When the internet bubble burst in 2000, it deflated a bunch of video-related startups. Staging a comeback just as giants such as Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO) were placing their own bets on video required a strong stomach and a stadium-sized ego. Mika Salmi had both. "I guess I just wasn't smart enough to realize people wouldn't use the Internet to watch entertainment," jokes the 40-year-old founder and CEO of Atom Entertainment Inc. Today, the company's two Web sites, shockwave.com and atomfilms.com, reach more than 28 million unique users a month with games, edgy cartoons, political lampoons, and other shorts. About 4 million of them log on specifically to watch the films -- making atomfilms.com one of the Net's most successful independent movie sites.
Atom takes its personality from the gung ho Salmi, a six-foot-two-inch extreme sports fan and entertainment addict. The son of a former Finnish hockey pro, Salmi worked as a ski instructor and party DJ while getting a degree in finance at the University of Wisconsin in 1987. Intent on joining the music business, he sent 125 letters to New York record labels and was rejected by each before getting a foot in the door at TVT Records as a database manager. His big break came in 1989: On a late-night excursion to a local club, he discovered and signed the rock band Nine Inch Nails.
Moving to France, he got a master's degree at the European Institute of Business Administration and worked for record label EMI Group PLC. In Paris, he fell in love with a new species of short film featuring crude humor and bizarre story lines, which were being aired around the clock on an MTV-like cable startup. Salmi became a short-film aficionado, hitting every offbeat film festival he could find. Returning home to Seattle, he raised $8 million from friends and family and launched atomfilms.com, aiming to "atomize" content into smallish "entertainment snacks," he says.
The shorts could be jarring. Typical fare included a Spielberg spoof called Saving Ryan's Privates and an animated short featuring a frog in a blender. Atom would pay rock-bottom prices, typically $500 for a three-minute short, then share the meager ad sales. As word of the site spread, Salmi raised an additional $5 million in 1999, including $2 million from the venture-capital fund of former Universal Studios CEO Frank Biondi. "Entertainment was being watched in 30-minute increments, not 3 minutes," Biondi recalls, but "I liked Mika, and he was getting some traffic."
By 1999, Hollywood was crawling with dot-com content plays, including Icebox, financed by writers from The Simpsons, and Pop.com, launched by DreamWorks and director Ron Howard with financing from Paul Allen. Some of these deep pockets wanted to buy Salmi out, but he stood his ground.
Then came the tech bust. By 2001, most of the entertainment sites were out of business, killed off by slow Internet speeds and dubious advertising prospects. Atom ended up merging with Shockwave, where online games were the hot seller. But Salmi wouldn't give up on shorts. He tirelessly shopped his content for use on portable video players and cable TV, and he was the first to sell TV-style advertising against such content. As broadband penetration rates climbed, Salmi found he had a large audience eager to click on shorts like JibJab Media Inc.'s 2004 Presidential spoof This Land, which got passed around as a link in some 80 million e-mails.
Today, with online ad sales booming, Atom has revenues in the "tens of millions," says Salmi -- and serious competition from the likes of MTV, Comedy Central, and Yahoo. "I suppose I should be worried, but a rising tide will lift all boats," he says. If it doesn't play out that way and ships start to sink, Salmi will be the first one out there with a parody.
By Ronald Grover