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Monday, March 31, 2008

Sony Pics on Phones ... Original Content for Xbox ... Yahoo and Microsoft's Video Strategies ... Pocket Projectors

- Sony Pictures Television is developing PIX, the first movie network for mobile phones. It'll be available on the recently-announced AT&T Mobile TV service in May. From the Hollywood Reporter piece:

    Sony eventually might convert PIX to an on-demand model and might take the brand online as well. The full-length linear strategy is just one of many different content plays with which the studio is experimenting. "We're not doubling down and saying it's only about longform," [Sony VP Eric] Berger said. "We'll continue to do innovative things in the shortform universe as well."

- Microsoft and the Safran Company are collaborating to create original shows for the Xbox game console, according to the NY Times. From the piece:

    In an interview at his office in Los Angeles last week, [producer and talent manager Peter] Safran said his first round of programs would all be scripted, as opposed to reality shows, and would probably run under 10 minutes. He said he planned initially to focus on genres, like comedy and horror, that appeal to the Xbox 360 audience, which is heavily concentrated from the ages of 14 to 34, and tends to be more male than female. The first shows are expected to be available to viewers by the fall.

    Microsoft’s previous forays in digital entertainment include a two-year-old initiative, MSN Originals, to provide original shows for the Web, and an ill-fated foray more than 10 years ago in which it poured about $100 million into Internet shows like the comedy “475 Madison,” about an advertising agency, then quickly canceled most of them.

- I wrote a piece for this week's edition of Variety that looks at Yahoo and Microsoft's video strategies. From the piece:

    "Video consumption is becoming part of most users' Internet experience," says Karin Gilford, VP of entertainment at Yahoo. "The question is, what do you do to differentiate yourself?"

    Yahoo and Microsoft have both been struggling to answer that question since the February 2005 launch of YouTube. Since then, video viewing on the Net has become an addiction for some: The top 20% of diehard downloaders watch an average of 14 hours a month, according to research firms comScore and Media Contacts.

- I've been eagerly following the development of pocket LED projectors for a few years now... looks like 2008 could finally be the year a few of them hit the US market, according to the NY Times.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Movie Recommendation Technology

A piece I wrote last year for the site FilmInFocus is now available; it deals with using software to try to predict what movies we'll enjoy.

From the piece:

    One problem that the technology hasn't yet begun to deal with is our changing moods. "You might enjoy one movie when you're alone and feeling down, but things are different when you're going to be with a bunch of people," [University of Minnesota professor Joe] Konstan says. There's no way yet to tell Blockbuster that you're feeling burnt out on a Friday night and need some light entertainment, or that you owe your girlfriend a "date night" movie, or that you're in a documentary frame-of-mind.

    Another issue is that none of the sites you visit share information about your tastes with anyone else. "Blockbuster thinks about the ratings you've given it as their information," explains Toffer Winslow, an executive at ChoiceStream, the software company that supplies Blockbuster with recommendation technology. He says that users may feel like their privacy has been compromised if information they've given to one site is used by another to serve up more personalized content.

Among the companies I mention are Netflix, ChoiceStream, Matchmine, and Amazon.

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YouTube Adds Analytic Info

YouTube is announcing a new feature called "Insight," which gives video creators a way to see where there video is being watched (there's a cool map of the world with countries that light up) and when (is your video a Monday-morning-at-the-office-hit?)

From the NY Times coverage:

    ...YouTube executives suggest that marketers can use the tools in several ways. A movie studio might run several versions of a trailer to see what is catching on where, and if a humorous spot is catching fire in Texas, might start running that trailer as a TV ad in the state.

    A political campaign could test spots of a candidate discussing the environment or the economy; if an environmental spot is popular in Pennsylvania, that might help decide what the candidate stumps about there.

    During a YouTube test of the feature, a band uploaded its music performances, determined which states it was popular in via Insight, and planned a tour around that.

YouTube explains the service -- and how you can use it -- here.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Mavs in 3-D ... Other Alternative Digital Content ... HD DVD Credits

- Tomorrow night's Mavs/Clippers game will be broadcast live in 3-D to one Landmark Theater in Dallas. They're using the Fusion 3-D camera system developed by Sony, James Cameron, and Vince Pace.

