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Why Hollywood needs to hear more about Twitter

The 140Conf event in Los Angeles could have been the perfect springboard for discussion about the complicated role that Twitter has come to play in the entertainment industry. Maybe next year.

LOS ANGELES--There are a lot of reasons why the entertainment industry is still trying to figure out how to wrangle Twitter: real-time tabloid drama, on-set spoilers, and the fact that 140 characters offers a lot of ways to say a movie really sucks.

The 140Conf LA event, which took place on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, had a great opportunity to be the definitive discussion hub for tackling those tricky issues and complications that arise when the much-talked-about "real-time Web" collides with the old-school entertainment industry. That didn't happen. Instead, the event was a general showcase of the possibilities of Twitter, much like at the previous 140Conf event in New York this summer.

Conference organizer Jeff Pulver said that despite the Hollywood setting, he didn't want to take a purely entertainment-focused angle. "This really is not a Twitter conference, it's a gathering of people who use it as a platform and speak it as a language," he explained at a post-conference cocktail event on Tuesday. Pulver said he intended 140Conf LA to be "a celebration" of the possibilities of Twitter and the people who are passionate about using it, a disparate crowd that includes marketers, public servants, and yes, entertainment industry professionals. Indeed, 140Conf featured panels about police chiefs who use Twitter, teachers implementing it in the classroom, and how it's affecting the photography profession.

True, there were a lot of entertainment types there, mostly those talking about how Twitter has positively affected their business. Industry bloggers talked about how the blast-it-out nature of Twitter makes it easier to harness and report fast-breaking news. "Access Hollywood" personality Billy Bush talked about what he's learned from Twitter, like "no TUIs. Twittering under the influence is not a good idea." And "Tonight Show" blogger Aaron Bleyaert talked about the program's popular "Celebrity Twitter Tracker" feature, in which it makes fun of banal celebrity tweets. "Making fun of how celebrities think that everything they do (matters)," Bleyaert said, "Twitter's been great for us."

More interestingly, Sarah Ross, head of digital at the Ashton Kutcher-founded Katalyst Media, said paparazzi interest in the Twitter-happy Kutcher has actually declined since he started documenting his life on the microblogging service. That's fascinating, and it would've been cool to see whether the case is the same or different for other celebrities who tweet. It would've been great to hear from an industry personality who doesn't tweet, or one who's quit the service, or some perspectives from the production or public relations side of things, or perhaps someone who manages celebrity Twitter accounts. There's a lot out there.

But, Jeff Pulver said, he didn't think a Twitter-and-Hollywood conference would have much draw.

"I don't think anyone in L.A. would give a damn if we had a conference about the entertainment industry and Twitter," Pulver said. "It's not as interesting to people here as it is elsewhere."

Another conference attendee at the same cocktail party voiced a similar opinion. "This is not a studio crowd," he said of the people who'd showed up for 140Conf. Studio executives are "not innovators, not movers. They're very reactive."

Fair enough. Folks like Pulver, who have been using Twitter since its early days, are probably pretty sick of hearing about the latest gossip-blog diatribes getting plastered all over their conversation tool of choice. But headlines in the likes of Variety, The Los Angeles Times, and the Hollywood Reporter beg to differ. "Bones" creator Hart Hanson inadvertently created a mini-firestorm when a tweeted joke about swine flu on-set was taken seriously. Some studios have reportedly started inserting "no tweeting" clauses into contracts. As the likes of Perez Hilton and TMZ continually remind us, it's also given train-wreck pop stars a whole new outlet to hate on one another.

The entertainment industry has historically been reliant on the deft spin of public relations to keep a gaggle of wild personalities under wraps. Social media, not surprisingly, is a real problem. That goes double for Twitter, which can be updated on-the-fly from any mobile phone on the set of the latest hyped-up teen vampire flick or on the sidelines of a velvet-rope tiff at the Roosevelt Hotel. 140conf, rather than focusing on the glittering possibilities, could have given these very real issues some more face time.

Take the no-tweeting rules that are getting imposed by studios, production companies, publicists, and even sports leagues. "The majority of celebrity tweets are inane and not of concern to studios, but they still need the stronger contractual protections to cover themselves against the minority," entertainment attorney Jonathan Fuhrman, who previously served as vice president of business and legal affairs at The Weinstein Company, explained to CNET News.

"Every talent agreement--with writers, directors, producers, cast, and crew--has a standard confidentiality provision," Fuhrman continued. "That's what really is at issue here. In a world where anyone can tweet, the new, buffed-up confidentiality language is an important protection for the studio to prevent any of the talent from releasing this. And this is before you take into account the whole other issue about publicists and marketing campaigns: we are talking huge, million-dollar organized campaigns that can be compromised by an ill-advised tweet."

But on the flip side, that potential benefit of Twitter was paraded onstage at 140Conf. "Heroes" creator Tim Kring, for example, gave a well-attended talk on Tuesday about how Twitter has allowed the NBC sci-fi show's team to interact with fans in an unprecedented way. "You can follow the escapades of the show by following the people involved in it," he said.

Still, Kring also hinted at the complications of using Twitter as a vehicle for connecting with TV audiences: "We're now making Episode 13 and we are airing Episode 8, so at the beginning of the season we're up to two or three months ahead of where the audience is," Kring said. "The making of the show is so far ahead of where the audience experience is that it's hard to have a real-time relationship." Unfortunately, he didn't elaborate on how the show keeps tabs on its Twittering team. Have they ever had any accidental leaks or near-missteps? Kring didn't talk about that.

"Twitter has become hugely important in marketing movies," Fuhrman said. "The perfect example is 'Paranormal Activity.' What Twitter did for that movie, every studio would love to bottle that formula, and believe me, they'll try." In other words, it's a delicate balance. Twitter, for all its 140-character simplicity, has the potential to make or break a big Hollywood success.

Even though he didn't think it merited its own two-day event on the Kodak Theatre stage, 140Conf creator Jeff Pulver did acknowledge that he thinks the Hollywood-Twitter relationship is only going to get more complicated, especially when it comes to the big movie studios.

"They're scared because they want to be the gatekeeper," Pulver said. "It's a big conflict and it's going to get worse."

This post was updated at 11:33 a.m. PT on October 30 to correct the spelling of Jonathan Fuhrman's name.