[ Digital cinema, democratization, and other trends remaking the movies ]

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

'Inventing the Movies": A Technological History of Hollywood

I've been doing a bit of early promotion for my next book, "Inventing the Movies," which aims to be both a technological history of Hollywood and a parable for innovators of any stripe about the challenges of introducing new ideas to an established industry.

(Update: It's now available on Amazon, and the book's Web site is live.) It's technically not out until September (and not yet available on Amazon), but A few traces of it are starting to show up on the Interweb :

There are two sneaky places where you can purchase an early copy of the book now... the paperback version is here, and the digital/PDF version is here. (Update: And now the Amazon version is here.)

Finally, here are some nice blurbs from people who've read the galleys:

    "For anyone interested in a well-paced, accurate, and eminently readable chronicle of the fits, starts, foibles, and triumphs in the digitization of an entire industry, don't wait for the movie… read this book!"

    Bob Lambert
    Senior Vice President, Worldwide Technology Strategy
    The Walt Disney Company

    "Hollywood loves a good story, particularly one where the ending remains to be told. 'Inventing The Movies' is a dual-track story about how technology enabled the movie industry we know today, and how technology will either enable, or disintermediate, the movie industry of the future."

    Gary Beach
    Publisher Emeritus
    CIO Magazine

    "In his new book, 'Inventing the Movies,' Scott Kirsner takes you on fascinating romp through the movie industry's hundred-year love/hate relationship with technology and innovators. The book is an entertaining read with fascinating historical research and fresh insights from interviews with a long list of contemporary luminaries including director Peter Jackson, computer graphics pioneer Ed Catmull, and entrepreneur Mark Cuban. With a keen attention to multiple perspectives, Kirsner presents the view of industry executives who are reluctant to innovate, and contrasts their views with the innovators who have advanced the many technologies like projection, color, sound, non-linear editing, digital projection, internet distribution, etc. that have transformed the industry over a century of change and revived it over and over again for many generations of audience. 'Inventing the Movies' is a lively book of interest to innovators in any field."

    David Tamés

    "'Inventing The Movies' crystallized my own experience of trying to sell technological innovation into this more-than-resistant industry. Through Scott’s insights and the retelling of a history I only partially knew, I better understand my own rollercoaster ride that took over a decade before digital cinema was embraced by the entire industry. I thoroughly enjoyed the concise and poignant stories of how such things as sound and color almost never made it to the big screen despite the obvious benefits."

    Russell Wintner
    President, Wintertek, Inc.
    Former executive with Technicolor, CineComm, and AccessIT

    "'Inventing the Movies' is a comprehensive look at the changing landscape of cinema, a detailed history of determination, innovation and risk. This work is perfect for anyone wanting to have an understanding of the past, present and future of the medium. An excellent read for those interested in cinema and a must-read for anyone looking to enter the tech or film industry."

    Lance Weiler
    'Head Trauma' and 'The Last Broadcast'

OK, now I'm blushing.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

'Tron 2' and 'Last Starfighter 2': The 80s Are Back!

I'll come out and say it: as a teen, I was a bigger fan of 'The Last Starfighter' (1984) than 'Tron' (1982.) Part of the reason was that it starred the inimitable Robert Preston in his final screen role; 'Last Starfighter' also had a lot more CG effects in it than 'Tron' did -- more than 27 minutes worth of the movie, at a budget of $14 million.

Like 'Tron,' 'Starfighter' was considered a box office flop.

Now, it seems that both movies are getting sequels.

'Tron 2' got lots of attention at Comic-Con last week, where some teaser footage was shown.

A Hollywood friend with some first-hand knowledge of the project told me today that the 'Starfighter' sequel, as Cinematical reported earlier this year, is going to be directed by Nick Castle, who did the original. It's still in pre-production. The Weinstein Company will likely finance and distribute.


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Saturday, July 26, 2008


In Boston last Friday, Lance Weiler and I met briefly to do some planning for 'The Conversation' this coming October.

