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CD-ROM rental: fine idea, not so simple

CD-ROM RENTAL: No doubt one of the most closely watched “experiments” to emerge from the interactive and multimedia worlds has been Blockbuster’s tryout of a rental system for CD-ROMs at 58 of its San Francisco Bay Area stores. The reason for the interest? If Blockbuster’s trial is successful, it will likely pave the way for other outlets — looking for additional coin above-and-beyond the rental of videos — to follow suit.

But alas, as some are beginning to findout, a CD-ROM is not a video, and consequently, a lot of work must be done to make CD-ROM appealing to the mainstream consumer.

For one thing, the CD-ROM is a trickier animal than a video, which requires you only to take it out of a box, slip into a VCR and press the play button. All CD-ROMs require installation procedures to get them up and running, and some also demand that the user have the mind of a rocket scientist to get them to perform properly.

Obviously, until these bugs are worked out, the day of mass demand for the rental of CD-ROMs is still a long way off, especially in light of the fact that most people can’t even program their VCR.

“It has to go from a geek business to a consumer business,” says Peter Black, president of Xiphias, a company that produces CD-ROMs. “Geeks will put up with six hours of installation, but most people won’t. There is a big transition that has to be made.”

Michael van der Kieft, Blockbuster’s business development director, says the program has been successful, but admits there have been some problems with the quirkiness of some CD-ROM products.

“A lot of customers don’t understand the configuration of their equipment and the publishers don’t articulate what the equipment needs are,” van der Kieft said. “It has been cumbersome but not extreme.”

To help remedy the problem, Blockbuster has hired more than 100 demonstrators to help customers use the new technology, which includes about 50 platform-specific titles. These include such Mac titles as “Lunicus” and “Who Killed Sam Rupert” and such MPC titles as “Seventh Guest” and “Return to Zork.” The company has also set up an 800-number for telephone technical assistance, long a domain of software and hardware companies.

“A lot of the companies that have 800-numbers are not very good at providing support,” van der Kieft says. “We’ve had some ghastly experiences where customers can’t get through on the lines and then bring the product back to us.”

But again, while one person manning an 800-number might work for 58 stores, it won’t once CD-ROM rental goes nationwide, illustrating that the emerging technology will have to become easier to use.

“No retailer can afford to keep people helping customers install their software,” Black said. “It’s not feasible to have a full-time techie at these stores. There is not enough money in the margin to sustain support activity. We are going to be dealing with people who won’t put up with this crap. Our software has to work right out of the box.”

HOLLYWOOD’S A GAME: For those who don’t have the deep pockets of Sumner Redstone, Barry Diller or Rupert Murdoch, but have always dreamed of owning and running their very own movie studio, now they can. All they need are a computer and the latest in what is becoming a long line of “simulation” games –“Hollywood Mogul.”

While there have been a number of games that simulate real experiences –“Flight Simulator” and “Sim City,” for example –“Hollywood Mogul” is the first to provide the adrenaline rush of putting together a development slate and watching it succeed or fail, depending on how adept you are at navigating through the treacherous waters of Hollywood.

Not surprisingly, the game was developed by a Hollywood screenwriter who became so frustrated trying to sell his script that he decided to turn his experiences into a computer game.

“Studios kept passing on my script and I thought if I had a computer game, I could show that my movie could make $ 100 million,” said Carey DeVuono, a native of Chicago who moved to Los Angeles in 1987 to break into the movies as a writer.

“I just started designing it and then I started adding elements and it turned into a finished game,” DeVuono says. “I’ve discovered a movie studio chromosome in everybody. I think it’s going to do all right here in town.”

What DeVuono came up with is a detailed multilevel game that allows the player to do everything a real-life mogul can do — except sleep with actresses. Amazingly, DeVuono has managed to put almost every facet of movie-making into the game from development and production to marketing and releasing a film.

Upon starting the game and naming the studio, players start developing material, which can come from original screenplays, blockbuster novels, original ideas or a sequel. From there, they work with the studio project file, which lets them chart the status of each project. As the studio head, they get to hire writers, directors, producers and, of course, talent.

And before each person can be hired, that person’s agent becomes involved. “When you’re negotiating, you can start swearing at the agents,” says DuVuono, “and they can’t yell back at you.”

Once the movie is released, the final breakdown appears, showing whether the movie made any money.

The game comes with a 125-page manual that itself will give readers an interesting, if not always accurate, education about Hollywood. For instance, in the section on hiring screenwriters, the book says, “It is often believed that actors make up words they speak in a movie. Actors, in fact, memorize exactly what the screenwriter has written for them.”

Somehow, we don’t think most Hollywood scribes would agree with that observation. But who cares? The game is a lot of fun, which is probably more than you can say about running a real movie studio.

Just ask Redstone, Diller or Murdoch.

JUST WONDERING: With Monday’s unveiling by PacBell and Alcatel of a system to deliver movies digitally over high-speed phone lines to theaters, one wonders if the Baby Bell will offer “film waiting” as part of its service.

Consider the possibilities — like “call waiting,” the service could allow viewers to click a button and look at another film. And also, knowing how long phone company customers traditionally have to wait at home for a repairman to show up, will theater operators have to wait in their theater lobbies between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. if anything goes wrong with the system?

(Andy Marx can be reached on PAGE and CompuServe. His CompuServe number is 70324,3424.)

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