FESTIVALS: Digital Coast 2000: 4 Lessons about Online Entertainment
by Kevin Dreyfuss
(indieWIRE/9.26.00) --Let me start my recollections of the Digital Coast 2000 online entertainment confab in LA (Sept. 12-14) with this theory I have about conferences. I figure you can get a pretty good gauge of how vibrant and meaningful an event is by the quality of the mints given away by the exhibitors in the hallways. Sounds silly, but it's surprisingly accurate. And how were the mints this year? Let me put it this way -- tasteless, bland, more than a little stale, but a hint of freshness.
Working against the conference was a general weariness people have with events like this and the very real fact that the online entertainment space is in deep shit right now, with companies like DEN, POP.com, Pixelon, Pseudo, Scour and Entertaindom dying out. Still, the panels and presentations went on, covering topics like digital distribution, creative film financing online, copyright issues, and online storytelling, as well as a hastily organized awards ceremony showing off some fave online entertainment. Through it all, amazingly enough, real issues were discussed, and new lessons learned:
LESSON #1: THOSE WHO DENY REALITY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT
Those who could be considered visionaries, people like Rob Tercek of PacketVideo, or the CEOs of struggling Web services companies like iXL and Razorfish, were completely up-front about the money-losing problems with the online entertainment business. Still, Idealab head Bill Gross noted in reference to the failures at places like the DEN, that he wishes the media would "look at the true business models and report on that, [rather than] write off all entertainment companies because one company spent recklessly."
Alas, many companies, including many if not all of the online entertainment and online film sites fell into the "head-in-the-sand" crowd. From the online entertainment sites in attendance, it was more of the same old failed ideas -- blow money to attract traffic and bring advertisers, hire established Hollywood types or cheap young talent to create content, and hold on for dear life until that magic future when the PC and the TV combine into the Holy Grail. In a small ray of hope, several of the smarter players in the field, IFILM and AtomFilms in particular, didn't bother to show up, which gives one hope that they were off doing actual work.
The aforementioned Tercek envisioned a future where online entertainment is in fact a successful business, but not using big name talent, instead following the lead of user-generated content havens like Eveo.com or the forthcoming Alltrue.com, declaring, "User-generated content is going to be the main driver for video programming for the next decade. We're going to see a shift in control of video product."
LESSON #2: CONTROVERSY SELLS ON THE WEB, BUT THE SALESPEOPLE ARE IDIOTS
One of the most fascinating flare-ups at the conference concerned the controversial content being developed by online entertainment companies. Sites like The Romp, Icebox, Heavy.com, CrapTV and Eruptor are pushing the envelope of taste and standards. In defending the Icebox satire "Mr. Wong," Icebox President Gary Levine invoked the First Amendment and said "there are no sacred cows," while shocking the crowd with his announcement of a forthcoming Holocaust satire. "Wong" critic Guy Aoki had a ready response to what he considered virulently racist Asian stereotyping, "This is supposed to be a different and groundbreaking thing. It's really not groundbreaking, it's more of the same."
It's a fascinating argument, one that has played out in Hollywood, in the indie film scene, and is now a hot topic on the Presidential campaign trail. But it seems the argument for shows like "Wong" only goes so far. Every single company head on a panel devoted to discussing the issue came off sounding like a petulant, idiotic child. They brayed on and on about their right to do what they want, and anyone who disagreed were a fascist hypocrite. But there wasn't a word spoken about the responsibilities that go along with those rights, except by Glasgow Phillips of CrapTV, who seemed to surprise even himself by arguing against "Wong."
In fact, the entire controversy about "Wong" isn't so much about the content itself, but the intentions behind it. It's hard to have any confidence that those running the site had any idea what they were messing with when they launched the show. It's not that topics like racism or the Holocaust aren't ripe for humor, as shown in intelligent pieces like the "South Park" movie. It's just that these online moguls have none of the same sense of respect, smarts or self-control.
The antidote to this lack of perspective came from attendees like Open City/Blow-Up Films head Jason Kliot, who seemed excited by all the storytelling opportunities opening up with the combo of Internet distribution and DV filmmaking, which are loosening the grip of "those rich kids who can afford to make beautiful-looking movies." He explained that it's no longer about the surface beauty of a film, "now it's about the work."
Slightly batty comic book mogul Stan Lee also cut through the crap by noting that watching movies or cartoons on the Web isn't even entertainment as such quite yet. "Interactive is really the key word," he explained, "On the Internet, if something isn't interactive, you don't really have much of a chance at holding it up as entertainment."
RULE #3: THE IMPORTANCE OF NAPSTER CAN'T BE OVERESTIMATED
The fate of file sharing networks like Napster and Scour were on everyone's lips. Even Hilary Rosen, head of the same RIAA that is hounding Napster to an early grave, admits that file-sharing, the Internet and digital distribution have changed the way we experience entertainment forever.
"There's a ubiquity now to music," she noted sadly, "[Music] has evolved to become a sort of body accompaniment, a service in [the listeners'] own minds" rather than a product. As Tercek put it, it's a future where all "video becomes software." And while Tim McGrath of Paramount tried to argue the legal fine points against Napster on one panel, there was billionaire Broadcast.com founder Mark Cuban on another panel insisting the opposite was true, saying that, "Only radio sells more CDs than Napster."
Does that make what Napster or Scour users are doing right now any less illegal under current law? No, but squelching Scour and Napster out of existence isn't going to change the culture that's grown up around them, and it's a legal and cultural issue that's going to haunt Hollywood and the recording industry for a long, long, long time.
LESSON #4: ON THE WEB, ALAS, CELEBRITY STILL SELLS
What can you say about a conference where courageous, heroic Serbian journalist Gordan Paunovic of the pirate radio station B92 Belgrade talked to a nearly empty room, while everyone packed it in to hear Shaquille O'Neal mumble about his own Web "business." In a refreshing contrast to the callow scene out at the exhibitors' booths, Paunovic has been using the Internet not as a business venture but to overthrow Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. As he explained, "The Internet is the last stand for freedom of information in the Balkans."
It's too bad nobody was there to hear Paunovic's tale of oppression and redemption via the Internet, but people thought it was more important to check out the presentations being given by other dot-coms around the hall. I couldn't help thinking that many of those same companies won't be around long enough to give away their frisbees and free mints at next year's Digital Coast conference. Here's hoping next year's mints are better.
[Kevin Dreyfuss is an indieWIRE contributor and writer based in LA.]