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Todd Dagres segues from venture capital to Hollywood

Inventors of optical networks and routers used to be the stars in Todd Dagres's world. Now, he'd rather rub elbows with hot producers at the Sundance Film Festival.

Dagres, one of the best-known names in Boston venture capital in the feverish Internet years, still has the "VENCHA" plates on his Mercedes s55, but he's spending more time in Hollywood these days than on Interstate 495.

Nearly a year ago, Dagres, 44, walked away from his lucrative life as a partner at Battery Ventures in Wellesley to try his hand at producing movies.

His friends thought it was a midlife crisis; Dagres insists it's a new phase. He figured film was "content" at first, another slice of the digital world he'd come to know so well. But he quickly grew enamored of the medium: "I cannot get excited about information technology anymore," he says.

Not content to be a passive financier, a no-name outsider trying to penetrate an industry that's more ego-driven and clubby even than venture capital, he dove in head first.

Dagres set up a company, BeGyle, to invest in films. He met with directors, producers, and film-industry people on both coasts. He backed a short comedy in New York and bought a house in Los Angeles. He spelled his last name DaGres on his new business cards. And he landed a project.

He raised $3 million, including money from his own pocket, to make "Pretty Persuasion," a dark comedy with a cast that includes experienced actors like Evan Rachel Wood ("The Missing"), Ron Livingston ("Adaptation"), and James Woods ("The Rudy Giuliani Story"). The film is in post-production and has been submitted to Sundance, the prestigious Utah launch venue for independent films.

"I liked the script. I liked the cast members. I liked the director," Dagres explains. "I felt it could make money."

Betting on talent and ideas is familiar territory for Dagres. He made a small fortune for himself and for Battery by backing high-tech juggernauts like Akamai Technologies Inc., one of the hottest IPOs of 1999, and Qtera Corp., which Nortel Networks Ltd. bought for more than $3 billion the same year. Those two deals alone accounted for about $1.3 billion in profits to Battery investors.

But after the market crashed and the bubble burst, Dagres chafed at the slower pace and the paltry rewards for selling companies. He disagreed with his partners over the firm's direction, he and former colleagues say. And Dagres slumped back to what he calls his "bratty kid" status at Battery.

"For one brief shining moment, I thought I was unbelievable," he says, deadpan. But the party ended abruptly, he said. "You're just another person, and all that really matters is hard work."

Fresh from his workout at the Sports Club/LA at the downtown Ritz-Carlton one recent afternoon, Dagres is buff and coiffed, a Billy Bob Thornton in a closely shaven beard. The kid from Newbury has long since abandoned the VC boy scout mold for metrosexual baggy jeans and a pressed, untucked shirt. The waiter at Blu brings him iced tea without having to ask. Dagres is talking publicly about his new career for the first time.

"I'm very serious about being actively involved in the film business," he says. "I'm not in this just for the fun of it. I'm in it to make money, too."

Dagres brings his Boston University MBA, Wall Street training, and nine years as a venture capitalist to the movie set. He's always embraced risk, he says, but he also has a practical side. As he did in technology, he's looking for broad appeal, the biggest bang for his buck.

"The audience we're going after goes to a lot of movies," he says, such as women ages 18 to 25. "It turns out 35-year-old men don't go to the movies much."

Dagres has several projects afoot, including an "edgy" screenplay he commissioned. He's also obtained the rights to the James "Whitey" Bulger story, and is working with Keith Dorrington of Edgartown Ventures in Cambridge to shoot "The Winter Hill Gang," a movie about the South Boston crime boss, in 2005.

Marcos Siega, the director of "Pretty Persuasion," said Dagres didn't strut into Hollywood with the usual rich-guy attitude.

"These guys come in here and because they're financing the movie, they think they know everything," Siega said. "Todd really understood what we wanted to do on the creative side. He played the traditional role of producer, when we had to tackle creative issues, and had to figure out how to get something down without spending a lot of money."

Dagres is well aware of what his detractors say about him -- and there are many, though none brave enough to speak on the record. They think he'll fall on his face in Hollywood. They say he can be stubborn, temper-prone, and difficult to get along with.

"I didn't always place nice with the other VCs," Dagres admits.

Howard Anderson, a Boston venture capitalist who hired Dagres years ago at his Yankee Group research firm and later recruited him to Battery, has heard it all. But he's predicting Dagres's foray into film, even if dreadful at first, will ultimately produce standing ovations.

"Todd is one of the most competitive people you ever saw. He hates, hates, hates to lose," Anderson says. "Half-court basketball with Todd means blood -- mostly yours."

Dagres played baseball at Trinity College, following in the footsteps of his father, Angelo Dagres, a lefty who played one season for the Baltimore Orioles, in 1955, and then was sidelined by an injury. The younger Dagres still has a hand in baseball, as an owner of the Charleston Alley Cats, a minor league team in West Virginia.

He grew up working in his family's Plum Island restaurant, the former Sportsmen's Lodge. Years as a busboy, waiter, and bartender taught him to work, Dagres says. It also convinced him his career was elsewhere. "I never wanted to be in the restaurant business," he says. But restaurants are also in his blood. Dagres can often be found lunching on a grilled cheddar and bacon sandwich at Locke-Ober, his Jeep parked boldly outside the front door, just off a pedestrian-only walkway. He is an investor in Lydia Shire's remake of the famous old Boston restaurant.

When he's not working on movies, Dagres is still investing in start-ups, but his interest has shifted to life sciences. He's putting money into entrepreneurs working on erasable tattoos, and into cosmetic technology like less invasive body-sculpting and longer-lasting face lifts.

Dagres keeps his enthusiasm about his new pursuits in check, almost in reaction, he explains, to the routine hyperbole of the left coast.

"I'm skeptical," he says, "I'm still skeptical." He hopes at least one of his films will achieve some critical acclaim.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm still a venture guy," Dagres says. "But it's my venture, not somebody else's venture."

Beth Healy can be reached at 

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