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Lights... Camera... It's Digital Hollywood! How The Techies are Taking Over

In Hollywood, "technology" has been a dirty word, almost as much as the term "digital". But now, at an entertainment industry event, IT professionals are among the most important attendees. Find out what's changing among the players and the technology they work with -- and how it'll affect your job in the office. (Hint: it's a lot.)
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For as long as I've attended Digital Hollywood, technology has been a dirty word, along with the term digital. The entertainment industry still remembers debacles like Disney's Lion King CD-ROM, which wouldn't play on some Windows machines — they don't like dealing with things like sound drivers. But now, at an entertainment industry event, IT professionals are among the most important attendees.

That's because the entertainment industry has morphed into the purveyors of the "digital lifestyle", with their new buddies Microsoft and Apple. This has serious ramifications for IT and other professionals who've been able to work in a world in which they were mavens and gurus. Hollywood has caught on, and now they're using the very technology that threatened them to protect their assets and make more money.

Most of the people who attend Digital Hollywood, including the press, are looking for answers or solutions to digital delivery at the very high end of the broadcast/film and music spectrum. There are panels on HD formats, new DVD formats, music distributions strategies, online games, and so on. For example, one of the folks speaking on behalf of Microsoft, the "Director of Technical Policy," is on a panel discussing DRM (Digital Rights Management). You can get an idea of where things are going when you see sponsors like Intel, Sun and IBM alongside the Hollywood Reporter and UCLA Extension.

Another good indication of where things are headed are the overused buzzwords, like "convergence." In some Office Reference Guide updates I have mentioned an esteemed colleague, Bob Befus (of Presentations Strategies in Durham, North Carolina, a firm that specializes in high-end corporate events and provides solutions from AV to internet broadcast and conferencing). He has an interesting view of convergence; he predicts the intersection of the worlds of AV (audio-visual expertise) and IT (the realm of information technology professionals).

So what's an Office professional to get out of this gathering?

At a previous Digital Hollywood, I spent some time talking with a Vice President at Universal Music group — an ex-musician who became a computer programmer and now runs IT services for the music division of the studio. He told me a bit about how he and his colleagues had finally succeeded in having the entire music industry (including Apple's iTunes) adopt a new standard for meta-language to tag and identify musical tracks.

To an Office user, this is sort of like having the entire computer and PDA industry finally agree upon a standard database format for contacts and calendars, so that any snippet of contact or appointment information can be understood by any device or program, including Outlook. Maybe that's been far-fetched dream for technologists (until the advent of XML), but in the entertainment industry, where things have to work out of the box, the compelling aspect of consumer demand made this standard happen. It has only taken three years to adopt.

The Rights Stuff

Of course, with high end content finding its way onto PDAs and media center computers in the home, delivered on big screens, what's the "real" movie industry to do to get folks into theatres? That was the focus of a panel led by Joyce Schwartz, of JCOM, a strategic marketing, branding and new product introduction firm. Joyce's panel included Sinbad and representatives of TV Guide and National Cinemedia, a theatre chain using a digital network and supplementing its conventional offerings with networked meetings and conferences. (Maybe you've been to a Microsoft event at a movie theatre.)

By the way: if you haven't heard Sinbad comment on technology, you're missing out. He's a riot, and very insightful.

Joyce has been in the digital area of entertainment for a long time, and her panel discussed several trends to enable the players to keep making money in a world where lots of stuff is available for free. Not surprisingly, the topics of successful asset and rights management and personalization kept coming up, all of which require IT solutions.

Her five trends were briefly: byte size content for mobile; thinking in terms of community rather than consumer; the audience as producer/editor; reinventing rather than repurposing; and "custom-tainment" — podcasts and blogs that target and involve users. All of these trends involve the use of IT professionals to make them work, partnering with content providers.

At this Digital Hollywood, I had a chance to talk with Russell Reeder of RightsLine, a provider of application software that merges business rights management with online sales and licensing. Reeder's company sells a suite of products to the entertainment industry (such as Universal and other studios, music distributors, etc.) that combines Rights Management, Sales/Licensing Automation, Royalty Management, Advanced Reporting and IP Auditing and Tracking. And it's all integrated with their day-to-day MS Office applications running on their own internal networks.

Reeder discussed "IPTV," which is obviously a new distribution model based on the Internet Protocol but which Reeder calls Intellectual Property (IP) TV. As more and more content (music, movies, and "Mobisodes" — trailers and other short clips suitable for mobile devices) goes online, the management of assets and rights becomes critical.

This has very interesting implications for the information technology industry, as we'll see. Briefly, every company's assets will need to be managed for potential online distribution. While your client or company may not have movies or music, it may have PowerPoint slide shows about its annual report, proprietary programs and spreadsheets, and other assets that need to be tracked, protected and monetized.