- The NY Times wrote yesterday about non-movie content in movie theaters. There's apparently a boomlet happening. From the story:

    Chains in Tennessee and New Jersey sell $25 tickets to performances of La Scala operas. AMC and Regal, two of North America’s biggest chains, have promoted concerts (Celine Dion), marathons of classic TV shows (“Star Trek”) and seasonal events (the St. Olaf Christmas Festival). On April 24, hundreds of theaters are scheduled to show highlights from the Drum Corps International World Championships.

    Few think nonmovie content will supplant movies as the primary reason people trek to the multiplex. Rather, the hope is that all the niche offerings will add up to steady supplemental income.

This is the kind of stuff that wasn't possible before digital cinema...

- People who bought HD DVD players from Best Buy and Circuit City can return them for store credits or gift cards, the Times' Bits blog reports.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

How Will People Find What They Want to Watch?

One interesting tidbit I wanted to share from a panel I moderated on Tuesday at the NAB Futures Summit...

We were talking about how people will discover content in the they'll find things to watch.

Josh Goldman, a partner at Norwest Venture Partners in Silicon Valley (and formerly CEO of Akimbo, a set-top box company), suggested that there will be three modes of content discovery:

    1. Social (a friend tells you about it -- in person, via e-mail, through a Facebook-like site, etc.)

    2. Algorithmic (some piece of software leads you to it, whether its a search tool like Google or a "personalization engine" that roams the Net looking for stuff that might fit your interests)

    3. Editorial (a Web site, blog, magazine, or other publication reviews or recommends it)

It's a good list...but I wonder if one thing is missing. Won't advertising that suggests you ought to download this new movie, or that new TV show, still be a way to drive people to content, at least for content producers with big bucks?

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Monday, March 17, 2008

A Multimedia Buffet for You

Just finished having a late lunch in San Jose with bicycle-riding auteur/sage/animator M dot Strange.

One of the topics we touched on was artists (whether they're musicians, filmmakers, writers, photographers, whatever) who've been pioneers, in terms of cultivating an audience online. (If you have thoughts, post them in the comments here -- this is for my current writing project.)

He pointed me to the video of this talk he gave in Berlin recently, "Adventures in Self-Distribution." (In his usual humble way, of course.)

Then Jarod Neece of SXSW e-mailed to let me know they've just posted a mess of podcasts from this year's panels, including "Video Production for the Web and Mobile Devices," "Quit Your Day Job and Vlog," and two I moderated, "Digital Cinema for Indies" and "Animation and Digital Effects on a Budget."

That's a lot to watch and listen to...

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

YouTube Hearts TiVo ... Video Overload on the Net ... ShoWest Report ... And More

- YouTube and TiVo have gotten together to deliver YouTube videos to about 800,000 TiVo users who have the right box and the necessary broadband connection. TiVo has never shared any stats on how many of their users are getting content from the Internet this way (and likely won't, anytime soon). TiVo did an earlier deal with Brightcove; the new YouTube link won't be active until later this year, says the Wall Street Journal.

- Could video kill the Internet star? Here's a NY Times piece worth reading. Steve Lohr writes:

    Moving images, far more than words or sounds, are hefty rivers of digital bits as they traverse the Internet’s pipes and gateways, requiring, in industry parlance, more bandwidth. Last year, by one estimate, the video site YouTube, owned by Google, consumed as much bandwidth as the entire Internet did in 2000.

- The LA Times offers a good overview piece of what has been happening at the ShoWest convention in Vegas this week... mostly excitement about digital 3D. Jeffrey Katzenberg was there plugging 'Monsters vs. Aliens,' the spring 20009 DreamWorks Animation release, and its first in 3D. Katzenberg says the extra cost is about $15 million; he hopes there will be 3000 to 5000 screens capable of showing 3D by the time it is released.

