A new battle over digital distribution is brewing in the entertainment industry — and this time it has nothing to do with the digital projection of films.

At least eight companies have created Web-based networks that enable film, television and commercial producers to digitally distribute dailies, f/x and other sequences, storyboards, accounting and cost reports, script breakdowns and even casting sessions via a secure browser interface.

And as opposed to dot-com production tools that have launched but continue to struggle to attract Hollywood players, there’s actually a need for the new networks by the technology-dependent f/x and post-production communities.

The potential cost savings are enormous for studios: Not only do these services accelerate the post process, they eliminate the need to strike a tape, mail it to a director on the other side of the world, then wait for the reaction. Feedback is almost instantaneous, eliminating the usual five-day turnaround. And no more waiting on tape-toting couriers caught in traffic.

Costs for using the services differ tremendously from 1993, when Steven Spielberg spent roughly $400,000 a day to digitally deliver f/x shots for “Jurassic Park” to the set of “Schindler’s List” in Europe.

It is estimated that an entire feature could be distribbed for about $8,000 across a digital pipeline. And a 100-frame sequence that once took about 16-1/2 days to render on a desktop computer can be done in about four hours using a render-on-demand service.

If there is a problem with all the diverse services, it may be that there are too many companies vying to land Hollywood-based clients to use their networks. And with each being successful in their own right in wooing major clients and partners, it may be confusing for showbizzers to choose which one to use.

Among the players:

  • Computer giant IBM is backing NeTune Communications’ ShowRunner, a $25 million satellite-based system, developed by cinematographer Curtis Clark. Tenpercentary CAA is pushing the technology around Hollywood. IBM approves of the venture so much that it recently signed a $112 million, five-year outsourcing deal with the Los Angeles-based venture.

  • Eagan, Minnesota-based Wam!Net is backed by high-end computer-maker SGI.

  • Aerospace and defense technology firm TRW has launched PicturePipeLine, in which Warner Bros. holds a minority stake.

  • After building an extranet for the financial industry, telecommunications giant Global Crossing is expanding its digital network to cater to the entertainment biz. Bear Stearns’ Constellation Ventures recently ponied up $100 million to fund companies coming up with entertainment-related software and technology for Global Crossing’s expanded network. The system, expected to roll out slowly over the next year, already has landed VDI Multimedia and BBC Technologies as developers.

  • Media.net, an El Segundo, Calif.-based private fiber-optic network, is focused on linking up the television production community in Los Angeles.

  • And JCI Corp.’s Fireline suite, which through its broadband network links up Toronto, New York, Los Angeles and London, has inked a $35 million deal with Lucent Technologies and plans to spend an additional $200 million on developing the service for the entertainment production community.

But at the end of the day, it’s all about the clients and whether anyone’s using the services. And to prove themselves, companies have been enticing film productions to try them as test cases at little to no cost.

For example, Ridley Scott’s Mill Film used Wam!Net’s Render on Demand service during the production of the helmer’s “Gladiator” to transfer dailies securely from an f/x facility in London to an editing site in Los Angeles. Mill has since opted to continue using Wam!Net’s network for post-production work on commercials and feature films — much of which is created for U.S.-based agencies.

Wam!Net also was used recently by DreamWorks on Ivan Reitman’s sci-fi pic “Evolution” to send files to effects shop Tippett Studios in Berkeley, Calif. Other clients include Kodak-backed f/x house Cinesite, BBC Worldwide Americas and Illusion Arts.

Transferring pics

NeTune is being used by Warner Bros. and Sony for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” F/x shots are being transferred from Sony Pictures Imageworks to the film’s director and post-production personnel in London. NeTune offered the production a reduced rate over Warner Bros.-backed Picture PipeLine to land the project.

But Warner Bros. continues to support Picture PipeLine, having used the system to link the producers of “The Perfect Storm” to f/x studio Industrial Light & Magic. The NBC drama “Third Watch,” produced by Warner Bros. TV, uses the service to connect the Burbank lot to the show’s production office in Gotham.

The competition may be fierce, but signs of a shakeup are already emerging.

In a recent quarterly report, SGI said it will take an $83 million writeoff due to its investment in Wam!Net. And in a Securities & Exchange Commission filing, also this month, Wam!Net said that as of Dec. 31, it accumulated $476 million in debt, expects to lose money for the foreseeable future and doesn’t have enough funding available to cover operations for the next 12 months.

“These factors raise substantial doubt about (the company’s) ability to continue as a going concern,” according to the statement.

But that isn’t stopping the company from continuing its push for acceptance in the industry. And it’s sparing no expense to do so. The company recently spent millions renting out the three-story C2K theater inside the Venetian Hotel and Casino during last month’s National Assn. of Broadcaster’s confab in Las Vegas.

Industryites also are beginning to use ownership of digital pipelines as a way to forecast which of these services will succeed.

Global networks

For example, Global Crossing owns its own network, which spans five continents, stretching 101 thousand miles and reaching more than 200 cities. Rivals lease the fiber-optic networks used to deploy their offerings. JCI also owns its own proprietary network.

For studios without existing fiber optics, installing connections into a single major studio could take from three to six months to complete and could cost anywhere from $50,000 to $2 million or more.

“The entertainment industry is a global industry and there’s a tidal wave of content waiting for a network to deliver it,” says Donna Reeves, president of Global Crossing’s media and entertainment division. “It has more bandwidth requirements than any other industry in the world. You have to own that delivery capability. Because, at some point of time, you’ll be in trouble if you don’t.”

Then there’s the issue of security: With an increased number of pirated movies being downloaded over the Internet, the fear is that a kid in his bedroom might be able to nab scenes from “Harry Potter” and distribute it to the masses online. One scene that falls through the cracks could topple these services for good.