Roger Ebert Makes Pay Play: The Ebert Club

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert thrives on the web. Now he’d like to get paid for it but not by blocking access to the site or its 10,000-review archive. Instead the Chicago Sun-Times movie critic—a master blogger and tweeter—is going the value-added route, launching The Ebert Club: annual subscriptions $4.99 through the end of March, $5.00 as of April 1.

Call them friends with benefits including a private discussion thread; quick links to his free-standing “special pages for Twitter” and occasional members-only pages; select tweets from his prolific @ebertchicago; advance notice of Eberfest tickets; and more. The list includes “helping enormously to support this web site”—which may sound whimsical but could be the biggest “benefit” of all for some. The price is less than a movie ticket, small enough to be an impulse buy and large enough to possibly create some meaningful income without creating a lot of extra work for Ebert. (Heck, I just stopped writing long enough to sign up.)

Ebert’s explanation and introduction to the club doubles as a survey of paid content models. He recalls being used by Nicholas Negroponte in the 90s as an example, along with Gene Siskel, of how micropayments might work at two cents for two reviews. It would take 250 micropayments to make the same $5 Ebert is charging now.

He writes: “As you know, micropayments went nowhere. In 2009 Google (NSDQ: GOOG) unveiled a plan to run them through Google Checkout. We will see. The web that we surf every day is not paying for itself, and we sure as hell aren’t paying for it. You read me for free, and I read everybody else for free. This is not news. To save you the bother of reading to the end of this entry, I don’t have a brilliant new scheme for changing things.”

Despite his prominence and influence, Ebert doesn’t get big Hollywood money either. “Yes, I have ads. Quite a few over the course of a year. Distributors who actually open good films (you know the kind I mean) have been kind to me. But have I run a single ad this year from an Oscar Season campaign? I believe not.”

If micropayments and advertising aren’t the answer and a pay wall is out of the question, that leaves adding value for users: “Keep the site free for everybody, and find out how many readers might be willing to pay a little extra for an additional resource.” Ebert would have to hit it very big for this to make major money; then again, he launched the club the same week he was on Oprah so you never know. Longtime reader Marie Haws will oversee the newsletter; she should have a good grasp on what adds value to the Ebert experience.

For those considering similar models, read the comments from Ebert’s fans here and towards the bottom here. Very educational.

@ Music & Money: MTVN’s Van Toffler: Music Videos Still Have Value

Billboard's Bruno (left) and MTVN's Van Toffler

The other day, MTV Networks (NYSE: VIA) Judy McGrath was asked about the company’s image in the age of the Jersey Shore, and she talked about reality shows hooking younger viewers, which is the ultimate focus for the network. Today, at the Billboard Music & Money Symposium, Billboard’s Antony Bruno (image, on the left) asked Van Toffler (on the left), President, MTV Networks Music and Logo Group Is MTV a music network or a more general “youth network.” Both. We had a lot of bad metal hair bands, but over time, created reality shows, awards shows and reality and connected it to music. We play 600 music video hours across our networks and invest over $100 million in music each year through promotions. “Music video still has value, but they need to live on different platforms.”

The Conversation: Toffler said that MTVN will soon introduce a cross-platform program that will attempt to build careers for new artists called Push, which has a tagline, “Play until someone hears.” Toffler: “We have to invest in future stars, especially online. Social nets—Facebook, MySpace, Twitter—are the telephone and we’re the conversation. We’re not a technology company. We’re the content that lives on the technology platforms.”

Rock Band: MTVN has high hopes for Rock Band’s Green Day video game, but don’t compare it to The Beatles’ iteration. The Viacom unit paid hefty licensing fees to create a game around the Fab Four. Would he do it again? “There’s only one Beatles,” Toffler said.

Subscription business: Toffler thinks the online music subscription format has its appeal, but from the consumer’s perspective, “so does stealing.” But mobile, naturally, presents some opportunities in that area.

