LOS ANGELES--After hearing so much about the up-and-coming Digital Coast, last week's Internet World was the perfect opportunity to find out whether Southern California's PR machine could crank up a storm without Peter Ueberroth running the show or a $100 million movie. In just a day or two, a streetwise guy comme moi didn't need to eavesdrop on cell phone conversations to hear L.A. straining like a Russian powerlifter to gain credibility as a 21st-century digital media powerhouse.
Of course, Hizzoner Richard Riordan made an appearance at the conference to tout the Digital Coast campaign. All over town, ads were running before the previews hyping the digital wizardry of Hollywood's effects labs, with movies like Titanic cashing in on the computerized visuals. There also are banners stuck on light poles that proclaimed L.A. the birthplace of this and that, including the Internet. Even with all the flash, La-La's Web developers are still crying "No respect."
A panel of young new media entrepreneurs complained long and loud last week about the difficulty of finding funding. One symptom they cited that was seconded by a Sony executive was the major studios' hesitancy to jump into Web content with both feet. Mr. Sony acknowledged that the Web is basically good for repurposing well-known brands (online Jeopardy, par exemple) and promoting blockbuster movies to whet fans' appetites for the action figures and soundtracks.
The Web development grunts in the trenches then exchanged war stories of groveling for start-up dough. When asked why the studios aren't investing some of their Waterworldly funny money in would-be Digital Coasters, Alex Lightman, CEO of 3D Web design studio Hollyworlds, scoffed: "A Web developer getting an audience with Michael Eisner? Your pitch is like the mist on his dinner. He's got $70 million Bruce Willis vehicles to worry about." Say it, Alex, don't spray it.
One studio's new media mogul took umbrage at the accusations: "A lot of what was said today was incorrect," Paul Rioux, president of Universal's new media division huffed at a Skinformant. Rioux insisted that he wasn't in the business of shovelware, but he didn't have time to give examples before rushing away. The Sony exec also hinted of some creative Web offerings in the near future but coyly declined to elaborate.
In addition, several of the SoCal developers kvetched that Silicon Valley funding is nowhere to be found. The panelists cited age and regional differences as the main reasons: NorCal venture capitalists don't understand pop culture and would rather throw fistfuls of money at serious techie stuff such as back-end e-commerce tools or Java. "Tools" sounds a lot more macho than "interactive Fleetwood Mac," and for the average Silicon Valley alpha male investor, that's important.
Speaking of tools, Hewlett-Packard CEO Lewis Platt's keynote speech Wednesday got the main conference off to a giggly start. Platt softened the crowd up with a couple scripted moments of humor, but the best crowd reaction came from one gaffe that gave new meaning to graphics.
First, to illustrate HP's digital photography software, he showed what looked like a photo of Bill Gates. Zooming in several times, it became obvious that the photo was a mosaic composed of thousands of pieces of paper currency from around the world. "This is for demonstration purposes only and is not meant as an editorial comment," Platt deadpanned, with emphasis on the "dead." That elicited a few chuckles, but moments later the executive flubbed the phrase "floppy disks." In the grandest Beavis and Butthead tradition, he left out a crucial "s," resulting in the phrase "floppy two-guys-formally-known-as-Richard." His anatomically picturesque slip sent the audience into giggle fits which lasted well over a minute. Platt plowed on stoically as if nothing had happened, recovering well enough to tell a decent joke:
In the 21st century, a company will only need two employees: a worker and a dog. The worker's job is to feed the dog, and the dog's job is to keep the worker from touching any of the equipment.
On second thought, I don't see what's so funny about that. Neither would a group of writers, no doubt, with an eight-point plan for a movement called "Technorealism," dedicated to widening the debate over the proliferation of technology and our unquestioning acceptance of it. Already the group has provoked a Web parody that manages to be both snide and incomprehensible in its attempt to skewer the Technorealism principles and principals. The Web zine Feed is chock full of debate over the Technorealist declaration. (Feed editor Steven Johnson is one of the signatories.)
The joke was on a lot of journalists expecting a rousing final day at Internet World, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation was sponsoring a daylong series of discussions on privacy in cyberspace. In a schedule mailed last month, figures such as online gossipist Matt Drudge, George Gilder, MIT pundit Nicholas Negroponte, and journalist Gina Smith were expected to sound off. To everyone's disappointment, not a single one of the marquee names showed, leaving even less fizzle in conference organizer Mecklermedia's sarsaparilla. To be fair, reeling in popular speakers is a crapshoot (especially when they've been dragged to court to defend themselves against $30 million libel suits), and the updated schedule handed out at the show reflected the absences, but more than one crestfallen journalist remarked that hearing Drudge speak was the only reason to come to the conference in the first place.
Still, the show went on. That must have been Cybermedia's cri de coeur late last week when the Santa Monica-based company announced the resignation of its CEO and president amid expected gloomy Q1 revenues. The company also reissued its earning statements from the previous quarter. Soldiering on, it hosted a lavish 1930s-themed swing party at the Derby nightclub, which my Skinside sources tell me was one of the better soirées of the week. Even if Cybermedians had nary a drop to drink that night, they must have woke up the next morning feeling hammered, as shareholders announced a class-action lawsuit. My show won't go on unless you raise the curtain on some hot tips. To those who send in fantastic rumors, I promise that we'll do lunch.