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SPAA CONFERENCE 2006

THE NEW - DIGITAL - WORLD ORDER
The local and international film & tv industry gathered on the Gold Coast last week when Australian producers were left in no doubt that their (and our) future lies in the opportunities opening up through new technologies, with digital distribution adding a new degree of control for them, and access for consumers, reports Andrew L. Urban, surveying the new digital world order for screen entertainment.


Whether it’s ironic or appropriate that the film and tv industry should gather at a resort called Mirage won’t be known for a couple of years, as the new world order of screen production struggles into life. From keynote speakers to workshop sessions at this year’s SPAA conference (Nov 14 – 17, Sheraton Mirage, Gold Coast), the buzz was ‘digital’ – which may seem a tad late to those who are already making programs and movies on HD or digital video, but the film industry around the world has been slow to uptake new technology in any of its processes, from production to post to distribution. But the signs are clear that the wave of the digital revolution will either sweep the filmmakers to exciting new shores of opportunity or drown them as it breaks over them like a deadly rip curl.

"keynote speech"

In his keynote speech, visionary billionaire US entertainment entrepreneur Todd Wagner (who in 1995 sold his video portal, broadcast.com to Yahoo! for US$5.7 billion) urged the filmmakers to embrace change, to learn about the technology and to learn from the past. He drew attention to the anomalies in the existing distribution system, which often shuts content creators out of the commercial return. He runs a vertically integrated conglomerate which includes HDNet Films, Magnolia Distribution and Landmark Theatres. Wagner has recently negotiated a deal with Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh to make six movies that are being released “day-and-date” across theatrical, television and home video platforms, an innovative distribution strategy allowing consumers to choose how, when and where they wish to see a film.

He questioned the wisdom of existing release ‘windows’ in which consumers who came out of a cinema after enjoying the film had to wait some months before they could buy the DVD, for instance. Wagner thought selling the DVD of new release films in the cinemas themselves would make sense. And while many people like to see films in cinemas, he gave figures that show how cinema attendance is the lowest form of consuming entertainment. A multi-platform release would deliver movies to audiences where and when they wanted them. This is how he sees technology serving the entertainment industry – by serving the consumer. It’s not content that is king now, but the consumer.

The conference ran a dedicated DigiSPAA sidebar, which offered significant prizes for movies made entirely digitally, curated by Los Angeles-based Australian sales agent and executive producer, Antony I. Ginnane. In other sessions, the Australian Film Commission outlined its plans for australianscreenonline, a website that will promote the Australian film and tv industry. The AFC also announced plans to increase the number of Australian films that will be available to regional audiences through a new digital cinema model.

"digital distribution"

In the session on digital distribution produced by this writer, Canadian lawyer and digital distribution consultant Margot Langford exposed the extensive nature of online distribution on a global scale, and pointed to the need for Australians to become well informed about the issues concerning licencing and rights management. Also on the panel was Marshall Heald, the manager of Telstra’s BigPond movie (and music) download service, which was launched in March 2006. Heald took part in a sample negotiation with producer Vincent Sheehan, to demonstrate how a digital distribution deal might be formulated, based on BigPond Movies absorbing all necessary costs (eg encoding) and sharing all revenue from the first dollar with the producer (rights holder).

Reeltime.tv, BigPond’s only Australian rival (so far), outlined the nature of its operation (similar business model to BigPond) and how it is working with Yahoo!7 as its major ‘shopfront’ for video on demand. Managing Director John Karantzis also hinted at a major breakthrough announcement due within a week or so. Urban Cinefile understands Reeltime will be offering movies from some of its studio suppliers to download day and date with the DVD release.

Both BigPond and Reeltime are keen to acquire Australian productions for online distribution, and one entire session was devoted to programs made-for-mobile – and how to generate revenue from subs and/or advertising.

In yet another ‘futurising’ session, UK based entertainment industry management consultant Jonathan Olsberg convened two groups – producers, and distributor/marketers – and set them the task of analysing the impact of new technology on their own businesses and operations. Troy Lum moderated the distribution group, who proposed an expansion into research and IT for distributors, and this writer moderated the producers, who foresaw greater control over their products and their returns. There was also a significant prospect of reducing production and post production costs using digital technology.

"the heart of the matter"

But with all this talk about digital technology, the heart of the matter was not forgotten: Animal Logic’s Greg Smith produced a session with a focus on Pixar’s storytelling. Art Department Manager Jay Ward told how Pixar spoke extensively about storytelling and the creative considerations that come to light in realising the story in the 3D world. Disney’s recent acquisition of Pixar brings together the worlds of 2D and 3D animation, foreshadowing a new generation of movies.

Published November 23, 2006
 

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Todd Wagner


Jonathan Olsberg






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