- Imax and Texas Instruments have apparently done a deal to use TI's DLP (digital light processing) chips in a new kind of projection system being designed by Imax. (It's not clear yet who will actually make the projectors.) The Hollywood Reporter writes:

    Imax...has since its inception 40 years ago used 70mm film to distribute and exhibit movies. By converting to digital, it will dramatically change its business model as digital distribution removes print costs -- about $22,000 for a 2-D print and $45,000 for a 3-D print -- from the equation.

    Imax's move to TI is a blow to Sony because Imax had been developing a digital system that employed two Sony 4K projectors and proprietary technology.

- I've been having a good time using Hulu in the beta test period. It helped introduce me to 'Arrested Development,' and I actually didn't mind going out to rent the DVDs of episodes that weren't available on the Hulu site. I also deepened my knowledge (and enjoyment) of '30 Rock,' a show I catch on TV only occasionally. I didn't mind the commercials; the one thing that occasionally bugged me was the fact that you can't store video on your laptop for later viewing (IE, put a show on pause, wait for the whole thing to stream, and then start playing). That makes Hulu tough to use with spotty Internet connections, or if you want to store a show while you're sitting in the airport and then watch it on the plane. (I tried.)

But on the whole, Hulu does a lot right... including allowing you to embed the videos anywhere.

Dan Carew, a blogger in Hong Kong, has a very different opinion, since users outside the US are barred from Hulu (likely because of NBC and Fox's distribution contracts in foreign territories.)

Here's the NY Times story on Hulu's launch.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Digital Effects and Animation Panel from SXSW

Some belated notes from Sunday's SXSW panel on 'Animation and Digital Effects on a Budget'...

We talked a lot about the importance of pre-visualization (what used to be called simply 'storyboarding.') The panelists agreed that pre-viz, in whatever high-tech or low-tech form, is probably more important for independent filmmakers working on a tight budget than it is for the studio-backed big guys.

Alex Lindsay recommended Google SketchUp. Stu Maschwitz said he'd pre-vizzed national ad (for Toshiba's HD DVD gear, alas) using video from his Panasonic DMC LX2 digital camera; the camera costs less than $300. Others said that even pencil sketches of stick figures can work well, edited together in FinalCut or not. Stu said he'd also recommended that a friend use a PlayStation 2 game called 'Driver 2' to pre-viz a car chase he wanted to shoot. Stu said there's lots of potential in using videogames (and videogame controllers) to pre-viz quickly.

I asked about some recent work that might be encouraging to people working on tight budgets. Among the stuff mentioned was Don Hertzfeld's animation, the Galacticast podcast, 'Persepolis,' and 'Hoodwinked.'

Geoff Marslett showed some early footage from his new feature project, 'Mars,' which he's making for under $200K. It involves some pretty stylish rotoscoping. Mark Forker showed some work done by his new Philadelphia visual effects studio Dive, for an indie director.

And Stu offered a break-down of how he made a quick-and-dirty, but very impressive, ad for a Southwest Airlines "Wanna Get Away?" Internet contest (he didn't win, but should have). It's here.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Will new media breed new artists?

Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece last week titled 'Size Matters. Morgenstern seems to side with David Lynch: movies are intended to be seen on the big screen, not on an iPod or in a Web browser window.

And a lot of the Web content that's proving popular, Morgenstern complains, is about titillation: what better way to capture a viewer's attention than to present an attractive actress in a bikini?

I'd point out that a lot of the movies that made movies popular in the first place featured foxy ladies doing things you didn't ordinarily see ladies do in the 1890s. Like Annabelle and her serpentine dance:

Morgenstern also writes, "No one has any illusions that the new media, in their current configurations, will create new Coppolas, Altmans or Renoirs."

I took issue with that, and sent Morgenstern the e-mail below. (He covers his behind a little bit with the phrase "in their current configurations.")

But there is a solid observation later in the article. Morgenstern writes:

    How do multitasking, multicurious, multiprivileged, multidistracted and multiscattered kids process information? With all those windows open on their digital world, how will they follow complex narratives? What will sing to them, stir their souls, seize their imaginations? There isn't a soul in the entertainment business who claims to have an answer, and who isn't worried about not having one.

