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New Media--A Ringside View of Trends in the Industry

Andrew Zucker provides a blow-by-blow description of the fate of "new media," from computer animation to interactive CD-ROMs.

It's 1996 and the world has had its first taste of so-called New Media, which, if one chose to listen to some of Hollywood, might already be called, "Old Media." But frankly, what we have witnessed is the first round of a championship bout between the Hollywood as it exists today and the industry of the future. Here is a copy of the latest "fight card" with descriptions of the blow-by-blow accounts.

Toy Story. © Disney Enterprises

To The Future and Beyond!

As everyone who saw the feature length, computer animated Toy Story knew, this type of entertainment is exciting, novel and fun to watch and probably presents a serious threat to the status quo. Will it replace fine, Disney-style animation in the long run? Probably not. Why? Kids don't care what they watch. The parents do, and every holiday season, they will take their young'uns to see whatever it is that is served up hot and fresh--unless they were burnt in the past by a company which served up too much hype in advance of a mediocre product, such as The Pagemaster.

When Pixar sold Toy Story to Disney lock, stock and barrel, with no hope of receiving any backend participation (or so the story goes), the company knew it was giving away a tremendous product at a god awful price; but it also knew that using Toy Story as a loss leader could generate the name recognition, public support and credibility to allow them to make another feature.

However, just when it looked like Pixar was on the ropes, the company and its well deserving creators scored a knockout with a well received public stock offering. Thank you public. Thank you Disney. Thank you Buzz Lightyear!

3D or Not 3D, That is the Question

Every year they trot out a couple of 40 year old plus professional boxers and these palookas go at it like they were fresh out of high school. Sure they are over the hill. Sure we feel bad for them. But, boy, they make lots of money and sure are fun to watch!

Many people regard Hollywood studios as aging dinosaurs looking for a place to fall down, kept alive by clinching their younger and less experienced opponents until the latter give up the ghost, or until they consent to be permanent sparring partners. On the other hand, computer animation companies, such as RGA, Digital Domain, Metrolight, or Dream Quest Images, which are considered part of the genre of New Media, have all grown up in a hurry as a result of the hard and frequent beatings each have been forced to endure from these pugs with horseshoes in their gloves.

The main problem which these animation companies face is that they have not acquired or established an ownership interest in the product which they produce. The fiercely competitive marketplace has forced them to cut their fees to the bare bones merely to survive.

Some of these companies stood toe-to-toe with the studios, fighting it out project-by-project, fee after fee. They often supported high priced equipment leases for large banks of Silicon Graphics computers and an impressive staff of permanent employees. In the course of gaining experience, some have learned to downsize, either by switching to lower priced personal computers (which has managed to keep up with SGI workstations due, in part, to increasingly sophisticated software), or to staff their companies with ad hoc employees who work only when a project comes in the door, never to sit idly by. As a result, they have become able opponents, capable of preventing themselves from becoming mauled by the larger and more powerful studios.

Others, faced with the threat of the studios opening their own computer animation divisions, have seen the writing on the wall, allowed takeovers of their companies, providing themselves with an opportunity to live to fight another day.

A third group are like the most fortunate of boxers, investing wisely, opening gymnasiums to train the young and upcoming. These operations have been able to find and exploit unique niches, such as Pittard Sullivan & Fitzgerald, which produces interstitial animated bumpers and wraparounds for the networks.

There is going to be no decisive victory in this battle. Each side will struggle until the next wave of technology sets both sides running back to their respective corners.

Toy Story. © Disney Enterprises.

You Liked the Feature, So You Will Love The Sequel!

The oldest format of New Media is home video, and lately there has been a very disturbing practice in this industry, especially where it relates to animation. Here's the scenario: You see two fighters you like, who put a lot of time into training, who did a good job beating the heck out of each other, and who made a large sum of money in the process. You want to see them do it again, and you make arrangements to do so, allowing them to make an more money, mainly because they had done such a good job the first time. Only this time, it is evident that you have been sucked in to seeing to fighters who didn't train, don't fight well, and are frankly, only in it for the money. You go away poorer and unhappy and they go away counting your cash.

In a similar vein, animation studios have acquired the idea that if they sink a lot of money into the first of a series of similar productions, which, to their credit produces a truly fantastic work of art (e.g., Disney's Aladdin) then it is perfectly legitimate for the studio to coast on the sequel (The Return of Jaffar, et al.), provided it is only released on home video.

Now excuse me, but isn't there something wrong with this picture? There is no less money spent in advertising the sequel than was spent promoting the original. There are the same McDonalds or Burger King promotional tie-ins. The reasonable expectation is thereby created that the new film, which stars the same characters, will be as good as the original. The parent spends the same 25 bucks for the sequel, only to find it is inferior. So inferior in fact, that if it was produced by a bootlegger it could have been taken for such.

Little does the public know that the studio has spent only 25% or less of the original film's budget in producing the sequel. The result is a cheap imitation which actually nets a greater return on investment than the original. Not only does the public suffer, but the studio is actually hurting its own potential and the integrity of its animators in turning out this sort of junk.

To true fans of animation, pugilists who fight this dirty deserve to be beaten; however, without public action, this is never going to stop.

Aladdin and the King Of Thieves. © Disney Enterprises.

The Brief History of CD-ROM

In 1993, the hope for this new medium's success was bright. Many developers were creating new and unique products ranging from undersea-explorations to the histories of classical music to arcade-style games. In 1994, publishers made an earnest effort to broaden the nature of their products, reaching out to women and adults, building a wider demand. It became mandatory for new computer hardware to include a CD-ROM drive. In 1995, it became clear that there was not enough retail shelf space to adequately display and market these products, while at the same time, public demand faltered. This faltering was caused in part by difficulty in keeping up with the myriad hardware configurations and system requirements (16-bit sound, high-color, etc.) imposed by programmers.

In 1996, many CD-ROM publishers decided to throw in the towel. Those that did not go out of business, downsized (Philips Media, a pioneer in this technology, just laid off 250 talented employees). The ones that continued in business (Activision, Interplay, et al.) decided to return to the core consumer of CD-ROM users: gamers. Look for more "sword and sorcery" titles. Look for fewer compendia of Byzantine wallpaper fabrics. And those developers who continue to produce highly unusual titles will need to market them directly to the public via direct mail, specialized trade shows, and other unique vertical channels of distribution.

So as the final bell is about to ring for 1996, life goes on, and until a new "champion" appears who is capable of capturing public excitement, it's going to be business as usual throughout the world of New Media for 1997.

Andrew Zucker is a partner at the entertainment law firm of Lowy & Zucker in Beverly Hills and founder of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. He may be reached at