We also sat down in front of the built-in Webcam in my MacBook to talk a bit about our hopes and dreams for the event -- and the reason we're putting it together.

The cinematography and sound are crude, to put it nicely. But I think you'll get the gist that we're trying to do something experimental and unconference-like...something that will bring together a really interesting bunch of innovators this fall. (That's me on the left, Lance on the right.)

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tamés on the Evolving Cinematic Language of Online Video

Just spent the morning with David Tamés, a multi-hyphenate here in Boston (cinematographer, editor, producer, Web developer, and online video pioneer.) David also works at MassArt, helping manage the technology there.

David gave a talk last weekend at Podcamp Boston 3 where he talked about how to improve one's Web video using cinematic techniques: it's a pithy presentation that explores how production values are changing in this new world of online video, and it's definitely worth a look.

I'm embedding it here:

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Google's CEO on His Deals With Lionsgate and Seth Macfarlane

Interesting coverage from Ad Age of a recent talk given by Google CEO Eric Schmidt at the magazine's annual Madison and Vine conference in Beverly Hills. Google, obviously, is betting that advertising will support entertainment content on the Net... the company tried (and failed) to do paid downloads with its Google Video site.

Salient quote:

    "The [entertainment] entrepreneurs -- and there are plenty of entrepreneurs here -- who will be most successful will be the ones who embrace the new technology with clever approaches. They won't just copy the old models; they'll come up with new ways of both making money, but also building brand. Seth [Macfarlane of 'Family Guy'] is a good example."

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

400 Producers Talk About Digital Strategies

The Independent Television Service just released the results of a survey, conducted this past spring, of more than 400 producers and indie filmmakers. San Francisco-based ITVS asked them about shooting in HD, distributing via the Internet, online promotion, and selling rights to their work.

The survey, in PDF form, is here -- it offers some great insight into the mind of the documentary filmmaker/producer. (Full disclosure: I'm in the midst of working on a research project with ITVS.)

From the conclusion:

    In short, the survey shows that few producers are profiting from digital distribution today. Most, however, are optimistic about the future impact of technology, although concerns linger about how indies will use brand, niche marketing and flexible partnerships to succeed in the digital age. These trends are in line with the marketplace, where only three to four percent of film revenue is currently generated via online distribution, mostly by commercial blockbusters and viral hits.

    Producers' perceptions of the future may reflect the experience of the music industry -- to which many referred in their comments -- where digital sales rose from almost nothing in 2003 to 15 percent of industry revenues in 2008, with some independent labels reporting up to 40 percent of their revenue flowing via digital distribution. For the independent film producer, however, few clear choices for online distribution have presented themselves to date, and many producers continue to move cautiously as they search and wait for better options.

There are some great quotes sprinkled throughout the report from producers who filled out the survey. Among them:

"Realize that more and more people, and especially young people, will have nothing to do with non-interactive, non-participatory content."


“I am overwhelmed with all the things I should be doing…the promise of the Internet is still at arms length….I’ll have to stop making films and learn a whole new skill set? Rats.”

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Jimmy Fallon Will Use the Web to Test His New Late Night Show

This fall, former 'SNL' star Jimmy Fallon will use the Web as a proving ground for his new late night show, before he replaces Conan O'Brien on NBC, according to the New York Times.

Bill Carter writes:

    ...The entries will not constitute anything like an entire hour-long show. “I expect that we’ll do something like five or 10 minutes,” [producer Lorne] Michaels said.

    But he said they most likely will be on every night, to try to establish the rhythm of a nightly show. And he said, “I’m going to post them at 12:30 every night, so people will begin to look for Jimmy at that time.”

That's a really cool idea -- especially if the online version starts to build a community of viewers who can contribute their ideas (like guests they'd like to see), their feedback, and maybe even their jokes.

My Boston VC friend Mike Hirshland has some additional commentary,

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Joss Whedon's Distribution Strategy for 'Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog'

I watched all three episodes of 'Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog' last night, and enjoyed it more than just about any other video content I've seen that was made especially for the Net.