Spot on.

My e-mail is below... I'll update you if I get a response.


Dear Joe-

I was bothered by your blanket dismissal of the possibility that new technologies like the iPod and cell phone might eventually give us a new kind of artist. ("No one has any illusions that the new media, in their current configurations, will create new Coppolas, Altmans or Renoirs.")

I think that if one were a theater critic in the 1890s, one would've had to say the same thing about film. The first movies shown in the first Kinetoscope Parlor (it opened in 1894 on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan) were amateurish compared to the sophisticated theatrical offerings of the day. Among them were "Roosters," "Barber Shop," and "Wrestling" -- pretty much pointless (except for showing off Edison's new technology), and certainly plotless. They were silent, short, and in black-and-white, while theater offered speech, color, and music stretching over the course of an entire evening.

It would have been difficult to imagine at that moment the contributions that D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Capra, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Cassavetes, and the Farrelly Brothers would eventually make.

I submit that we're at a similar moment with visual storytelling on cell phones, iPods, and the Web.

Maybe these technologies won't breed new "film" artists -- but they will breed some kind of new artists...

Best regards,

Scott Kirsner

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Difference Between a Fan and a Friend

Lance Weiler organized a few roundtable discussions at SXSW this year, outside of the conference itself; audio and video will be posted on the From Here to Awesome site at some point.

They were held at the offices of B-Side Entertainment. I'm not exactly sure how to describe the focus of the conversation, which lasted about two hours and included about 20 people packed into the conference room at B-Side. It touched on financing and fandom, contracts and deals, marketing, patronage, and new distribution avenues. (The roundtable I was part of included Brian Chirls, Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, Tommy Pallotta, Scott Macaulay, Brett Gaylor, Isis Masoud, David Garber, Slava Rubin, Danae Ringelmann, and Scilla Andreen, among others I didn't really know.)

For me, the most interesting threat of the conversation was about fans: how you accumulate them, and how the nature of fandom is changing. (We started by summarizing Kevin Kelly's excellent essay 1,000 True Fans.)

I tossed out the idea that "fan" is starting to feel like a vestige of the (good) old mass media days. In the age of Facebook and MySpace "friends," is anyone happy to simply be a fan anymore?

"Fan" feels like such a passive word. They're supposed to join your fan club, read the fan club newsletter, and buy tickets to your movies when they come out. They're consumers, pure and simple -- a ready audience when you need them.

The new fan -- or friend -- or "peer" (the term that Susan Buice proposed) wants to be more connected to you and your work. They want to hear first about your new project. They want to have input to it, or help shape it in some way (Brett Gaylor is allowing "friends" of his documentary project Open Source Cinema to edit some of the sequences.) They want to respond to your YouTube videos, comment on your blog, tell you when they think you're selling out or full of shit. (Some "friends" those are!) They want to give you ideas and be credited for their ideas. They may even be willing to help finance your next project or pre-buy the DVD through sites like IndieGoGo or IndieMaverick. They'll help promote it when it's finished, embedding clips in their blogs or Twittering their friends that they're on the way to the premiere.

What's amazing about the Internet is that there are the tools that let you communicate with this "friend base" and ask them for help.

What's even more amazing is that people are willing to offer help, if it's asked for in the right way (and rewarded in the right way, with recognition and perhaps more tangible trinkets.)

But what's scary is that it's still hard to tell which of your "friends" will actually *do something*, like turn up in a theater and buy a ticket, and which ones are simply compulsive about creating new connections, adding you to their own ever-growing roster of friends. And I think it will be challenging (perhaps scary) to manage some of your friends who want to be more than just friends ... like sending you the script they hope will turn into your next movie.

I'm not suggesting "friend" is definitively the right term to be using. (I still think of a friend as someone who intuitively knows when you need to be taken out and bought a beer, and who knows about large swaths of your history.) Peer is pretty good, as is collaborator. Patron feels too passive, like someone who's just bankrolling a project.

