Guber waves red flag

While Hollywood straps on its track shoes and races as fast as it can to the future, it should be careful, says Sony chairman and CEO Peter Guber.

Guber warned some 500 high-profile lawyers, business agents and execs from the webs and studios Saturday that the high-tech revolution should not be considered an end, but a means to a greater understanding of ourselves in the showbiz arena.

The Sony chairman/CEO gave the keynote address –“Rush to the Future: New Rights and Wrongs in the Entertainment Industry”– at UCLA’s 18th annual entertainment symposium.

But while panel members outlined benefits of the new age, Guber stressed the importance of maintaining control of the high-tech power.

“This is the quintessential converter, the ultimate desktop box,” he said, pointing to his brain. “(The interactive techno age) must impact our heads and minds and souls, otherwise it’s not worth investing in.

“Technology has no shape at all, no form of its own,” he said. “It shows up only as a mirror image. The only way to really study technology is to study it as a reflection of us, the human beings.”

Guber’s remarks came in the middle of the two-day seminar that reflected Hollywood’s struggle to use old methods to conquer the frighteningly futuristic concepts of interactivity.

Discussions covered financing, producing, distribution platforms, delivery systems, labor issues, sexual harassment and lawyers’ ethics.

Guber said that what’s needed for interactivity to really work is a more fundamental application. “Interactivity must find the killer app,” Guber said. “You don’t just need a power switch. You need an empower switch.”

Helmer Barry Levinson said he foresees a new language for the technology that will supplant the way movies are made and even thought about, much the way filmmaking developed its own syntax apart from theater at the turn of the century.

“Interactivity will evolve into something well past what we’re thinking about ,” Levinson said. “That’s the ultimate excitement of it. A new language of storytelling will emerge.”

Strauss Zelnick, the wunderkind Harvard MBA who ankled his prexy post at Fox to take over interactive firm Crystal Dynamics, predicted interactivity will follow a path similar to filmmaking’s origins.

In the panel on financing and distribution, Zelnick said, “Like the movie business, there will probably be fewer than 10 publishers and distributors and a handful of studios” in the interactive industry.

He added that the field was still young and cheap enough to allow for experimentation, which means new firms will be able to develop more easily than in the filmmaking biz. However, it’s too early to tell which companies will become the Disneys and Paramounts of the interactive world.

In the labor panel, DGA and WGA reps heated it up over the question of whether guild members should work for lesser compensation because the industry is still in toddler’s clothes.

Glenn Gumpel, exec director of the Directors Guild of America, said it insists on back-end participation for its members, regardless of whether the company is interactive. “We feel strongly that there has to be a component of back-end because if it goes by, then it goes by forever,” he said.

In its agreement with Digital Pictures, signed last fall, back-end compensation is included.

Brad Auerbach, veepee for Phillips Interactive Media of America, which has a pact with the Screen Actors Guild, called back-end participation at this point “a deal breaker.”

Brian Walton, exec director of the Writers Guild of America, agreed with Gumpel, but said he understood the need for fledgling high-tech companies to have flexibility to operate without strict union rules.

Leigh Brecheen, a partner in the law firm Bloom, Dekom, Hergott & Cook, said, “If we make ourselves such a pain in the ass to employ, we’re going to find out they don’t really need us.”

And, in a later seminar, Tom Zito, prexy of Digital Pictures, playfully brought up one concept running in interactive circles: “syn-thespians,” computer-generated actors who would not need to be paid guild wages.

In the panel on economics of distribution and delivery systems, Interactive distrib expert Larry Jordan explained that while the industry is projected to move into the $ 9 billion range by 1997, the prices of CD-ROM products are declining. Ultimate cost of a program or game will hover in the $ 24-$ 39 range, he said.

He added that the structural pecking order of distribution is already jelling for interactive work: From developer through publisher, affiliated label publisher, national distributor and retailer.

The panel on sexual harassment said that Hollywood cases were probably higher than the national average, but often go unreported. “Plaintiffs in these cases often feel their careers are over,” said Nathan Goldberg, of lawfirm Allred, Maroko & Goldberg. “What that does is raise the ante. They feel they have to get more money.”

Goldberg explained that sexual harassment was inherent in some of the entertainment industry’s environs, such as X-rated and R-rated movie sets.

Moderator Stephen Koppekin, senior veep of industrial relations at Paramount Studios, added that the issue of age is also a problem. “The most expensive words you can say as an employer these days are, ‘We need some young blood in here.’ ”

As for the interactive theme of the weekend, helmer Sydney Pollack echoed what is probably one of Hollywood’s biggest fears of the technology. “My idea of a nightmare,” Pollack said, “would be to give an audience control of the movie.”

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