With no relief from the recession coming anytime soon, plus Monday's news that L.A.'s own Tsavo Media founder Mike Jones will now take over as COO of MySpace, it's high time Los Angeles and Silicon Valley broke out the peace pipe. The opportunity presented itself at this week's AlwaysOn OnHollywood conference where leaders in the global technology industry gathered at the Sofitel in Beverly Hills to engage in high-level smack-downs (i.e. debates) on current state of digital media. If Palo Alto is considered the “Athens of the Information Age” then Hollywood is Rome. Tinseltown excess and focus on celebrity bacchanals do nothing for our reputation of being “more style than substance.” Worse, we're at risk of being outpaced by the innovation coming out of the tech sector.
Velocity Interactive Partner Ross Levinson isn't worried.”Hollywood will not die,” he told the AlwaysOn audience, “there are too many smart people here.”
The task of getting the people to whom IP means Internet Protocol to jive with the people to whom it means Intellectual Property fell to Silicon Valley media baron Tony Perkins, formerly of the Red Herring — the groundbreaking original business mag, not the name-stealing remake of recent years.
Perkins optimistically began AlwaysOn by declaring, “Hollywood's best years are ahead.” The crux of the three-day long discussions was basically how to accomplish the “M-word” (monetize) and bridge Levinsohn's 29-8 gap — 29% being the amount of time people spend online and 8% being the amount of total advertising dollars spent in the online space. While the economy seems to be stabilizing on one level, conservative estimates say that we won't begin to see improvements until the first quarter of 2010. Until then it is problem solving and re-positioning in an attempt to stay afloat and be ready to catch the next incoming tide of cash.
OnHollywood was a veritable cornucopia of business models, from the Huffington Post's attempt at a non-profit newspaper, to Tapulous' cornering of the iphone app market to Broadway Romero's (aka @50cent) grassroots social media approach to music marketing.
The cold hard reality is that the millennial generation consumes most of its content online. That's what makes it necessary to open up the lines of communication between Northern California's rulers of online space and our own local ecosystem of Entertainment. The difficulties are made evident when you consider that, as Wall Street Journal reporter Kara Swisher bluntly put it during her “The Future of Entertainment & News” panel, “those Spocks up in Mountain View — [gasps from audience] What? That's what they are –” have a lot of trouble understanding that while the platform may trump content, it is a misstep to first build the technologies and then see what companies find them relevant.
The right approach is to collaborate with the companies that will actually use the technical platforms to distribute their works. On our side, technological ignorance and the intimidation that ComScore metrics hold for someone who lacks a degree in computer science lead to an arrogance primarily motivated by fear of change. As West Coast OnHollywood Director Ryan Brenner mentioned, when they first started OnHollywood three years ago it was very difficult to get anyone from the major studios to attend — and it is a positive indicator of Hollywood's revised attitude towards online media that, this year, OnHollywood had reps from every major studio in attendance.
So perhaps it's less of a fight and more of an attempt to 'play all sides' by both sides. According to Program Director Arden Pennell, “The group of people we reached out to for this conference are a self-selecting group of people who think that the intersection of technology and entertainment content distribution and the transformation of the internet as an opportunity rather than competition.”
One major industry player surmised, “I can speak Geek,” and venture capitalist Bill Gurley elaborated, “A lot more people are looking at the metrics and are a lot more savvy than is usually perceived.” Keynote speaker Arianna Huffington told LAWeekly.com, “Consumer habits have changed. It's not just the existence of new technologies; [it's] the existence of the linked economy. Right now the future is going to be about monetizing links advertising online rather than subscriptions, and those that try to put content behind walls and charge for it are going to have a really hard time surviving.”
Huffington's experiments in non-profit journalism are a start. But we're all waiting for the amazing idea that will turn music and video and Internet comments into cash, and could care less if it comes out of USC or Stanford.
OnHollywood '09 was more about questions than answers: Can our smart people and your smart people can get together and solve this problem so everyone can make enough money to feed their kids as well as giving them the online excitement they seek? Where are we going and what's going to stick? Will our current distribution mechanisms still be around three years down the line?
William Morris Agency head of digital, Greg Johnson, put it best when he said that, “Artists come in now as entrepreneurs.” Arden Pennell, the precocious 24 year old program director adds to that, “Artists no longer say get me in the room with so and so and get me a fat check at the end of the day, they say help me build my iPhone ap, help me get 50,000 Twitter followers. More entreprenuership is entering artist and talent circles, so if you know how to partner with that kind of mentality then the sky is the limit.”