Meanwhile, In The Lobby

This evening I went to an event titled “Building a Digital Entertainment Company in Silicon Valley” put on by the MIT/Stanford Venture Laboratory. The event featured a panel comprised of Gracenote CEO Craig Palmer, Weil, Gotshal & Manges intellectual property lawyer Yar R. Chaikovsky, Selby Venture’s Marco DeMiroz, Apple iPod VP of Engineering Tony Fadell, and Sequoia Capital’s Sameer Gandhi.

While it was interesting to hear Craig detail the history of Gracenote (especially given that the original technology was basically built by its users) there wasn’t a lot there of new information presented. Yeah, there’s more bandwidth to power content delivery. Yeah, the major computing players have been transformed into consumer electronics retailers. Yeah, the industry’s going to be grappling with DRM interoperability issues for a while. Blah blah blah. Yawn. We know this part of the movie.

The interesting part came with the questions portion of the event. Right off the bat, Jeff Schwartz jumped in with a pertinent question: “So, what about BitTorrent?” Unfortunately, the panel seemed to interpret this question as “So, what about people illegally sharing files?” What followed was a brief history of the past “screw you” attitude of Napster and others towards Big Media, and how the technology industry had come around to start partnering with Big Media and implement DRM to address this issue. Hmm…I don’t think this was where Jeff was going with that question. Another audience member asked about the impact the Open Source movement and its philosophy on the entertainment industry. Again, the intent of the question was deflected by the panel.

I understood what these guys were trying to get at, so I thought I’d give it a try:

“We’ve been talking a lot about the consumers and consumption side of the equation, but what about the producers? With tools like BitTorrent lowering or eliminating the costs of independent producers to distribute content, the increasing use of Open Source licenses for content, and the relative ease with which high-quality content can be created using digital tools, does Hollywood perceive independent producers as a threat? When anyone in this room with a web site, or a garage band can reach audiences, Hollywood will have to compete for consumer attention – does it even recognize this as a threat?”

Marco DeMiroz started to point out that the economics of content production would prevent against this becoming a major threat – that, for example, movies cost hundreds of millions to produce and that someone had to make a buck – when I had to cut him off:

“I think you’re making the assumption that these independent content producers are in it for the money…”

Craig jumped in at this point to maintain that this independent content was not necessarily “high quality” – so who’d want to watch that? Jeff was quick to counter this point by pointing out that Hollywood would still be competing for the attention of the consumer regardless of whether all the independently produced content was any good or not. While Jeff had a point, I would argue that a lot of what Big Media considers “low quality” is actually more relevant and worthwhile than the latest recycled summer blockbuster explode-a-thon. Just look at Rock, Paper, Saddam! Hilarious! And probably whipped up by some guy in his bedroom in an evening before it was unleashed and spread like a virus across the blogosphere and collective email inbox of the world. How can they hope to compete with instant, timely content that costs next to nothing to distribute and that’s been created by people who aren’t interested in making money of their creation?

At this point, the panel started to break into more of a free-for-all open debate, and so the panel concluded.

There were many breathless discussions after the conclusion of the panel – Jeff Schwartz and I practically tackled each other after the panel for the opportunity to each conclude that the members of the panel just Don’t Get It. Though I’m sure the movie industry’s not about to spontaneously implode, it seems we’re on the cusp of a new era of cultural production, a reversal of the broadcast-centric model of cultural production brought about by the popularization of television. People seem to be remembering that they don’t have to wait for others to report on the news or tell their stories.

Remember the old movie jingle “Let’s All Go To The Lobby“? People are starting to gather in the lobby and interact rather than hang out in a movie theatre eating overpriced popcorn. You have been warned.