Reeder was part of a panel called "Protecting Your Intellectual Property — The Policies and Technologies for Managing Risk". Along with Russell Frackman, of the entertainment law firm of Mitchell, Silberberg and Knupp, Reeder discussed both the legal aspects of digital distribution and the technological issues involved in managing the rights to content.

Through Reeder, I met Daren Gill, VP of Business Development for ChoiceStream in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which develops personalization solutions for online consumer services, mobile, and media operators. With entertainment companies now taking the lead, it's apparent that in the near future all companies will employ software solutions that let them drive products and services, or information about their offerings, directly to those consumers who have clearly indicated an interest in them. This sort of personalization is yet another technological issue for which companies like ChoiceStream provide a solution.

Show Me Your Stuff

Companies can't always locate or afford the IT talent they need to implement rights management or personalization solutions. Even Yahoo! uses an outsourcing company (in their case, RampRate Sourcing Advisors).

From a presentation standpoint, the continued presence of exhibitors with products and services that really may belong at InfoComm was notable. For example, Continental Vista Broadcasting offers a suite of products that enable anyone to broadcast interactive video on the Web with additional features like chat, polling, advertising — using features they call "Talk2Event, Talk2Advertiser, chat rooms, forums, polls, surveys, real-time tickers, live statistics, an emotion meter, an interactive advertising window, contests, auctions, online donation acceptance, and e-commerce."

Continental Vista's product is a proprietary media player that that uses standard Flash MX-based files along with any other standard video format as input. If you want to leverage content from PowerPoint, you would simply use one of the many PowerPoint to Flash converters or output key slides as bitmap images.

In some ways, this reminded me of the MediaSite product from Sonic Foundry, except that it provides a similar set of services from the perspective of a broadcaster rather than a technology company. But the results are the same; viewers can actively participate in a branded broadcast that is more compelling than a simple slideshow.

Obviously, this broadcast can just as easily be a corporate presentation rather than what is commonly considered entertainment. One demo is a fully branded interactive broadcasting portal for a client that offers premium on-demand seminars. There is no reason why such a set of content offerings could not just as easily supplement or convey real-time meetings for a pharmaceutical company, or provide training seminars for an automobile manufacturer.

The IT-AV convergence is highlighted here as well, because information being collected from the various services goes where — obviously a database for analysis and reuse.

How much does this cost? Like anything marketed in the entertainment industry, "it depends". But among Continental Vista's clients are some academic and religious institutions, suggesting that pricing models can be compatible for high end presentation projects.

A big focus at Digital Hollywood is Music and Games. But even these worlds are now tech-heavy. Games used to be about 3D technology and rendering, which is still important. Now they're also about product placement and Web interactivity with communities. This means data is being collected and financial transactions are taking place. Can an Access database or Excel spreadsheet be far behind, in planning and execution?

Music also used to be about making an "album" and cutting a CD. Now it's about playlists and rights management and micro-payments. Bands have to establish relationships with their fans using sophisticated technology that involves keeping track of lots and lots and lots of information. They also need to publish regular updates of their music, their personal stuff, and tour information, fully integrated with what individual fans have requested. Fans want to be involved so that they'll buy tickets.

Further, fans may want to communicate via PC, game console, cell phone, or PDA. This means more databases integrated with media broadcasting over the Web.

How does this translate into marketing for Office users? Your corporate clients will be more sophisticated about using media and more demanding of a full gamut of services. Five years ago they may have been okay with a simple corporate brochure Web site. Now they're going to want streaming video, forms for collecting data and tools for analyzing it, and possibly DVD production along with normal IT functions.

The first to notice this are corporate presenters. Instead of offering only AV and presentation services for an event, to compete you may need to offer a client a complete interactive network solution for online and on demand broadcast of their content, which will include full interactivity, polling and chat.

Everything at Digital Hollywood has an IT base just beneath its surface. As Bob Befus suggests in the presentations world, IT will have to fully understand the needs of presenters. As presenters become more sophisticated in encompassing the gamut of toys in the entertainment industry, integrating programs like Flash, PowerPoint, and even Excel and Access will become mandatory as data is collected and organized as a result of any event.

IT will increasingly be less about programs and more about media. And with media programming, there is less tolerance for error. When was the last time you rebooted your TV?

While the entertainment industry has been dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age, more and more of their enterprise will also involve working with data. XML, database, programming and Flash experts (along with an Office pro here and there) will need to be involved in every aspect of production because of the obvious stakes in the technical issues and consequences involved.

If you miss COMDEX, check out Digital Hollywood's new Vegas Rocks show where (once again) the technology behind music, movies and digital entertainment combines with content providers in a show about the digital lifestyle.

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