Variety notes that this was a project that Whedon and his brothers worked on during the writer's strike earlier this year. Cynthia Littleton notes:

    "Dr. Horrible," which was shot over seven days in high-def vid at a budget in the very low six figures, tells the story of an underdog supervillain, played by Harris, who maintains a video blog to chronicle his efforts to be accepted by the Evil League of Evil. Horrible also has a softer side, as we see when he battles his arch-nemesis, the two-faced Captain Hammer (Fillion), for the heart of a girl he meets in the Laundromat (Day).

    Whedon directed "Dr. Horrible," and co-wrote it with his brothers, Zack and Jed, and Jed's fiancee, Maurissa Tancharoen (Jed and Maurissa are writing partners and on staff of Joss' upcoming Fox drama "Dollhouse"; Zack is a scribe on the new J.J. Abrams' Fox skein "Fringe.")

    Joss and Jed also penned the music and lyrics to "Dr. Horrible." Much of the musical recording was done at Joss' home studio "with my kids running around." Filming was done on location in Los Angeles at the end of March and some on the Universal backlot, on the New York street set a few months before it was destroyed by a fire.

The first of the three installments appeared on the Dr. Horrible site on July 15th, and the last was posted on July 19th. The video was hosted by Hulu, but there were no ads at all. All three videos disappeared at midnight last night. (Whedon explains his Master Plan for the project here.) Now, they're available on iTunes as paid downloads: $3.99 for the whole series, or $1.99 an episode. There's also Dr. Horrible merchandise for purchase.

All that is great... I just wonder about the last part of Whedon's distribution strategy: the video will only be for sale on iTunes through July 29th. After that, it'll vanish and later appear as a DVD.

What's the logic for making it unavailable to the legions of folks who'd be eager to buy it in digital form? (Let me answer my own question: to make the deal more enticing, exclusive, and profitable for a DVD distributor.)

Correction: The Dr. Horrible folks say, wisely, that the videos won't vanish from iTunes. (Thanks, Kendall, for pointing this out to me.)

Your thoughts?

Here's an interview with Whedon from Wired.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

The DGA's Digital Day Agenda, for 8.2.08

The Director's Guild of America doesn't promote its annual "Digital Day" outside its membership... and doesn't share much of what happens there (aside from the occasional photo spread in the DGA Monthly magazine.)

That's a shame; I think aspiring DGA members would benefit from some video of the demos that take place, audio of the panels, and blogging about the event in general. If the Guild wanted to invest just a little bit in the next generation of directors, I think it'd pay off in a big way.

Anyhow, this year's Digital Day takes place in LA next Saturday, August 2nd, and the agenda looks interesting: sessions on motion capture, 3D television, virtual worlds, and developing content for the Internet and mobile phones. The theme this year is "Size Matters: Creating Content for Big and Small Screens."

Among the speakers are 3D cinematography gurus Vince Pace and Steve Schklair; Eric Brevig, director of 'Journey to the Center of the Earth'; directors Penelope Spheeris, Marshall Herskovitz, and Demian Lichtenstein; and lots of animation and visual effects supervisors. Apple, Avid, Red, Panavision, and Thomson Grass Valley are among the companies offering hands-on demos.

Here's the full agenda in PDF form. Note that if you have a friend who is a DGA member, they can bring you as a guest for just $35.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

DIY Day LA: Are You Going?

Had a chance to connect with indie filmmaker Lance Weiler this afternoon in Boston.... he mentioned that registration is about to close for next Saturday's DIY Day in Los Angeles. The agenda looks great: Tommy Pallotta, Marshall Herskovitz, Robert Greenwald, and more. The best part? It's free.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Amazon's New Video on Demand Service: A Shift From Downloads to Streams?

