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This eerie corner of the Web travels to the dark side

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HOLLYWOOD -- Hungry to watch a live-action soap opera set in space? How about an animated horror series about a vampire-in-training, or a psychological thriller about an obnoxious entertainment exec who has a thing for paintball? Yearning to read an early version of the sci-fi script "Alien 3" or get an update on the latest UFO sightings?

Are you, in other words, even the slightest bit twisted? With their new Web site, DistantCorners.com, Joe Roth and John Hegeman are betting the answer is yes.

Roth, the former chairman of Walt Disney Studios, and Hegeman, a movie marketer who one year ago proved that the Internet could make a little horror movie called "The Blair Witch Project" huge, have joined forces to create an Internet entertainment destination for off-kilter audiences -- what Hegeman likes to call "a last beacon of sanity."

"Deep in the folds of your mind is a place you can't control, that always exists," the site announces by way of a greeting. "Thoughts flying like lightning. Exploding in your head. ... Distant Corners presents original entertainment for those wishing to break out of the jaded prison of having seen it all."

The 7-week-old site -- which features animation, streaming video and games, as well as a weird selection of news items, memorabilia offerings and cranky movie reviews -- aims at a very narrow niche: 16-to-34-year-old computer owners with a taste for fantasy and cult entertainment. But Distant Corners also is conceived with bigger things in mind. Roth's new media company, Revolution Studios, will use Distant Corners to develop characters and story lines that could come to life offline as well.

"This is the laboratory for me, and John is the mad scientist," said Roth, who sees the site not only as a promotional and merchandising tool, but also as a place to hatch ideas for feature films and television. "This is the place to incubate properties, gathering genre material and using that as the basis to make films. I can't wait to have the first piece of material flip over."

Amid much talk these days about the convergence between Hollywood and the Web, Distant Corners is taking a different tack. Unlike Atomfilms.com and Ifilm.com, which display all kinds of short films, Distant Corners seeks to serve up only startling or spooky fare. Unlike the as-yet-unlaunched Pop.com, which may someday show films made by big-name talents, Distant Corners wants to air voices you've never heard of.

Ask Roth and Hegeman what they're up to, and the two veterans of traditional movie studios say the same thing: If the Internet is entertainment's next frontier, its programming has to be conceived in a whole new way.

"I want the user to explore and experience the site in a nonlinear way -- to say, 'Oh, my God, I've been on the site for a month, and I never even looked in there,' " Hegeman said. "Everything is about doors opening up and things being hidden and making the journey. Because you've got to get people to come back. If they're just seeing something they could see on TV and at the movies, but in a smaller format, why do it?"

Distant Corners has a novel approach: seven designated channels, each hosted by a different demented oddball who serves as guide to a bizarre universe. Hegeman's unlikely inspiration for this idea, he admits, was the wholesome world of Disney.

"I've always looked at Disney as this crazy model, because its characters are not only the stars of the show, but they're the pitchmen for everything else," Hegeman said. Instead of Mickey and Minnie, Distant Corners' hosts include a paranoid-schizophrenic in a straitjacket, a seedy version of Walter Cronkite and a disembodied brain in a jar named Mr. Gray.

"We're trying to create a Disney on acid," said the 37-year-old father of three.

For Hegeman, who left his job as marketing chief at Artisan Entertainment in March and started building Distant Corners the next day, the site is the result of six years of near-constant rumination. He wanted to create an online world that didn't just promote traditional offline entertainment, but was fun all by itself.

"I wanted no banner ads. No text going down the side. We wanted to make it feel like you are in space and there are images that flash before you, as if you're looking out the window," he said of his early idea. "It would be like a big drive-in in space. That's what we were trying to create."

Web sites are notoriously unprofitable. But Hegeman plans to seek corporate sponsors for each channel and wants to place products in some of the programming.

Horror and sci-fi memorabilia will be auctioned off. And Hegeman plans regular four-day "subscriber events" -- an Internet version of pay-per-view, where, for the price of a magazine, devotees can get access to themed programming, games and tournaments.

And then, of course, there's the chance of turning e-programming into mainstream fare. Of the 25 original properties Hegeman plans to introduce each year, he hopes "three or four will be deemed worthy" of being expanded into film or TV scripts.

"You can't force something to work. But when the time is right -- when your audience is open to it, when the technology is accessible and the financial entertainment community wants to support it -- that's when something can succeed," he said . "This couldn't have happened six years ago. The time for it to happen is now."

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