On MySpace: MTVN used to get a lot of grief about missing the opportunity to buy MySpace (NYSE: NWS). But as the social net has had some struggles and changes at the top lately, it also has attracted a number of former MTVN execs such as former MTVN digital head Jason Hirschhorn, as well former MTVN digital ad execs Nada Stirratt and Jason Witt. During the audience Q&A, Rafat asked Toffler how he thinks his former colleagues will do there now that they’ve assumed larger roles at the News Corp-owned social net. “I have a lot of faith in them and I’m hopeful [about his former colleagues’ ability to turn the social net’s fortunes around]. We have worked together on some stuff in the past and I’m sure we’ll continue to work together.” And if MTVN had bought MySpace when it had the chance. Toffler, half-jokingly, said, “It would be doing a lot better.”


Social Dating Site Smartdate Raises $2.2 Million


As traditional dating sites stagnate, investors appear to be sensing an opportunity in social dating startups. European venture fund 360 Capital Partners is investing $2.2 million in, a social dating site which launched just three months ago. The site integrates with Facebook Connect so that users can link up with single friends of their Facebook friends. The basic service is free, although Smartdate charges for premium memberships, which include higher placement for profiles and unlimited contacts.

Smartdate was founded by Fabrice Le Parc who led the launch of dating site be2 in France and Benelux several years ago.

Another social dating startup, Zoosk, has seen big adoption of its service, which works via apps on social networking sites, like Facebook and MySpace (NYSE: NWS). The company claims 50 million global members. It raised a $30 million funding round in December.


Chris DeWolfe, Austin Ventures Buy Social Games Portal MindJolt

Chris DeWolfe

Former MySpace (NYSE: NWS) CEO Chris DeWolfe—who left MySpace last April—is back in the social media space via the acquisition of social games portal MindJolt. DeWolfe is partnering with fellow MySpace co-founders Colin Digiaro and Aber Whitcomb, along with VC firm Austin Ventures, to buy the company. He’ll also join as CEO. There had been rumors for more than a week now that DeWolfe was about to make a social gaming play.

Developers can submit their games and have them appear on, as well as on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Hi5 and Orkut via MindJolt apps. Resulting ad revenue is split. MindJolt claims it reaches 20 million monthly active users. The company’s pitch to developers: “Leave the difficulties of integrating with each of the social networks up to us, so you can concentrate on the actual games themselves.”

The new owners say that they will expand the company by introducing MindJolt to additional websites and smartphone platforms. They also promise to increase monetization “through major brand partnerships and virtual good offerings.”

Digiaro, who had been the former head of monetization at MySpace, will be COO, while Whitcomb, who was MySpace’s CTO, will be CTO. MindJolt founder Richard Fields will stay on as head of product strategy. No financial details have been released, although TechCrunch says Austin Ventures has put more than $20 million into the company.

Here’s the release:


Social Web Pioneers Building MindJolt Into Next Generation Platform for Game Developers

SAN FRANCISCO—March 3, 2010—MySpace Founders Chris DeWolfe, Colin Digiaro, and Aber Whitcomb today announced a partnership with Austin Ventures, to acquire MindJolt, one of the fastest growing online social gaming platforms.  With more than 20 million monthly active unique users on Facebook, and other social sites, the company aggregates 1,300 of the best casual games on the Web from developers worldwide.

Building on MindJolt’s expansive online footprint, the new team will extend the platform by focusing on three major initiatives including: (1) increased monetization through major brand partnerships and virtual good offerings, (2) expanding MindJolt’s global presence to all relevant websites and smart phone platforms, and (3) working closer with game developers to create tools for single player and multiplayer social games.

“MindJolt has quickly become an “onramp” to the Internet for the world’s independent game developers,” said Chris DeWolfe, CEO of MindJolt and former CEO of MySpace.  “We’re building out the company to become the next generation platform for game developers.  Our goal is to make it even easier for developers to get their games noticed and make more money from their work.  At the same time we will deliver the most social and viral gaming experiences to our millions of users everywhere”

With over 20 million monthly active users across the Web, MindJolt provides game developers of any size a way to monetize their games, access to massive distribution on the world’s most popular social platforms, and creates viral game play by injecting unique social layers into the casual and social game experience.  More than 1,000 game developers use the company’s application to reach audiences across the world’s most popular social platforms.  The sheer number of game players on MindJolt levels the playing field for indie game developers by giving them access to an engaged, highly social audience.