Today's big news is that is planning to offer its library of film and TV shows in streaming form, according to the New York Times, transforming Amazon Unbox into Amazon Video on Demand. Brad Stone explains:

    The video store will be accessible through the Sony Bravia Internet Video link, a $300 tower-shaped device that funnels Web video directly to Sony’s high-definition televisions. That is an awkward extra expense, for now. But future Bravias are expected to have this capability embedded in the television, making it even easier to gain access to the full catalog of past and present TV shows and movies, over the Internet, using a television remote control.

And Amazon is also eager to do deals with other set-top box makers.

But the new streaming service is still being tested, and it won't actually launch until later this summer.... for now, all you can do is sign up to be notified about it.

Two questions I've got:

1. Will Amazon still offer downloads? Downloads are kinda nice when you're away from connectivity (like on a plane or train or car trip), and also for transferring to a handheld device (though Amazon Unbox only works with a few Windows-compatible portable video players, and not the iPod).

2. Will Amazon still deliver movies (either in streaming or downloadable form) to TiVos? A lot more people have those than the Sony Bravia Internet Video link.

Here's the NewTeeVee post on the news, and another from Hot Hardware.

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SnagFilms: Open for Business

As far as I can tell, the vast reporting team here at CinemaTech Global HQ broke the news about Ted Leonsis' SnagFilms a month ago, during Silverdocs.

Everything about that initial post was on-the-money (except I reported that the referral fee that Snag takes from a DVD sale would be eight percent; it's 8.5 percent).

Snag was officially unveiled today, with a bit of news that was new to me: they've also acquired the indie film hub IndieWIRE.

My take on Snag: this will be an important new way for connecting documentaries with audiences online, and generating revenue -- but many better-known films may be kept off the site because they've promised their digital/VOD rights to someone else.

In other reporting:

Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal has a comprehensive review of SnagFilms.

USA Today has a story about Snag that includes some interesting commentary from founder Ted Leonsis.

    "Because everything is digital now, costs are down, quality is up, and we have this whole new generation of non-fiction filmmakers," says Leonsis, majority owner of two Washington, D.C.-area sports teams and chairman of SnagFilms. "There's more product but less distribution. I wanted to solve that problem."

    ..."The Oscar-winning documentary of 2007 did $250,000 at the box office, which means that only 25,000 people saw it," Leonsis says. "Most videos on YouTube see at least 100,000 views, which would be like $1 million at the box office."

(Actually, Ted, I bet the average video on YouTube has fewer than 1000 views.... maybe even fewer than 100?)

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Four-Link Summer Reading List

Just wanted to share a few blog posts and articles that are worth a read today...

- 'Web TV is a hit. So where's the big money?' from the SF Chronicle. From the story:

    Even with a YouTube partnership, contest winnings from Internet video clearinghouse Metacafe and other recognitions, [the video series] "Break a Leg" has grossed about $2,500 for two years' work.

    "We're in a funny place," admitted director-producer-star Yuri Baranovsky. "I don't know how many people get how much work it is to make this."

    "Break a Leg" embodies the key contradictions of the brave new world of online video entertainment. It's easier and cheaper than ever for individuals to produce their own work and put it up for global audiences - on sites like YouTube, Revver, Veoh and My Damn Channel - but it's almost impossible to make a living outside of the established TV and film industry.

- Venture capitalist David Beisel on the next phase of online video. Beisel writes:

    ...I believe we’re entering a second phase of the online video space in which the discovery mechanisms for (semi-)professional content, coupled with the increase of professional content available online in a distributed fashion, will facilitate a willingness of users to venture beyond YouTube to consume video across the net. But it won’t happen overnight. Especially when I hear that the dirty little secret from many independent video producers which maintain their own destination sites is that an overwhelming number of their views come via YouTube and not on their own distribution.

