Dispatches from Variety's Entertainment & Technology Summit

5:42 p.m.

The financial climate in Hollywood is slowly on the mend according to execs participating in the Finance & Strategy panel on Monday.

“There are a lot more conversations happening now than there were 6 or 9 months ago,” Jonathan Fischer said.

Fischer, who is the president and COO of Groundswell Productions added, “The way we’re financing our movies is very reliant on foreign markets, for example, which took a huge hit, is now coming back.”

Starz Media senior veep of Digital Media Marc DeBevoise agreed.

“There’s certainly a consumer rebound. I think a lot of it has to do companies educating themselves and being willing to take a risk,” he said.

Fischer added, “Digital platforms especially are starting to come to our place where they can help our economics. Whether it’s VOD or other avenues of consumption, revenues can be acquired as long as you’re willing to be flexible.”

Todd Jadwin, Senior Managing Director for Houlihan Smith and Co., didn’t seem as convinced when it came to discussing video-on-demand.

“It’s so nascent that VODs are more of a venture capital arena,” Jadwin said. “It’s still very early in terms of adoption and a very, very tiny piece of the pie.”

But while execs on the panel all agreed that the economy was showing signs of life, the main topic of discussion was the ongoing saga over theatrical and DVD release windows.

Blockbuster Head of Development Neil Davis suggested that theatrical windows were simply too large (100 days) for films that aren’t playing well at the box office.

“Don’t get me wrong, windows are great for films like ‘Avatar’,” Davis said. “But why does a smaller film that’s made $5 million over 45 days need to go for an extra 55 days in theaters?”

Fischer said the reverse case could easily be made by theater owners.

“At the same time, you have the argument: ‘If a movie is only in theaters for 45 days, why not wait until I see it on DVD?’”

DeBevoise chimed in, “For me it’s more about the shift from buy to rent. It was an 80/20 market 10 years ago and now it’s a 50/50 market in terms of buy to rent. So I think we’re going to have to differentiate the prices first.”

Still, many of the execs agreed that the biz was evolving rapidly.

“It really is an interesting change in winners and losers,” Jadwin commented. “The market is in some ways changed forever.”

–Stuart Oldham

5:00 p.m.

Digital execs seemed to agree on one major theme at Variety’s Technology panel on Monday: value.

“The world is moving to a world that is run by data. What we want to do is create a world where there’s value in all of these products,” said Daniel Scheinman, senior VP and General Manager of Cisco Media Solutions.

Scheinman, along with several other technology execs, spoke about industry trends in the marketplace at Variety’s Entertainment and Technology Summit in Santa Monica where much of the focus was on viral marketing campaigns, either via Facebook fan sites or innovative contests around their movies, television shows and music.

Fox Broadcasting’s senior VP of Content Strategy Bill Bradford said a good example of this is the network’s YouTube contest for “Glee,” in which fans create their own audition videos in an effort to land a role on the popular scripted series.

“There’s a neat way for you to turn your maven fans into marketers for you,” Bradford said. “You just have to supply them with something they care about first.”

Lionsgate Digital Media prexy Curt Mavis agreed. “Just because the technology is possible doesn’t mean the consumers will follow.”

Bradford went on to state that the network’s Facebook page for “House” currently has 3.8 million fans. “That’s 3.8 million people who you are in direct contact with outside of the program.”

Moderator Chris Morris, Variety’s technology reporter, led a lengthy discussion that also included the perils of privacy, which LA Entertainment Department co-Chair Dan Black said was the “most challenging issue of the next 10 years. We have to protect the customer.”

Up next in the digital market?

“It’s mobile,” Curtis Maven said. “The gestation period for these things are always longer but there’s 4 billion plus handsets on the planet. Ultimately that number of screens means more viewership, more video content to be consumed, music, etc. The possibilities are endless.”

-Stuart Oldham

2:45 p.m.

Before lunch, Variety’s Entertainment and Technology Summit shifted its focus to online video with a panel featuring some of the Web’s most successful and recognizable vid creators.

“It doesn’t really start with content, it starts with how the web works,” noted Jason Goldberg at Monday’s Web Video forum.

Goldberg, who co-founded Katalyst Media along with “Punk’d” counterpart Ashton Kutcher, was joined by veteran actors Kevin Pollak and Illeana Douglas in Santa Monica for a lively web video discussion that also featured Brian Firenzi from 5 Second Films and Chris McCaleb from Big Fantastic.

“It’s amazing,” mused Kevin Pollak about the rise of his online success. “I hadn’t raped and murdered anyone and somehow I was on page one of the L.A. Times. And that’s the only way for someone like me to get up there!”