“We’ve always backed great management teams and great companies,” said Chris Pacitti, General Partner of Austin Ventures. “A partnership with the MySpace founders is a rare opportunity and MindJolt is a company with the right scale, momentum, and market position to succeed.  We’re thrilled to be a partner on this deal.”

Based in San Francisco, MindJolt’s executive team includes Chief Executive Officer Chris DeWolfe (co-founder and former CEO of MySpace), Chief Operating Officer Colin Digiaro (MySpace’s former head of Monetization and co-founder of SlingShot Labs), Chief Technology Officer Aber Whitcomb (MySpace’s former Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of MySpace), SVP of Business and Corporate Development Josh Yguado (Former VP of Business Development at Fox Networks Group), and Richard Fields, the founder of MindJolt and head of product strategy.

“Independent game developers have always been the lifeblood of MindJolt. We’ve done a great job of connecting with the independent casual game community and we’re looking to expand our efforts to social game developers as well.” said Richard Fields, Founder of MindJolt.  “The new MindJolt team is united on its vision to empower game developers of every size to build their businesses.  We now have the resources to extend our product vision and build what they’re asking us for.”

Playdom Buys ‘Super Farkle’ Developer Offbeat Creations


Playdom, which said it would use some of its recent $43 million funding round for acquisitions, is following through on that pledge. The social gaming company is buying up Offbeat Creations, the developer of several Facebook titles, including dice game Super Farkle, which has more than one million users. Super Farkle is by far Offbeat Creations’ most popular title; others include Be A Tycoon and Give A Heart.

This is Playdom’s third acquisition since its funding round; in November, it purchased another Facebook game developer, Green Patch, as well as iPhone game developer Trippert Labs.

Financial details of this deal were not released. Offbeat Creations’ three founders, as well as its 12 game designers, are joining Playdom’s Seattle studio.


Arkayne Gets $1 Million Seed Round For Link Recommendation Plug-In


Arkayne, which makes a plug-in designed to automatically add related links to web pages, has raised $1 million in an angel round. The plug-in scans all of the posts on a website in order to automatically suggest related items that a visitor should read. A version for bloggers with “moderate to low publication rates” is free, while Arkyane charges enterprise customers.

Arkayne says it’s also set to announce a second product soon which is “aimed at giving businesses ultimate visibility into their content strategy and how it stacks ups to their competitors, partners and target audiences.” Sounds ambitious.

The startup says it will use the new cash—which comes from the Arizona Technology Technology Investor Forum, among others—to “fund its quickly growing team” and “build out the organization’s infrastructure.”  More on the Arkayne blog.

Facebook And Omniture Deepen Their Ties For Analytics And Marketing


Facebook is going to be working more closely with web analytics provider Omniture (NSDQ: OMTR) to build up the social net’s strong attraction to marketers. The two began their collaboration about a year ago, mostly on developing analytics around the wide variety of Facebook apps and measuring user engagement. For Facebook, the deal is designed to keep the advertising unobtrusive—at least relative to other sites—while making it more lucrative by automating media buys on the site. For Omniture, which was acquired last year by Adobe (NSDQ: ADBE) for $1.8 billion, it’s a chance to move ahead of its competitors by aligning itself with a site that’s expected to realize significant ad growth over the next few years.

In addition to a wave of M&A activity in the analytics realm, there have also been a notable number of high-profile collaborations. A few weeks ago, for example, MTV Networks (NYSE: VIA) struck an arrangement with audience measurement firm Quantcast that’s designed to sharpen its ability to target demos across MTVN’s vast and varied 200 web properties.

Along with better analytics, the Omniture deal with Facebook promises to increase the ties among the marketers the two companies work with. The Facebook/Omniture announcement featured an outside voice of approval from Randall Reeves, senior manager, customer insights and analytics for Electronic Arts (NSDQ: ERTS). He pointed the EA’s recent $275 million acquisition of social gamer Playfish as part of its plans to introduce more networking for its products. And he says that both Facebook and Omniture working together will provide some of the heavy lifting for EA’s social net efforts. Release