High tech is the latest blockbuster

From movie producers to cinematographers to high-tech writers, the message was the same: the Internet and other digital technologies have forever shifted the balance of power in the entertainment industry.
Written by Maria Seminerio, Contributor

At the inaugural EnterTech conference, which kicked off here Sunday, Hollywood power brokers gathered to hobnob with the digerati and to debate the question of how technology is changing movies, television and music.

The consensus during the opening panel discussions was that in the new digital world, the old order has been turned on its head, with artists wielding more power than ever before, yet at the same time being more vulnerable to those who would infringe upon their works. The idea that technology has brought heartaches along with new avenues to profit was much repeated among Sunday's speakers.

The MP3 format for digital music delivery has "scared the hell out of the record companies" while allowing emerging artists to connect directly with their fans on the Web, Jonathan Weber, editor in chief of The Industry Standard, said during the show's first panel. Ironically, while on the one hand they fear lost profits from the proliferation of MP3, on the other hand online music delivery could present an opportunity to cut out the CD retailers that take a bite out of their profits, Weber said.

If digital technologies have been a mixed blessing for the music business, they've been less kind to the traditional TV networks, which have been slowly but steadily losing viewers over the past few years, several panellists agreed. "As we move into the 500-channel universe, the brand will drive viewer figures," said Peggy Conlon, publisher of Broadcasting & Cable magazine. Once digital set-top boxes with advanced video-capture capabilities become the norm, viewers will be mainly interested in finding the shows and actors they want to see, when they want to see them, regardless of what TV network they're on, Conlon said.

These devices -- already available from companies such as Tivo Inc. -- will make possible a "personal network" on which the user can arrange to watch whatever they want, whenever they want, even ensuring that they never again see a commercial even on live broadcasts, she said. "This will mean the end of television network schedules," Conlon added.

The consumer might be more in control of his or her entertainment time under this model, but the TV networks could be in trouble, several panellists said. If viewers can zap out all the commercials, they asked, how will the networks pay for the shows? The onus could shift to the advertisers to make "more clever, compelling, targeted ads," according to Walt Mossberg, technology columnist at the Wall Street Journal. "Advertisers are lazy now. They're going to need to get more creative," Mossberg said.

The question of the creative control afforded by technology is no less crucial to movie studios than to TV and music moguls. Film industry executives taking part in another panel spoke in glowing terms of the new digital film editing tools that let them perform previously unimagined feats of technical wizardry, but said they're extremely wary of the potential for online film piracy. "The history of Hollywood has been defined by technology, and no more so than in the last decade," said producer David Nicksay, a producer at film studio Heliopolis Entertainment. But the "love-hate relationship" between artists and technology in Hollywood is becoming more strained, he said.

Don Petrie, a director whose credits include the LA Law television series and the movies Mystic Pizza and Grumpy Old Men, was more blunt. "As a content creator, I'm scared shitless" about the abilities digital editing creates for films to be cut up to suit different audiences' whims, Petrie said. "I know what the airline version of 'Grumpy Old Men' looks like," he said.

Actors, too, are intimidated about the idea of their work making its way into cyberspace to be repurposed into new forms, Petrie said. "From an actor's standpoint, what happens to the proprietary right to your face, your voice" in the online world, where they can easily be sampled and reused, he asked.

The conference continues here through Tuesday with presentations from Warner Bros. Online President Jim Moloshok, Producers Guild of America President Thom Mount, and noted cinematographers including Laszlo Kovacs, whose credits include the films Easy Rider, Paper Moon and Shampoo.

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