Pollak, host of the web-based celebrity yakker “The Kevin Pollak Chat Show,” attributed most of his show’s popularity to the unlimited format online.

“There’s no time constraints, no censorship,” he said. “And our audience can send in live questions (Twitter). You can’t do that with traditional media.”

Illeana Douglas, meanwhile, stars in the Ikea-sponsored comedy “Easy to Assemble.” The series, which peaked at 1.8 million views per episode this past year, features herself and other reputable actors playing Ikea employees in “Office”-like situations.

The veteran indie actress said that the rise of brand integration in online video was something to brace, not something to shy away from.

“This whole revolution came out of content creators and brands,” Douglas said. “Not being satisfied with what they’re seeing on television, not being able to reach its audience. And what’s so exciting is that these brands do support artists. Matter of fact–you can’t even compare the way an artist is nurtured in this medium as opposed to traditional formats.”

Pollak agreed: “Many people don’t know this but a soap detergent company created soap operas.”

“Everything works within this model,” Goldberg added. “When we create markets for them, the sky’s the limit.”

Monday’s Web Video panel was moderated by Dana Harris, strategic editor at Variety.

- Stuart Oldham

1:45 p.m.

Corporate America is finally figuring out how to integrate advertising with content on the Web. A panel of some of the top creators of Web programming at Monday’s Variety Summit Digital Hollywood discussed the evolving role of advertisers as original Web programming matures.

Like soap companies, that brought the idea of soap operas to television networks, corporations are now looking for web programming that can help them expand awareness for their brand.

“The audience is looking for entertainment across the board,” says Kevin Pollak, actor and creator of “The Kevin Pollack Chat Show”. “The voracious appetite of the viewer that goes to the web looking for content will never be satiated. … They don’t care any more that the original content has made bedfellows with a brand.”

Illeana Douglas, creator of the Ikea-sponsored “Easy to Assemble” agreed. While the retailer has an upfront presence in the program, it still manages to avoid being intrusive. In fact, she says, the store’s build in fan base has helped build an audience for the show, which was viewed 8.1 million times in its second season. At the same time, it gave actors whose appeal to traditional television executives was limited a chance to try something new.

“It was never about selling furniture,” she says. “They were way, way ahead of the curve.

We already had a built-in fan base for people who already liked Ikea. I had my own fan base… so each person who came to the party had their own interesting fan base. Each time we added a character, that added something to the party.”

For artists, the draw is an artistic freedom they cannot get in any other entertainment medium. From Brian Firenzi’s “5 Second Films” to Pollack’s conversational-style talk show – with no time limit and no rules.

For Douglas, writing and directing her own series has given her a sense of confidence that she says she may never have developed otherwise.

“[Ikea] never challenged the content, which is a unique idea,” she says. “They just let me do the writing – and by doing that, it gave the confidence to realize I had a vision and allowed me to pursue it. … I’m not interested in going back to television and going to the back of the bus.”

-Chris Morris

Posted at 10:43 a.m.

“I’m not one of the people crying over dvd sales,” said “Alice in Wonderland” producer Joe Roth, keynote speaker at Monday’s Variety Summit Digital Hollywood. “I think visual media is nothing but opportunity.”

In his 45-minute interview with Variety executive editor Steve Gaydos at the Loews Santa Monica Hotel, the former studio chief suggested that any potential for failure in the current entertainment industry lay not in the absence of opportunities but in the lack of nerve.

“You see decline (in revenue), but it’s not about the facts, it’s about the opportunity,” he said.

“Don’t look at the numbers; look at how you treat (the content). The world spins faster… and it opens up new pricing opportunities and business models.” He cited his own Revolution Studios as an example, with library titles licensed as TV shows for Lifetime and WGN.

Roth also touted the powers of mobile and social media.

“Kids are available to be talked to and sold to at all times. The challenge is how to make social networks scale, (but) you can get to those people a lot more cheaply than spending $40M in tv ads. If studios had a little more courage, they’d tinker more with social media.”

However, the former Disney head said he’d have no interest in running a studio today unless they were willing to “start from scratch.”

He also expressed frustration that major digital distributors like XBox and Apple aren’t emulating entertainment pioneers like Carl Laemmle and embracing the chance for their own content creation.

“Xbox is a cable network; they just don’t know it,” he said. “If you have that throne with huge social networks, why aren’t you taking advantage of it? Someone has to have the will to challenge that. Xbox should be HBO.

“Everyone’s scared by content,” Roth said. “It’s a reasonable fear, but I don’t believe Steve Jobs is a fearful guy. There must be some other reason.”

-Dana Harris

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