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Hollywood (finally) goes digital

'99 was a year for change as entertainment made strides

Some thought it would never happen, but a traditionally stodgy Hollywood went digital in 1999.

Whether it was debating digital projection, Internet downloads or DVD over Divx, Hollywood took the tech sector a little more seriously and began paving the way for Y2K.

Twentieth Century Fox and Disney became the first of the major studios to lead the call for exhibitors to change over to digital projection, screening “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” “Tarzan,” “An Ideal Husband” and “Toy Story 2” using projectors from Texas Instruments and JVC/Hughes. Critics have already lined up on the side of TI.

Talk over who would foot the bill for the new pixilated projection format — the theater chains or the studios — flared up and is still expected to be the topic of debate well into the next millennium.

“We believe that the additional exposure of the public to digital cinema will increase demand for this technological breakthrough,” said Phil Barlow, exec veep of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group.

In the meantime, Disney has already said it will digitally screen “Bicentennial Man,” “Mission to Mars” and “Dinosaur” in the coming year in three to four theaters at a time. Other studios are likely to follow with their own select presentations.

Digital filming

With digital projection comes digital filmmaking and even before “Phantom Menace” had hit theaters, helmer George Lucas announced that the next chapter would be shot entirely using a digital camera developed by Sony and Panavision.

Tests will only show whether the three cameras being produced, with a pricetag of over $350,000 each, will work in time for shooting next summer. Pic bows in 2001.

On the homevid front, Divx, an attempt by Circuit City to conquer the digital space, met its demise in the summer, paving the way for DVD to become the standard.

Warner Home Video’s prexy Warren Lieberfarb, credited for much of DVD’s success, rejoiced and is looking to conquer the pay TV biz as well.

In fact, DVD has become such a success right out of the gate that in its first two years, DVD has surpassed sales for the VCR in its first two years, with library builders turning software titles released by every major studio into blockbusters once they hit shelves.

Holdouts on board

DreamWorks and Paramount were the last to join the DVD bandwagon. Disney also held out until the end of 1999, with its animated titles. Nearly 5 million DVD players are expected to have made their way into homes by the end of 1999.

The first recordable DVD players may hit the market as early as the end of this year, enticing holdouts — mainly families — to invest in the devices and begin building their digital libraries. Not surprisingly, “Titanic” and “The Matrix” became top sellers.

Making slower inroads with consumers, TiVo and Replay Networks hit the scene promising to reinvent TV watching with its tapeless recorders that also try to figure out what consumers want to watch and enable viewers to pause live programming and fast forward through commercials.

Although sales are slow (with only a few thousand sold so far), lower prices in the new year should make the devices a bigger must-have, meaning the millennium doesn’t signal the death of the couch potato, while promising a new revolution for the TV biz, itself.

More services to bow

Hoping to give TiVo and Replay a run for their marketshare, Microsoft’s WebTV, France’s Canal Plus and OpenTV have promised to bow similar services either through set-top boxes or partnerships with TV manufacturers.

WebTV in December said users of satcaster EchoStar’s DishPlayer will be able to digitally record up to 12 hours of TV programming.

But grabbing the most headlines was Hollywood’s growing lovefest with the Internet. The World Wide Web became the new cool place to work, luring studio execs by the masses with stock options and million-dollar salaries.

‘Net takes over

It seemed like everyone launched a Web site — lowly assistants could log onto inthebiz.net for career advice, networking help. In fact, it became bigger news if media companies didn’t have a Web site or for some reason weren’t taking the Web seriously.

The Web was said to be responsible for the phenomenal success of “The Blair Witch Project.” It would also be blamed for hurting the entire music industry by providing digital downloads of music files for free.

Short films also became popular again. Once a way to land a directing gig or get noticed by an agent, shorts from two minutes to 20 minutes became gold to upstart Netcasters such as Atomfilms and Ifilm, among a slew of others who are limited to broadcasting short form programming over the ‘Net due to lengthy download times.

Online success-story

By broadcasting the short “Sunday’s Game” (through an exclusive deal with Bender-Spink Management) to the 750 industryites registered on the site, filmmakers Jason Ward and David Garrett inked a one-year development deal with Fox Television Studios to create a yet-to-be-determined series.

“It was nothing short of overwhelming,” Garrett said. “Within 48 hours, we not only had meetings set with several studios and nearly 20 production companies, we also had offers on the table. I believe (sites like) Ifilmpro will afford other filmmakers similar opportunities to break through the barriers we face in the industry.”

Ifilm’s alter ego, ifilmpro.com, however, is having a harder time making friends. Its “buzz” section has irritated industryites with its message boards that tackle everything from the most attractive assistants to Amy Pascal’s work record at Sony.

After much hype and delays, Warner Bros. Online finally launched entertaindom.com, one of three “hubs” planned by Time Warner Digital, featuring a slate of original animated shows from Mondo Media, Warners and Brilliant Digital and short live-action films from Atomfilms.

