Confab explores digital trends

Netcasters all looking for 'the new 'Lucy' show for the 'Net'

Andrew Jarecki, creator of AOL Moviefone, kicked off the Tribeca Film Center’s first Converge@Tribeca confab Tuesday with a keynote address on the speed of change in the digital age. Hosted by Tribeca Film Center partners Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, the two-day conference is meant to showcase Tribeca as a hub of new-media activity.

An afternoon panel titled “The Need-to-Know for Filmmakers, Producers and Distributors” dealt with the gritty realities of producing digital video features and the emerging role of digital technology in Hollywood.

Referring to the demise of West Coast Web ventures like DEN and Pop, moderator Jason McCabe Calacanis, CEO of the Silicon Alley Reporter said, “It’s sobering to have this conversation in New York at this time.”

Panelists Ethan Hawke, InDigEnt founder Gary Winick, Blow Up Pictures co-prexy Jason Kliot and Dolby Laboratories U.S. veep Ioan Allen didn’t shrink from addressing the limitations of digital video. They discussed the technical problems it presented and the absence of a digital distribution network. Noting the “serious financial crisis of exhibitors,” the exorbitant cost of digital projectors and the steep price of advertising, “regardless of format,” Allen said “There has yet to be anything like a commercial distribution system” for DV.

But the panelists also exalted the many virtues of digital filmmaking. Hawke, who just shot his first digital feature, “Last Word on Paradise,” argued that DV returns power to writers and actors. “Digital video is the single greatest thing to happen to film since Marlon Brando,” he said.

“You walk onto a 35mm set and they spend eight hours lighting it, there’s 50 people there, you start to feel like a plastic figurine,” he said. On a digital set, he noted, 80% of one’s time is dedicated to filming.

Trying new things

Winick discussed the methods of his digital business, InDigEnt, which has financed a large slate of digital productions, including “Paradise,” all budgeted at $150,000 and up. As he put it, DV is “about trying something you couldn’t try in 35 mm.”

Though Calacanis heralded DV as “a bigger revolution than the Internet” for the entertainment business, none of the panelists expected the technology to have significant impact on Hollywood just yet.

“It’s a very cost-effective way of making today’s ‘Shadows,’ ” Allen said, referring to the influential 1961 John Cassavetes film. “It’s not going to supplant Hollywood. It’s going to support it.”

But the parade of shell-shocked dot-commers that populated Wednesday morning’s panel on short films and animation on the Web echoed Calacanis’ earlier sentiments about ‘Net entertainment, kicking off with a post-mortem for the numerous sites that have recently ceased operations.

Marc Chamlin, the co-chair of law firm Loeb & Loeb’s entertainment unit, contended that the exuberance surrounding ‘Net content at the beginning of the year begat a lot of programs that were not necessarily easy to build a business around.

“One of the things people have been caught up with is if they can do it, they do it,” Chamlin said. “The lack of a gatekeeper has opened up this flood of creation, but what it hasn’t done is respect any viable business model.”

Limited broadband

Several panelists made note of the fact that the penetration of broadband Internet access is still very limited in the U.S., with only about 1% of all ‘Net usage devoted to viewing broadband content.

That means would-be Netcasters are going to have to find other revenue streams to sustain themselves until broadband becomes a mainstream technology, said founder and prexy Michele LaMura Meek.

One effective measure, according to CEO Jeremy Bernard, is to get good content sold onto every medium possible — not just the Internet — to maximize the revenue per piece of content.

“The ‘Net is just one medium for what we do,” said Bernard, whose company earlier this year received an investment from Universal. “That’s an important distinction from some of the other companies” that didn’t make it, he added.

But the lack of high-speed connections in American households isn’t the only challenge facing Netcasters, opined Bullseye Art CEO Josh Kimberg. It also helps to have shows that have generated enough interest among audiences that they will be compelled to log on.

“Before the ‘I Love Lucy’ show, television didn’t really take off either,” Kimberg said. “What we need is the new ‘Lucy’ show for the ‘Net.”

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