A 21st Century Mogul?

Tech entrepreneur Todd Wagner may have a trick or two to show Tinseltown

As Todd R. Wagner ambles around a busy movie shoot outside Montreal, he is hardly noticed. Never mind that he put up millions of dollars to help finance the film, a thriller called The Jacket, starring Adrien Brody, and that he has $750 million more in the bank. Forget that his friend and business partner, voluble Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, is known pretty much wherever he goes. Wagner's baseball cap and backpack full of scripts say screenwriter or film student, not mogul wannabe. "I did not want to come in like a big bag of wind," he says. "I'll just infiltrate my way in."

The 43-year-old Wagner, who a decade ago gave up corporate law to start Broadcast.com with Cuban, is hoping to become as big a deal in Hollywood as his buddy is in hoops. He has spent the past two years studying show business and making friends, from A-list actors to producers. Now, through a string of investments and acquisitions, he controls a tiny piece of Hollywood's action -- from movie set to cinema to satellite dish, a sort of miniature version of the old studio system.

Wagner's angle is that by controlling properties, from filmmaking to distribution, he can create a laboratory to test digital technologies. They enable him to perform functions like gathering data on potential audiences and using digital projectors to save on printing and shipping costs. Instead of worrying that piracy will hurt his box-office, Wagner later this year will try releasing films simultaneously in his theaters, on DVD, and on one of the two cable channels he owns with Cuban, collapsing Hollywood's drawn-out release schedules.

Wagner, the son of a Gary (Ind.) dentist, has a pragmatic, average-Joe style that's appealing to some industry vets. Already he's palling around with Robert De Niro and making movies with director Steven Soderbergh. Says Jane Rosenthal, co-founder, with De Niro, of Tribeca Productions Inc.: "Todd's not a dabbler. He'll be a major player."

So far, he's anything but major. Still, he has shown how shrewd he can be. In the late 1990s, when outside investors began to take note of Broadcast.com, he and Cuban kept control in their hands and rebuffed attempts to bring in more seasoned management. After selling to Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO ) in 1999 for $5.7 billion, Cuban used his proceeds to buy the Dallas Mavericks. Wagner went in a different direction, starting a foundation for underprivileged kids.

Film buff Wagner was soon taking an interest in Hollywood. He and Cuban eventually bought into entertainment companies such as producer Lions Gate Entertainment and distributor Magnolia Pictures. In late 2001, the pair bought Rysher Entertainment and last year Landmark Theatre Corp., a chain of neglected art-house cinemas. The two are also backing feature films, including the just-released Godsend, starring De Niro, and films shot in high definition.

If Wagner can find magic in his motley bunch of companies, it might one day give him Steve Jobs-like cachet. "There are going to be a lot more Mark Cubans and Todd Wagners in the next decade than Sumner Redstones and Rupert Murdochs," says Gartner G2 analyst Mike McGuire. Maybe so, but Wagner first needs to show he's more than just another rich guy playing mogul among the stars.

By Andrew Park in Montreal

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