- Mark Cuban on 'The Way to Save Internet Video' (link it to the traditional television distribution systems, he suggests)

- Finally, the Xbox 360 game console will now deliver Netflix streaming movies (at least to the 5 million users who pay $50 a year for a "gold" membership, and also have a Netflix subscription)

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Monday Links: MovieBeam Sold, Blu-ray Interactivity, 'Journey' Dazzles in 3-D

- Can anyone explain this? An Indian company is buying Moviebeam, the movie-delivery-over-the-airwaves-set-top-box, for an undisclosed sum. They're promising to invest $100 million to re-start it, delivering both Hollywood and "ethnic" content to consumers. Moviebeam was started in 2005 by Disney, then re-started in 2006 with an assist from Cisco Systems and some other investors. Then it was sold to the Movie Gallery, a rental chain. Last December, it was shut down. Through it all, there has never been any word on how many customers Moviebeam has managed to acquire.

- Disney is experimenting with Blu-ray's interactive features in a new release of 'Sleeping Beauty,' according to the NY Times. Friends can chat with one another while viewing it separately, and the text will appear on the screen...or play trivia contests... or record video messages that will pop up during the movie. But these Internet-dependent features only work in a sub-set of Blu-ray players which support 'BD Live.'

- 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' wasn't the top new movie for this past weekend, but it performed quite well in theaters where it unspooled in 3-D, according to the NY Times. Brooks Barnes writes:

    ...[T]here were hints buried deeper in the box-office returns suggesting that 3-D is well on its way to becoming a force at multiplexes. Auditoriums screening the movie in 3-D sold more than three times as many tickets as those showing the standard version. About 57 percent of the total gross for “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” based on the classic Jules Verne tale, came from 3-D screenings.

    In comparison, 3-D screenings of “Beowulf,” the computer-generated picture that opened last November, generated just 28 percent of its opening-weekend gross. (“Beowulf” was available in 3-D on slightly fewer screens.)

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

D Cinema Finger-Pointing

What's this all about?

Warner Bros. is accusing theater owners of dragging their feet in the deployment of digital cinema equipment. (True - the biggest chains, including Regal and AMC, have yet to get serious about installing digital projectors.)

And the National Association of Theater Owners is accusing Warner Bros. of being slow to commit to the financial terms that will support future digital cinema roll-outs. (Probably also true... studios are notoriously stingy about how much they will pay for a film print, or how much their will pay as a "virtual print fee," which is essentially a toll for sending a digital movie to a digital projector, which helps pay for the cost of the equipment.)

Earlier this year, Jeffrey Katzenberg had also accused theaters of being slow in their shift to digital. DreamWorks, of course, is getting ready to introduce its first 3-D movie in 2009, 'Monsters vs. Aliens.' (Warner Bros. is the distributor for this month's 'Journey to the Center of the Earth.')

The studios, I suspect, are now feeling the complexity of releasing movies in both film and digital formats -- and probably won't start seeing real cost savings until digital distribution hits a certain volume level. That's why they're negotiating so hard on what they'll pay as a virtual print fee for this second wave of d cinema installations.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

YouTube's Ad Quandary

Google and YouTube are still trying to figure out how to make all those YouTube videos pay off through advertising, writes Kevin Delaney of the Wall Street Journal.

    Although users of the popular video-sharing site view clips more than one billion times on most days, the site hasn't been as popular with big corporate advertisers. World-wide revenue from YouTube ads has fallen short of Google's expectations this year, and is likely to total about $200 million for the full year, according to two people familiar with the matter.

    YouTube is critical to Google's campaign to extend its advertising reach far beyond text ads tied to Web searches, its revenue powerhouse. Google wants to sell more video ads and display ads on YouTube and elsewhere. It also wants to crack the television, radio and newspaper ad markets. Its target: the 90% of global ad dollars that don't currently flow to the Internet.

    "Most advertisers are still testing the waters on YouTube," says Sean Muzzy, media director at Neo@Ogilvy, a digital ad agency owned by WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather.

The piece also mentions that Google is now considering selling pre-roll and post-roll advertising on YouTube... something that YouTube's founders have always been opposed to.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

'Journey to the Center of the Earth' Hype Begins

'Journey to the Center of the Earth,' starring Brendan Fraser, opens next Friday, and there are already some articles showing up touting its use of the Fusion camera system developed by James Cameron and Vince Pace. It's based on the Sony HDC digital camera, and it was used for the recent 'Hannah Montana' 3-D concert film.

