December 27, 2010

Festival Focus: Jackson Hole Tech Symposium

Do you know the difference between a webisode and a mobisode? Blu-Ray and HD-DVD? Wikis and blogs? IPTV and DRMs? Tapeless and DI workflows? If you are a bit frightened by the digital New World Order, you would have found a sympathetic ear at the wine bar of this fall’s Jackson Hole Tech Symposium, held at the SkirballCulturalCenter in Los Angeles. But thanks to a crack list of speakers, you would have found some answers, too.

The symposium, spearheaded by the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival (JHWFF), was launched in 1992 for doc filmmakers tackling the then-new high-definition cameras. Says Festival Director Laura Johnson Huckin, “This year has been so much more on the multi-platform and the emerging technology. How do you get your content out to your audience and how does that affect the acquisition at the beginning of the game?” The 2006 Symposium attempted to take on the digital revolution from soup to nuts, covering everything from acquisition strategies for projects with multi-platform distribution to how to get your website to pop up on Google.

The symposium offered eight in-depth panels over two days. Thirty-seven panelists spoke, ranging from network executives like Discovery Science Channel Executive Vice President Steve Burns and Lion’s Gate Television Chief Operating Officer Sandra Stern to filmmakers like Pierre de Lespinois of Evergreen Films Studios and Katie Carpenter of Bahati Productions to tech gurus like Ron Surbuts of Dolby to digi-preneurs like keynote speaker Tracy Swedlow of the Web journal Interactive TV Today (ITVT).

A small exhibit room featured new gizmos in non-linear editing, image manipulation and digital acquisition from Apple, Canon, Panasonic, Fujinon, Sony, Evertz, Quantel and Teranex. Attendees could also take free one-on-one tutorials for Panasonic’s HVX200, HDX900 and VariCam, Sony’s HDV, HDCAM and XDCAM-DH, and tapeless workflow solutions from Final Cut Pro.

Thanks to the affable Jackson Hole crew, the cozy facilities of the Skirball Center and the intimate size of the crowd, the atmosphere made it easy to network and hit up panelists with detailed follow-up questions. The learning curve was informally extended to the lunch tables, where designated experts hosted roundtable chats on topics ranging from new lenses to digital theatrical distribution.

Filmmakers were excited to inspect the new low-cost HD cameras on hand, and several panels tackled the ongoing debates over tapeless-vs.-taped capture and whether or not the long-awaited Red Camera will replace film. But the hot topic was how emerging platforms, particularly the Internet and mobile devices, might affect the future of distribution, deliverables, marketing and ownership--the revolution that Barry Clark of Mandalay Media Arts described as “throwing our lives into terror and excitement.”

Following her keynote address, Swedlow moderated three panels on Internet and mobile distribution. John Canning of Yahoo! and Doug Craig of Discovery Communications discussed Video on Demand and Internet TV. Frank Chindamo of Fun Little Movies and Patrick Kearney of ROK Entertainment, whose companies sell media to networks that broadcast only to cell phones, described the type of mini-films that they’re looking to license. Tamara Krinsky of and Rex Wong of discussed Web-based communities as an emerging market force, with Wong citing how SciFi Channel was shamed, via e-mail, into creating an Internet version of Stargate by legions of fans horrified about the show’s cancellation.

During a case study panel on projects built for multi-platform delivery, BBC Producer Mark Jacobs demonstrated an experimental sister project that the BBC created for its travel show Coast. Throughout the show’s airing, visitors to the actual UK locations covered in the show could use their cell phones to upload guided walks.

During a panel on trends in distribution, Lion’s Gate’s Stern explained her company’s approach to Internet distribution, so far. “We are right now using that technology to drive eyeballs to our traditional programs,” said Stern, with Web-specific content so far limited to webisodes for a series that would offer a back story for a character. Lion’s Gate is offering episodes of Weeds and Wildfire for sale on iTunes, but Stern noted that the studio does not yet have what it considers a financial model for Internet revenue generation.

In the case of Weeds, the company decided to pool iTune rights with Showtime, the series’ network partner, even though Showtime does not have video distribution rights for Weeds. Stern said that although revenue is generated from the sales, both Showtime and Lion’s Gate see the series’ Internet presence as primarily a marketing device. What financial role the Internet will play in the future for the company, according to Stern, is still an unknown.

But buzz at the wine bar revealed the two topics everyone was talking about. One was the detailed rundown given by Greg Markel of Infuse Creative on how to market on the Web, particularly how to exploit its search engines. The other was a presentation by filmmaker de Lespinois on a piece of software he’d falling in love with this year, cineSync, which allowed him to conduct remote creative meetings with his Meteor FX staff in Montreal while running Evergreen Films in LA. CineSync can take several copies of a QuickTime clip sitting on hard drives scattered around the world and sync them up so that they all run at the same time. The software also lets viewers write on the clip, generating a handy permanent record of your staff or client’s comments or sign-off. “It’s easier to do this than to drive across LA,” said Lespinois. “That was not possible a year ago.”

Despite the heady amount of material covered in two days, no one seemed convinced which platform would emerge to dominate the digital new world order. Said attendee Ché Abdullah of his new venture Lunchbox Enterprises, “With all the new media options out there, it's difficult to say that we’re a TV producer anymore; you have to be in all of them now. I’m a content creator.”

Mark Jacobs of the BBC insisted that the BBC is not married to any single emerging technology platform so far, his only advice being, “Find partners, because it is terrifying, this brave new world.” Future-fan Ken Rutkowski of KenRadio, a Web journal on emerging digital platforms, seemed the least perturbed by digital chaos, saying, “People are scared because they’re sticking their toe in the water. They gotta jump in.” He advised any filmmaker still using an AOL e-mail address to “get rid of it. Get a domain. They’re cheap.”

Only filmmaker Barry Clark seemed convinced of what the future will bring: Internet Protocol TV, which is anything broadcast over the Internet, but will soon merge with traditional TV and, well, everything. Said Clark in the wrap-up panel with Rutkowski and Swedlow, “You’ll have a screen wherever you want. The screen can be in front of your couch, or in your garage, or in your car or wherever. It will be a single technology, just used in different pipelines. I think it is a dangerous technology in the best sense of the world in that it will completely disrupt the old plutocracy, the old monopolistic industries like the motion picture studios, the motion picture distributors, the television networks around the world, the theatrical theater owners. It will be at the same time an enormously enabling and liberating technology that will substitute a meritocracy for a plutocracy--in effect making it an egalitarian playing field in which anyone with talent and a voice can speak to the people who want to hear their voice.”

Ironically, JHWFF did not archive the panel presentations on the Internet.  Hopefully the organizers will consider this as an alternative registration option for the next Tech Symposium, which is planned for 2008.


Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance writer and producer. Her recent documentary Rebel Beat profiles LA’s young rockabilly subculture.