Hollywood seeks iTunes for film

Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment is trying to develop and own the next iTunes -- but for films.

"We want to set business models, pricing models, distribution models like (Apple Computer CEO Steve) Jobs did for music, but for the film industry," Michael Arrieta, senior vice president of Sony Pictures, said at the Digital Hollywood conference in Santa Monica, California.

"I'm trying to create the new 'anti-Napster,'" he added.

To that end, Arrieta said, his group plans to digitise Sony Pictures' top 500 films and make them available for the first time in various digital environments within the next year. He said the distribution for films like "Spider-Man 2" will go beyond just Movielink, the video-on-demand joint venture of Sony Pictures and several other major studios, which to date has hosted a limited library of Sony's movies.

For example, Sony plans to sell and make films available in flash memory for mobile phones in the next year, Arrieta said. It also will further develop its digital stores for downloading and owning films on the PC, he said in an interview.

Sony's plans -- and similar moves by other studios -- are likely to avoid empowering any one technology company -- such as Apple in the music equation -- and allow studios to pocket more of the profits. The philosophy in Hollywood is "Define your own agenda or someone else will for you."

Equally important is trying to avoid the rampant digital theft in peer-to-peer communities that the music industry has suffered, media executives say.

At the Digital Hollywood conference, media executives including Arrieta ruminated on ongoing hurdles to giving consumers access to unlimited films, TV shows and multimedia on a range of devices, anywhere at anytime.

They agreed that issues surrounding digital rights management, consumer adoption and simple and compatible consumer electronics remained bottlenecks in the industry.

Still, Hollywood is working with technologists to help deliver the promise of the "digital home" more than ever before, according to entertainment executives. It's just that the two sides may still be speaking different languages.

"The plumbing of IT is converging," said Adam Bain, vice president of technology and production at Fox Sports Interactive. "But there are so many different devices the trends are of a divergent nature."

Advertising's future
Media executives during the "Digital Home" panel also discussed the future of 30-second TV commercials in a digital environment that lets consumers skip over the ads.

Charles Swartz, executive director and CEO of the University of Southern California's Entertainment Technology Center, said that because ads are the most effective sales tool ever invented, they will not disappear. But, he said, there's an opportunity to customise and target the ads to people's homes with advanced technology.

"Commercials aren't dead; they'll just get more interactive and effective," said Shahid Khan, managing director of Bearingpoint, an entertainment consulting firm. "But someone has to figure out how to better measure this animal."

Whatever the case, entertainment, advertising and technology will increasingly meld into a seamless product, executives say, and it remains to be seen who will be the powerbroker. Sony Pictures, whose parent company develops a wide range of consumer electronics, reiterated that it's trying to set its own agenda for new entertainment distribution.

"The future is about creating an entertainment ecosystem," in which players, platforms, content rights and the user interface are fluid, Arrieta said. The industry's "in a transition period, but there's a high-level dialog (with technology partners) going on now."



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