But finding a new term for the people who support creative endeavors seems to be an important step in moving beyond just thinking about them as fans.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

'Digital Cinema for Indies' panel at SXSW

The big challenge of today's 'Digital Cinema for Indies' panel at SXSW was explaining both the technical intricacies and the business parameters of digital cinema. But we tried.

The big challenge right now is that most of the 4000 or so digital screens in the US show studio content, delivered by AccessIT. Those screens aren't very accessible to independent filmmakers and small distributors. And the cost of mastering completed movies to the DCI standard, a file format designed by the major studios, is still quite high. Right now, panelist Russ Wintner said, "there are four labs in LA -- a virtual monopoly -- that can turn out a DCP." (The DCP, or digital cinema package, is the term for the final DCI file that's sent out to theaters, whether via satellite or hard drive.)

So what's the answer for an indie filmmaker looking to get her movie out to theaters in digital form? You could master the movie yourself, commandeer a hard drive, and tote it around to theaters, as panelist Lance Weiler did in 2006 with 'Head Trauma.' (Lance is something of a technical genius, so you may not want to try that yourself.) Or you could work with networks like Emerging Pictures -- which is fairly selective of what it picks up for distribution but has a nice network of digital venues around the country. (Emerging doesn't do four-walling, or screenings paid for by filmmakers that allow them to keep the entire box office take.) A somewhat more open option is Truly Indie, part of the Landmark Theatres empire.

Both Emerging and Truly Indie say that the costs of digital cinema distribution through their networks is usually cheaper than striking a film print.

(Update: This Hollywood Reporter piece, focused on the ShoWest trade show in Vegas, talks a bit about how the three biggest chains are approaching digital cinema.)

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The Future of the Movie Trailer

An impromptu dinner at SXSW last night brought together an interesting group, including Arin Crumley ('Four Eyed Monsters'), Lance Weiler ('Head Trauma'), Brian Chirls, and producer and Filmmaker Magazine editor Scott Macaulay.

One topic we talked about over barbecue at the Iron Works was movie trailers: is it time to retire the idea of the trailer? Or just radically revamp it? (The very word 'trailer' is archaic; coming attractions used to play after the feature..."trailing" it.)

Here are some questions to think about:

- In an age when it costs nothing to distribute clips and promotional material from your film, why have just one trailer?

- Why are trailers only made once the movie is done and ready for release? What about sharing material (even, heaven forbid, non-polished material) while the film is in production, or post?

- The trailer genre is unabashedly sales-y. "Let's show you some great moments to try to convince you to go see this movie." What about more authentic approaches to introducing the audience to your story, your characters, your issue?

- Why not explain, as the filmmaker, what attracted you to the material, or why you wanted to tell this story, or playing a character of your own devising? (Alfred Hitchcock used to introduce his movies in the trailers. Check out Hitch promoting 'Psycho.') If you're a documentary filmmaker, maybe you could provide an introduction to the issue your film is about... with some stats, background, and images.

- Could a trailer (or series of trailers) offer 'entry points' into a movie, as Wes Anderson did with his 'Hotel Chevalier' short? Rather than excerpting the movie in a trailer, why not tell a story about one or more of the characters that pulls the viewer into the full-length film?

Scott Macaulay pointed out that many directors aren't good at cutting their own trailers. And he said that some filmmakers might worry about posting material early in the process: that can make it clear just how long it's taking to get your movie finished.

Brian Chirls and I talked a bit about using clips on sites like YouTube not just to generate buzz, but to get potential audience members to give you their e-mail address, or subscribe to an RSS feed of updates. (That's helpful later, when you want to try to get them to show up to a theater, or buy a DVD or download.) Chirls said the best solution is to use sites like YouTube to bring people over to your site (via a link in the "About this Video" box), and explain to them really simply how to sign up for your RSS feed, add your Facebook group to their profile, or enter their e-mail address to get occasional updates on the film.

