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A Role That She Seemed Destined to Land

Her film background helped make Jennifer Feikin the choice to head Google's video service.

January 15, 2006|Chris Gaither | Times Staff Writer

In her show business debut, Google Inc.'s ambassador to Hollywood ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Jennifer Feikin was a teenager when she donned a miniskirt and beehive hairdo for a bit part in John Waters' movie "Hairspray." It went on to become a cult classic, but without Feikin's scene as an auto show model.

"She didn't like the idea of not seeing things through to the end," said Feikin's mother, Rhea.

Within a decade after her "Hairspray" experience, Feikin had worked her way back into the movies -- this time negotiating big-budget deals for 20th Century Fox.

It's that sort of determination that Google is counting on as Feikin oversees the new Google Video Store, an online bazaar for selling and renting downloadable TV shows, movies and other material. The Internet search giant faces skepticism from potential media partners, tough competition from established players and the weight of expectations that comes with just being Google.

"That's what's so great about right now: We're just figuring out how to do this," said Feikin, 38.

The service got a rocky start last week. It was launched three days late because of technical problems, and some users complained about glitches and a shortage of popular TV programming. For example, there were only one episode of CBS' popular show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and fewer than a dozen music videos from Sony BMG Music Entertainment -- two of Google's major media partners.

If anyone is prepared to handle the pressure, it's Feikin, say people who know her.

A Harvard-trained lawyer who's respected in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, Feikin has handled big-budget movie deals for 20th Century Fox and negotiated contracts for America Online and Google. At 5 feet 10 (an even 6 feet in her high-heel boots), Feikin is athletic and competitive, and that shows on the grueling cycle rides she leads in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

"You'd be riding for four hours, and, climbing the last 2,000 feet, there she comes pushing ahead from behind to get everybody to increase the pace," said Randy Komisar, a partner with venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. "She attacks and attacks and attacks. She's someone who keeps pushing until she gets done what she needs to get done."

At Google, she's got plenty to do. The company wants Feikin to expand Google's successful Web search business into video. The idea: Compile video clips into an enormous searchable database and extend opportunities for businesses large and small to profit from it -- Google first and foremost.

To do that, Google needs to speak Hollywood's language. Although she worked in the film industry for only four years, Feikin is fluent in its particular kind of deal-speak -- a skill that comes in very handy when trying to reconcile the demands of content owners with the computer engineers surrounding her at Google.

"She's hugely valuable," said Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media. "It's like having an American company in South America, and she's the one who speaks Spanish."

Bridging the gap between Hollywood and Silicon Valley is a rapidly growing job description as the Internet changes the way people consume entertainment. It's not an easy task, given the different cultures of the technology and the entertainment industries.

Other Internet companies are trying to graft glitzy Hollywood sensibilities onto their button-down high-tech cultures. America Online, for example, merged with Time Warner Inc. in 2001 and is working closely with its parent company on creating new Web-only video content. Yahoo Inc. is led by former Warner Bros. head Terry Semel, and former ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun is steering Yahoo Media Group as it explores the future of digital media creation and distribution.

Google took a different tack: It promoted from within. Feikin had worked at Google, licensing its search and ad technologies to other companies, since 2002 after two years at AOL. Consequently, Feikin is viewed inside Google less as an outsider from Hollywood than as a seasoned Internet executive who tries to balance the interests of Google users with the demands of content owners.

She can pull the Prada and leather boots out of her closet for meetings with studio chiefs, but she favors jeans and running shoes when working in Google's relaxed headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. And she can hold her own when talking technical specifications, understanding it just well enough to make engineers and creative executives feel comfortable.

"She understands the technology better than she gives herself credit for," said Peter Chane, Google Video's lead product manager and the engineer who started the project.

Feikin caught the show-business bug early.

Her mother has been a Baltimore television personality for decades. Rhea Feikin hosted children's shows and, accompanied by a puppet named J.P., gave the weather report during the evening news. Feikin's late stepfather was Colgate Salsbury, a stage, TV and film actor.

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