In his first major address since becoming chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment in 1989, Peter Guber yesterday urged theindustry not to be blinded by technological advances; good stories will remain the key to successful films and the physical act of moviegoing is vital to the long-term wellbeing of the industry and our culture.

Guber made his comments at the third annual Variety/Wertheim Schroder Entertainment Business Conference here. He was just one of several participants to discuss the potential benefits and drawbacks of the technological revolution sweeping through the entertainment industry, the hot topics of discussion at the conference.

Federal Communications Commissioner James Quello sounded a similar note, arguing that the preservation of free, over-the-air television “is essential to a well informed citizenry and electorate in a democracy.” He added: “Pay-per-view carried to its ultimate capability is inherently a natural enemy of free TV.”

Valued sacrifice

While many conference attendees were dazzled by a high-tech presentation on the future of television by Microsoft Corp. VP Nathan Myhrvold, Guber warned that if new technologies seek to replace rather than build on the moviegoing experience, something of value will be sacrificed.

“We can expand our businesses to the farthest points of the earth, re-create movies in a dozen new formats and technologies, blaze new pathways into home entertainment, but there is no substitute for the shared emotion of going to the movies, the 20th-century version of the tribal campfire,” Guber emphasized.

Theatrical exhibs vital

He said the fact that Americans are watching more movies than ever on broadcast television, basic and pay cable and homevideo does not diminish the vital role of theatrical exhibition.

“From the moment we join the ticket line and walk through the theater lobby, moviegoing remains one of the few special places in this world where we laugh and cry and cheer together,” Guber said.

“Moviegoing is not an activity, it is an experience; it creates an environment where we can get a sense of ourselves together. When you’re channel surfing at home, flipping the dial through a hundred stations while talking on the phone or having sex, there is no sense of societal connection.”

He explained: “No matter how grand our quest to become global entertainment giants, or pioneers of revolutionary technologies, we cannot forget the story that lies at the core of every successful form of entertainment. As we expand into new territories, markets and technologies around the globe, we cannot afford to lose contact with the audiences that are the heart and soul of our business.

“It is the story that they are interested in (not the distributor or the budget). When you’re done with all the fancy venues, with the great production value of a film, with the wonderful cast, with the wardrobe, with the music, with the sets, with the budget, what’s up on the screen is the story, the central focus of the entertainment business.”

Recognizing the role

Guber also said that as technology has transported American storytelling to the movie theater in Bangladesh, the television set in Tanzania and the VCR in Hong Kong, the movie industry must recognize its role as creators of human culture.

“We in the entertainment business are ambassadors. Do we want to be remembered for creating something special we can give our posterity and for the people occupying the planet today?” Guber asked.

“Whether we like it or not, distant civilizations and future generations are equally likely to view Howdy Doody and Freddy Krueger as Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway as the ambassadors of our society.”

Proceed with care

Guber stressed that the industry will have to proceed carefully in the coming years; decisions it makes now will have long-term repercussions.

“The merger of the poet and the engineer is happening right in front of us at this moment,” Guber said. “It will either have equally devastating or exhilarating effects on our planet.

“This is a watershed period in American entertainment and American society. The principles that we set in motion today could govern our society for a thousand years, so we have to be careful.

“We no longer represent just an occasional two hours on the big screen or half an hour on the small screen. Technology has made us a major integral part of people’s everyday lives. We are the 20th century’s defining art form.

“Never before has it been so important for our industry as corporate leaders, business executives and storytellers of and to our world to define our role in the evolution of our society. We can either reflect our culture or shape it.”

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