The time is now

“Now is the best time for entertainment companies to hit the Web,” said Jim Moloshok, prexy of Warner Bros. Online. “The people who are going online now are the mainstream users. They’re the people who buy movie tickets, watch television and buy CDs.”

However, Netcasting wasn’t officially legitimized until players Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Brian Grazer said they would launch their own site, pop.com, to show six-minute comedy shorts online, starring A-list talent and even directed by Spielberg and Howard. Its new CEO is Kenneth Wong, former prexy of Disney Imagineering.

“Instead of standing on the sidelines and letting the medium be defined by others, we decided to jump in,” Howard said. “We’ll be offering up the ideas we can think of and are excited about and offer the venue for others.”

Entertaindom, pop.com and a new vid-based site being developed by Creative Artists Agency and Etoys creator Idealab! could pave the way for more content that features A-list celebs. Already Adam Sandler and Chris O’Donnell have pledged their talents to Entertaindom.

Agent participation

On the tenpercentery front, William Morris inked what is being considered one of the most lucrative Internet deals for a celeb to date: $2 million for “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker to create 39 original animated shows for shockwave.com, an animated programming venture from Macromedia.

Michael Ovitz and former Disney Online exec Richard Wolpert co-launched music, video and vidgames e-tailer Checkout.com with grocery chain investment outfit Yucaipa and quickly became the sole online retailer for Wherehouse Music.

Ovitz would follow that up with investments in search service scour.net, online game site Gamespy Industries, digital music download site Dimension Music and chat service Talk City.

AMG is now representing AskJeeves.com and is trying to break the Web site’s butler into TV.

A few missteps

Trying to make a move in the Web game, several major players stumbled, instead.

Disney fell into a rut after losing 50 high- and low-level execs from its Buena Vista Internet Group. Its Go Network, a co-venture with Infoseek, attracted Netizens but became the target of a lawsuit from search engine goto.com, which charged that the Mouse House’s traffic light logo was too similar to its own.

Look for Disney to fight for the logo during a trial in March or risk losing from $2 million to $40 million in marketing fees.

A tracking stock for the go.com, however, is still performing better than its parent company, which lost $1 billion in 1999 on its Web ventures.

NBC may have been too late to reap the rewards of a Wall Street in love with the ‘Net.

NBCi, a portfolio of its Internet holdings, didn’t open to record numbers. In fact, its share prices fell on opening day, signaling that the future may not look too bright for Time Warner and CBS, which have similar plans.

Some ideas went sour: Gocoverage, the daily script coverage site founded for the industry by producers Steve Tisch, Jon Avnet and Howard Baldwin launched on a Monday and shut down that Friday, reacting to a slew of threats from angry agents. Scripts sites Scriptshark, goodstory.com and Warren Zide’s inzide.com are still up and running.

And there was Pennsylvania-based sightsound.com, which boldly irritated studios and producers with claims of a patent it says makes it the only company that can legally sell or rent downloadable videos and music tracks online. Sightsound is still doing damage control. Lawsuits may still be pending.

Very special f/x

In the f/x world, the wizards at Manex Visual Effects made Keanu Reeves look cool in “The Matrix” and imbedded the words “bullet-time” in everyone’s vocabulary. The extreme slow-mo shots would show up in everything from ads for The Gap to an episode of “The X-Files.”

Pixar Animation Studio’s work on “Toy Story 2” created a more lifelike Buzz Lightyear and Woody than those that appeared in the original.

And while there was no “Godzilla” to mock in 1999, there were more digital animals to watch — “Stuart Little,” the sharks in “Deep Blue Sea” and “Phantom Menace’s” Jar Jar Binks, who had more negative Web sites than, well, “Godzilla.”

More to come

Industryites should only expect more from the players in 2000:

  • Industrial Light & Magic is working on creating magic with digital water (one of the hardest elements to make on the computer) for Warner Bros.’ “The Perfect Storm.”

  • Marvel’s uncanny “X-Men” will hit the big screen, perhaps creating a future for yet-to-be greenlighted superhero pics “Superman,” “Iron Man” and “Spider-man.”

  • Studios and television programmers may begin to consider wireless devices — cell phones, hand-held PCs — as the next wave of program distribution.

  • Web sites for film buyers and sellers will duke it out for exclusive sponsorship deals. This year’s Sundance is already being planned to become a digital playground for Netcasters and film market sites, including Atomfilms, Ifilm, Entertaindom, showbizdata.com, filmbazaar.com.

  • And while Disney took a hit this year, watching its execs flee to more wired Internet pastures, Sony is said to be the next victim. It has already lost its digital golden boy Rob Tercek to Packetvideo.

  • Pop.com will bow its programming slate. Under the guidance of new prexy Rick Hess, Propaganda Films also plans to bow its own talent-heavy online programming.

  • And with it now being cool to go to Sky Bar or Bar Marmont and say you’re working for an Internet company, the flight to the Web should prove more than just a phase and continue to see top studio execs ankle their posts for bigger paychecks and stock options.

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