The Back Door To Hollywood

(This column first appeared in the April 4, 1994 issue of PC Graphics Report)

On one of my recent trips to the Bay Area from my home on the east coast, I decided to swing through L.A. to check out the new NewMedia ’94 conference – the Interface Group’s latest tradeshow/conference attempt to cover an emerging and blurry market.

The topics covered in the various sessions ranged from discussions of the latest digital video compression technologies and the current state of set-top technology, to the creation of video games using comic book characters and Hollywood actors and why it is good to use the actor’s, writer’s, and director’s guilds in producing “NewMedia” titles. Intellectual property issues were also covered in a couple of sessions, as was the production process of creating an interactive educational program based on an IMAX movie.

The 100 or so exhibits were just as diverse, with the typical profusion of CD-ROM software distributors, interactive games companies, CD-ROM creation and duplication houses, video capture and video-in-a-window hardware manufacturers, and free magazines. Less typical, but nonetheless present, were the half-dozen publishers of “adult interactive” materials, Buick (yes, the car company), Prodify, a laser pointer distributor, and a credit card company.

What this all seems to point to is a lack of real focus on the part of the Interface Group, and what both exhibitors and session coordinators were somewhat unsure as to what “NewMedia” really means. I suppose you could consider this a boon as well, because it provided interesting (and sometimes unexpected) diversity in both exhibit and session material – something you generally don’t see at more narrow conferences.

One theme that was dominant, however, was that almost everything that was computer related (except the Buick and the laser pointers) was also oriented towards the entertainment side of multimedia.

Business uses of “New Media” were not prominent by any stretch of the imagination. This was apparently not obvious to some people, because when I cornered the Intel speaker (“Indeo is everywhere”) after the digital video compression panel and asked him what Intel’s feeling was about the likelihood of the convergence of both set-top and desk-top compression standards, he proceeded to try and explain why set-top compression standards weren’t important and didn’t have any impact on the business users of PCs. It took me a while to get him to understand that it was my impression that the consumer multimedia and compression market was a heck of a lot larger than the business market, and that was what I wanted a comparison drawn with. He seemed relieved when someone else interrupted the conversation, and after that I never really got an answer from him. In all fairness, he was probably right about the pure business users, who I imagine might be teleconferencers and who would need a symmetric CoDec mechanism to allow for the real-time compression/decompression teleconferencing requires. MPEG, the compression standard of choice for set-tops, doesn’t currently have affordable real-time compression, yet.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about whatever “NewMedia” is, is that it hints about an almost inevitable merger of Hollywood and multimedia. Sure, we’ve already got Star Trek screen savers, movie clips and sound bites, but that’s just a real small tip of the iceberg. The day in which multimedia title performers may get the same sort of acclaim and billing as motion picture performers isn’t that far off. As a matter of fact, some well-known actors are starting to play a part in multi-media. Dennis Miller of Saturday Night Live fame has a couple of comedy titles out (one called, appropriately enough, “It’s Geek to me”), while Kirk Cameron (teenage heartthrob) plays a part in a new Crystal Dynamics game title for 3DO, and, sisters Nancy and Ann Wilson (better known as the rock group Heart) have a new CD-ROM title as well, which chronicles the history of the band, offering interview clips, a photo album, and numerous tracks of Heart hits (it’s called “Heart: 20 Years of Rock & Roll”, published by Compton’s New Media (there’s that term again)).

This last item really struck home with me, because I got to attend a press conference at NewMedia ’94 announcing the new Heart CD-ROM. The press conference coincidentally featured Heart, live. They played a set of 5 songs for a “vast” audience of less than 200. Made it seem downright private and personal, and imminent. Next to me were editors from BYTE and CADENCE, as well as one from Film & Audio magazine; a Hollywood director and even a guy who works on film crews. Certainly not the typical blend of people one usually gets to meet at the typical boring computer press conference. As I left, I was handed the new CD-ROM title, autographed by the Wilson sisters, along with a copy of their latest audio CD.

Will autographed copies of new CD-ROM titles start becoming the norm? And, imagine the audience the release of something like “Batman 7 – Catwoman Returns – The CD-ROM” would command, starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Do we start having Premiere night for CD-ROM titles? Do the production costs for CD-ROM titles start matching those of feature movies? Will multimedia actors start earning royalties?

Several prominent stars have been funding multimedia title development companies… Who knows where that will lead. It certainly will lend a whole new flavor to industry shows, with PC veterans hobnobbing with Hollywood illuminati. PC Multimedia and Hollywood are definitely on a collision course. No question about it.

The only question is: Which is more likely to be permanently and irrevocably changed by the other?