In general, we agreed that most filmmakers are just so focused on making the feature, and then making the next feature, that they don't spend enough time exploring innovative ways to market and promote their work.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Technicolor digitizes the ArcLight

Technicolor Digital Cinema is installing digital cinema systems at Hollywood's top-notch ArcLight complex (including the Cinerama Dome), according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Seems important to note that this isn't the first time d cinema gear has been installed there, by companies like NEC, Sony, and some earlier equipment.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

SXSW ... 1,000 True Fans ... HBO's 'In Treatment' ... Movie Production Costs Keep Rising

Just a few links before I head to Austin on Friday morning for the SXSW Film Festival.... I'll be heading up two panels, one on Saturday called Digital Cinema for Indies, and one on Sunday called Animation and Digital Effects on a Budget.

- Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired, has a wonderfully thoughtful essay titled '1,000 True Fans.' Here's part of the opening:

    ...the long tail is a decidedly mixed blessing for creators. Individual artists, producers, inventors and makers are overlooked in the equation. The long tail does not raise the sales of creators much, but it does add massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices. Unless artists become a large aggregator of other artist's works, the long tail offers no path out of the quiet doldrums of minuscule sales.

    Other than aim for a blockbuster hit, what can an artist do to escape the long tail?

    One solution is to find 1,000 True Fans. While some artists have discovered this path without calling it that, I think it is worth trying to formalize. The gist of 1,000 True Fans can be stated simply:

    A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author - in other words, anyone producing works of art - needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

- Michael DiBasio is cheesed that HBO seduced him with free episodes of 'In Treatment,' then turned off the tap. I'd argue that HBO is going to have a very hard time offering its content online in any form ... whether paid downloads at iTunes, or ad-supported streams ... because its biggest revenue stream is cable and satellite companies, who want that content to be their exclusively. (Why else do people pay $100 a month for cable, except for HBO and Showtime?)

- The average cost of producing and marketing a studio movie in 2007 hit an all-time high, according to the Wall Street Journal (based on data from the MPAA): $106.6 million. Releases from studio "specialty" divisions, like Fox Searchlight, was $74.8 million, a big jump from the prior year. But it was also the best year ever for the US box office, led by Sony Pictures' 'Spider-Man 3.' The studios raked in almost $10 billion (and that's ticket sales only -- no home video.)

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

For Your Consideration: Low-Budget Blockbusters ... Toshiba Exec Reflects on HD DVD ... Theaters Evolve

- Low-budget blockbusters like 'Once' never happen ... until they do. (Movie industry insiders say it's always safer to bet on big budget releases with well-known stars.) has an analysis of the economics of 'Once,' made for $150,000 and released in the US by Fox Searchlight. The financial returns thus far, Portfolio says, have hit about 10,000 percent. From the story:

    After the film opened in the U.S., it grew slowly and steadily. Fox Searchlight had the best marketing that money can’t buy: word-of-mouth buzz and critical acclaim. While summer’s blockbusters came and went, Once stuck around theaters for an amazing 219 days—most of 2007—whereas Spider-Man and Pirates played for 112 and 133 days, respectively.

There's also a slideshow of the top ten movies from a return-on-investment perspective (mostly indies like 'Blair Witch' and 'Napoleon Dynamite,' but all three 'Lord of the Rings' films also make the list.)

- Toshiba's CEO talks to the Wall Street Journal about the impact to the company of losing the high-def format war to Sony and Blu-ray. Atsutoshi Nishida says:

    I didn't think we stood a chance after Warner left us because it meant HD DVD would have just 20% to 30% of software market share. One has to take calculated risks in business, but it's also important to switch gears immediately if you think your decision was wrong. We were doing this to win, and if we weren't going to win then we had to pull out, especially since consumers were already asking for a single standard.

- The Detroit News writes about how movie theaters are evolving -- with a big focus on 3-D, live concerts, and videogame tournaments. (Long interviewed me for the piece, and includes a short quote.)Fox

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Eisner's Next Online Series: 'The All-for-Nots'

The NY Times explores Michael Eisner's online video ventures, in advance of Eisner's appearance next week at SXSW to promote his new online series, 'The All-for-Nots.' (Eisner will be interviewed by Mark Cuban -- sure to be news-making.)

So now the question is: who'll crack the creative challenges of Web video (and figure out the right economic model) first.... Eisner, or his former employer, Disney?

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