LOS ANGELES -- Eric Frankel spent 28 years at Warner Bros. TV, selling reruns of such staples as Two and a Half Men and Friends and movies such as the Harry Potter series to TV stations around the world.
The bigger the star of the show, the bigger the sale. Stars were hot when he left Warner Bros. four years ago. But they are even hotter today, thanks to an Internet culture that tracks every celebrity move.
So when Frankel, 53, came up with the idea for StarGreetz — a company that serves up stars who personally offer birthday greetings, ring tones and phone messages to consumers — his contacts thought he was clearly onto something.
Jeff Sagansky, the former president of CBS Entertainment, invested. So did movie producer Joe Roth (Alice in Wonderland) and Hollywood super-lawyers Harry "Skip" Brittenham (Tom Hanks, Tim Allen) and Ken Ziffren (Jay Leno).
All told, Frankel raised $6.5 million from investors. But it wasn't as simple as he thought it would be. "It's a lot easier to get somebody to buy a Dirty Harry movie from you than to give you a million dollars," he says.
Finding a ready and willing audience to listen to and buy Frankel's personalized digital messages was easier , helped by good timing. The enormous Facebook social network — 800 million and growing — turned out to be a good fit.
Since its debut in July 2010, StarGreetz has delivered 12 million messages and picked up 600,000 registered users, paying an average of $2.95 a pop to have celebs say hello to their friends in e-cards and ring tones.
Frankel says his company is close to breaking even. He expects to be profitable in 2012.
The celebrity lineup so far includes signer Reba McEntire, boxing legend Mike Tyson, Jersey Shore star Pauly D, TV icon Adam West, Megadeth band member Dave Mustaine, singer Nick Jonas and the 2011 finalists from American Idol. Disney also offers its classic characters (Goofy, Donald Duck, etc.).
Frankel also cut deals with some brands. Quaker Oats put Jonas and a so-called QR code on boxes of granola bars. Scan the code with a smartphone to get a personalized greeting.
How it works: Go to StarGreetz.com, or the celebrity's Facebook page or website, and sign up for the personalized greeting. Type in your name and that of the recipient, choose the type of greeting ("You are going to keep on loving them," "You're proud of them"), pay $2.99, and the greeting is on its way, via e-mail or Facebook.
For Quaker, turning to StarGreetz was a way to reach the shopper. "We wanted to … provide Mom with a new and unique way to interact with her kids," says Bill Fiely, director of Quaker Snack Bars.
For celebrities, it's another way to connect to the Facebook network, keeping their name out there, and potentially selling some products. (The celebs and StarGreetz share revenues.)
The only hitch: The stars have to read a lot of names during their time in Frankel's production studio.
StarGreetz usually gives them 750 names (happy birthday, Richard; happy birthday, Robert; happy birthday, Ronald) to read all day long.
In return, celebs get to connect with their fan base on Facebook.
"You could put a billboard up in Times Square, but how many people who saw it are your fans?" says Frankel.
"Instead," he says, "you talk directly to your millions of fans: Want to go to my new concert, hear my new song, buy a ring tone?"
Christopher Heine, a writer for the ClickZ social marketing news website, says celebrities are looking to social media as another venue to offer endorsements.
"Celebrity endorsements on Twitter and Facebook have really taken off in the last year and a half," he says. "That suggests there is a market like the one StarGreetz hopes to dominate."
On a recent morning in Los Angeles, Tyson was at StarGreetz's studio, in front of a large green screen, recording personalized greetings for the Facebook crowd.
And he was having a ball. "This is all new stuff to me," he said. "It's like I'm going into warp speed … the future."
Consumers' connection with celebrities is what sealed the deal for investor Sagansky. When a celebrity is speaking directly to you, "You're a lot more focused and attentive," he says.