The Boston Globe writes:

    "Journey" is the first live-action non-documentary feature to be shot completely using the Fusion System, a versatile 3-D camera rig engineered by Cameron and cinematographer Vince Pace to record with greater artistic control than traditional equipment. Technical partners for the better part of a decade, Cameron and Pace did some earlier R&D for the rig on the director's underwater IMAX documentaries "Ghosts of the Abyss" and "Aliens of the Deep" - which, like "Journey," were produced with Boston-based Walden Media.

    Fusion's goal is to capture imagery with photorealism - to make viewers feel that they're being pulled into the movie, rather than having the movie artificially pop out at them.

Cameron has been talking up the system for a few years now. In my last chat with him in 2006, we talked a bit about traditional cinematographers getting comfortable with 3-D cameras. "There's always resistance to change," Cameron said, "because people can't parade themselves as the world's greatest expert. But some people like challenges -- they like to push themselves and test themselves. What haven't you done yet? That's the only interesting thing to be doing. That's what gets me up in the morning."

On the set of 'Journey,' Pace told me, it was possible to review dailies or rehearsals in 3-D, if necessary, on a 25-foot screen. That's cool.

Oddly, Vince Pace's Web site makes no mention of the camera at all... but there is a separate single-page Web site for the Fusion camera.

Cinematical assesses the 3-D elements of 'Journey.' Slashfilm has an early take praising the 3-D effect, but snarking about everything else. VFXworld talks about the film's 3-D production pipeline.

The LA Times offers a PDF document from Real D showing the planned 3-D releases for 2008, 2009, and beyond. A dozen are expected next year...

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

'Hancock' - Hollywood's First Big 4K Release?

It seems to me like 'Hancock,' from Sony Pictures, is the first big-time digital cinema release in 4K. Sony Electronics, of course, currently sells the only commercial 4K digital projectors, which are installed in about 200 theaters in the US, according to The Hollywood Reporter. I suspect 'Hancock' isn't playing on all 200...

Sony has done other stuff to promote their 4K projectors in the past, but as far as I know, this is the first release of a big studio picture... though Sony did a special showing of 'Spider-Man 2' back in 2004 with the projector.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Announcing 'The Conversation'

I'm very excited to post the first news about 'The Conversation,' a gathering that has been in the works for seven or eight months now. It takes place October 17th and 18th in the San Francisco Bay Area, at the wonderful Pacific Film Archive theater on the edge of the UC/Berkeley campus.

The basic idea is simple: let's get together a really interesting group of people to talk about new technologies and the entertainment industry. Games. Digital cinema and digital distribution. Set-top boxes and mobile phones. Online financing and fundraising. Building audiences in the digital world. And any other topic that you feel is important.

We've already invited a great group of "conversation leaders" to talk about the world from their perspective. The goal is to avoid PowerPoint overload, long speeches, and a passive audience sitting there responding to e-mails. We're aiming for discussion, debate, and sharing ideas and experiences.

We want your help, in suggesting other topics that ought to get covered, and other people (perhaps you, or someone you know?) who'd be ideal to cover them. Feel free to post comments here or use the event's wiki. (The latter method is better, and not too complicated.)

We have room in the theater for 222 people, and we're doing our best to keep prices low. While most conferences about digital media and the future of the entertainment industry tend to cost $1000 or $2000 bucks or more, the price for a pass to be part of The Conversation is $99 (beware: that price will rise to a stratospheric $149 as the date gets closer.)

I'm hoping you can make it; I have a hunch it'll be a lot of fun, and it's certainly taking place at an important moment in the transformation of business and art and process of creating entertainment.

And if you can't make it, we're hoping it'll be copiously blogged, and possibly podcast, too.

(Thanks to the Berkeley Center for New Media and Variety for jumping on board as our first two sponsors!)

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