and give them an opportunity that wouldn't otherwise exist," says Bennett. "Another reward is our personal goal of becoming influential in Hollywood's decision-making process--getting writers and projects considered that the 'Hollywood Machine' might not even bother looking at."

You're A Star

By Michelle Prather

Entrepreneurs: Marnie Lerner, 27; Cynde Cassel, 30; Diane Lerner, 50-something

Company: Star Treatment Inc.

Description: Gift-buying and personal-shopping service

Location: Los Angeles

Year started: 1996

In the stars: Destiny brought former entertainment writer Marnie Lerner and former personal shopper Cassel together in 1994 at a fashion show. When Cassel landed an ad job at the same L.A. publication that employed Marnie, the two were designated corporate gift coordinators for the 1995 holiday season.

Exit, stage left: Marnie and Cassel grabbed Marnie's mother, Diane, and began exploring the niche they knew would be a Hollywood hit. "Growing up in Los Angeles, you'd go over to friends' houses where $250 flower bouquets were delivered 'just because they're pretty,' " says Marnie. Sensing the "need" for an upscale gift-giving service, each partner invested $5,000. An additional $25,000 from a private investor solidified the launch.

May i leave a voice mail? The gals never thought Hollywood studios would constitute 80 percent of their $500,000-plus business--until the vice president of marketing at Universal Pictures finally responded to their cold calls. "She said 'OK, girls, we're doing Snow Falling On Cedars, and we need [gifts] for the actors.' " Ethan Hawke and Sam Shepherd were the first celebs Star Treatment shopped for; since then, they've gifted just about every huge star you can imagine.

Worldwide presents: They don't just buy Prada cell phone bags for Meg Ryan and Diane Keaton--they also serve people like you and me via, their personal shopping Web site. With worldwide interest, expansion is likely. Don't forget your friends here at Business Start-Ups, ladies.

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