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Hollywood Must Change or Face Extinction

A rescue scene for the California Dream

February 27, 2003 —

By C.L. Max Nikias Nikias is dean of the University of Southern California School of Engineering and was the founding director of the Integrated Media Systems Center at USC. This column was adapted from a speech he gave this week at the San Diego Historical Society Museum.

February 27, 2003

Hollywood, the cornerstone of the California Dream, needs to evolve quickly or risk extinction. This is a concern not just for Los Angeles County, but for San Diego County, which has served as "Hollywood's back lot" in over 700 theatrical films and television productions, including "Citizen Kane," "Some Like It Hot" and "Top Gun."

A century ago, a friendly climate and favorable economic conditions helped Southern California emerge as the entertainment capital of the world. Since then, the world has been fighting back; Canada, Australia and others have stolen away tens of billion of dollars in "runaway productions" from this region. And our share will erode still further unless Hollywood adapts.

Past technologies helped create its massive - and massively profitable - studio system, but new technologies are eating away at the Hollywood hegemony. The newest beneficiaries of technology are the independent filmmakers - bold and entrepreneurial artists who can band together to create a caliber of film and video experience that previously was the monopoly of a few studios. New technologies are giving these filmmakers unprecedented abilities to compete toe-to-toe against the biggest of Hollywood companies.

The ultimate Hollywood icon, George Lucas, proved last summer that commercial films can be released in digital format, but that's ironically better news for the independents than for studios. To capture a high-quality image, you no longer need a huge, costly and cumbersome film camera. A relatively inexpensive, small digital camera will do. You don't need lavish facilities for editing, for sound and picture synchronizing or for storage. A good desktop model will do just fine. And soon you won't need $150 million for special effects. You'll be able to synthesize real and virtual scenes affordably and seamlessly.

Further, satellites and the next-generation Internet will bypass the $1,500 per-print distribution costs that currently make it impossible for an independent film to reach a mass audience.

So if it's cheaper to film outside of Hollywood, and if independent filmmakers no longer require a studio blessing for production or distribution, how can Hollywood possibly endure? How can Southern California maintain its cultural and economic primacy around the world?

There is a solution that must be considered by Hollywood executives, academics and government officials. What Hollywood needs is a complicated-sounding thing called a digital media technology accelerator. Such a thing could operate out of the Integrated Media Systems Center, the National Science Foundation's USC-based multimedia research center.

A media accelerator could draw new talent to Hollywood - and keep it there - by constantly developing new digital technologies to produce and distribute their products.

It could serve as a play-laboratory, in which filmmakers could experiment with new technologies when they're not under the pressure of production deadlines. It could train a work force that knows how to take full advantage of advanced technologies.

And this media accelerator could - as its name suggests - accelerate the development of processes that are needed to send inspired new products out into the world.

In short, this could generate the much-hyped "convergence" of content, multimedia and Internet technology. What AOL Time Warner and Silicon Valley haven't been able to accomplish is within the power of Hollywood. And it could be good for the economic health of Southern California as a whole.

Southern Californians from San Diego to San Luis Obispo should be rooting for Hollywood. Hollywood's success is important to our entire region, and certainly to San Diego. Southern California must remain not just a good place to film, but the world's busiest center for creative minds - the place that the best filmmakers come to in order to trade the best ideas, and to get their hands on the best digital and Internet technologies. But first, we'll need an infusion of courage, commitment and wise investment.

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.