As a graphics graduate fresh out of art college in 1997, Rick Palmer had little cash to launch his first internet venture, and even less business experience. He had almost no technical know-how and had only just discovered the web. The one commodity he did have was the seeds of a community - an address book packed full of the names of his arty student friends from Central St Martin's in London.
He quickly set about connecting old friends and new media, creating an on-line environment for experimental productions in film and music. A month after graduating, he took a handful of short films that his friends had made, and put them on to his new site via a process of digitising and compression. As the project grew and more films arrived, he began to expand the concept, showcasing music, reviews, contact information and advice.
Two years on, he is all set to launch an on-line casting service, giving agents and directors access to the rÃ©sumÃ©s of hundreds of professional actors. His portal, Reelscreen (www.reelscreen.com), already includes chat forums, an A-Z guide for film-makers and a selection of 500 potential soundtracks together with hundreds of short films; plus a directory for independent film-makers, offering free access to details of around 16,000 UK-based film and production-related businesses. Palmer and his business partner, Liz Vaughan, a former music promoter, have also just signed up to be on-line partners for the BBC's Short Film Festival.
"Graphics was a bit of a dead end, whereas I could see that the internet opened up this infinite amount of possibilities," recalls Palmer, now 25. "I thought constantly about the broadcast capabilities of the internet. It was a perfect marriage of graphic design and new media, at the same time helping to promote my friends.
"The thought that with a few hundred pounds and a net connection, I could broadcast to a wider audience than Channel 4 or ITV was really what turned me on. Two years ago hardly anybody was going on about dot.com this and lastminute that and people weren't getting into the internet just to make money. That wasn't the main reason I got into it. It was really just a passion for broadcasting." His biggest struggle has been to find the cash to carry on, and graduate from a two-man operation run from Vaughan's kitchen in north London.
"We've come from humble beginnings and a lot of the time, we faced imminent closure. We would be contacting a large organisation and expecting them to respond in a short time, and it was like turning a liner round in mid-ocean. We didn't have much leverage," says Palmer.
Six months ago, a private investor provided the pair with funds to move to a proper office and to employ 30 staff. That enabled them to create the Reelfinder directory, a project which involved telephoning thousands of make-up artists, crews, agents and other production businesses to gain permission to put their contact details on the site. They now hope to establish their new casting service, backed by Equity, as a leading on-line tool to enable casting directors to sort more rapidly through criteria such as eye colour and dancing skills when looking for potential hires.
Palmer emphasises that his vision is to stay as close to the ground as possible. He personally overhauls the site's design every two months, and seeks feedback like a pig after truffles. He loves the fact that half the site's visitors (20,000 per week) are from the United States. "They're very gung-ho and positive about our ideas over there, and we do find that we get fantastic feedback because we're not charging anything to promote and we don't try to take ownership of material. We're here to showcase - what we get in return is content, which helps to build our audience, our community and our revenue streams. The audience itself has sort of evolved Reelscreen into what it is.
"A lot of promotion goes on through the film community itself. Initially, we were getting one film a month and now we get a couple of films sent to us every day. We watch every single one and if it's of a good enough standard, it goes on the site. We're not trying to be judge or jury but we encourage debate." The shorts on the site are mostly animations and dramas; users can vote for their favourite, write a comment, contact the film-maker and view the script. "Reelscreen is a creative melting pot. You showcase your own movie but you're looking at other people's work and thinking, how do they do that?"
Palmer has plans to expand into e-commerce and production and to take the portal Europe-wide, but his more immediate goal is the development of a mobile service through Wireless Application Protocol. "The whole point about WAP is that you're not going to use it to watch a movie; you'll wait till you get home or go to a cinema. What you will be able to use WAP for is to access services like Reelfinder."
But his main motivation is to provide a platform for film-makers whose work might otherwise never reach the cinema. "When we get a really good film in the post in the morning, that gives me the biggest buzz. You look through the tapes and there's a real gem and it's wonderful to think it's going to be seen by thousands of people and it's because you've done your best to help that film-maker.
"You're not going to wait to download a movie on to your screen and sit and watch it, but a short film of 10 minutes is just the right period of time for your coffee break, and the internet has really revived that genre. For the next six months we'll focus on growing our brand. The quality is there - we just want people to know about it."