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Hollywood Is Waking Up to the Power of Hardware : Trends: Interest in consumer show reflects hype surrounding entertainment-technology convergence.


The Consumer Electronics Show has built its reputation on gadgets, not glamour, and hanging out with a bunch of techno-weenies has never been the typical Hollywood executive's idea of a good time.

But in a shift that reflects the accelerating convergence of entertainment and technology--and the considerable hype surrounding it--a substantial Hollywood delegation will ride the multimedia wave to Chicago for the 48th CES this week.

For entertainment executives who once saw little connection between hardware and software, there is growing awareness that emerging forms of technology can't help but shape the content of what they create.

"There's always been a sense of disdain among Hollywood types for the hardware side," says Andrew Setos, vice president for technology and operations at 20th Century Fox, who is flying to Chicago along with several associates. "Now, all of a sudden, everybody's waking up. A chief executive of a movie company may not care what camera his director of photography uses, but he has to care how his movie is going to be seen in the future--and that's hardware."

As a result, studios that have in the past sent lone representatives to CES, which is held twice a year, to take in the latest in VCRs and video game machines are this year dispatching squadrons to scour the floor for (preferably interactive) information. And those who have made forays into multimedia in the form of video games and CD-ROM programs will use the opportunity to show off their efforts.

Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg will be there and is expected to make an announcement regarding new animated video game technology. Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Peter Guber will also drop by for a visit. At least half a dozen MCA executives are planning to attend.

Keith Schaeffer, president of Paramount Communications' new technology group, will host a hotel suite to display the division's first interactive CD-ROM products. Vanna White will fly in Friday, and Sylvester Stallone may show up to promote "Wheel of Fortune" and "Cliffhanger"--the video games.

While the movie studios and their parent companies have already dipped their toes in the interactive pool (some, such as Time Warner, have waded in far deeper) much ambivalence remains.

"It's more defensive than anything else," Dan Slusser, general manager of Universal, says of his plans to go to Chicago. "There's an awful lot of hype being generated right now and I'm sure some of it will have future applications. What we do with it, I'm still a little puzzled by, because all the entertainment that we in Hollywood are used to has always been passive. But you can't ignore it."

The highest-profile hardware at CES will probably be the latest prototype of 3D0 Co.'s "interactive multi-player," which has the backing of Universal/MCA's parent, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., along with corporate heavyweights Time Warner and AT&T.

Introduced amid much fanfare at last January's CES, the first 3D0 system, due out this fall at a hefty $700 price tag, plays programs stored on compact discs. Company Chairman Trip Hawkins will demonstrate some of the first software developed for the machine.

Largely responsible for igniting Hollywood's interest in new media, the 3D0 box's ability to handle three-dimensional graphics and highly realistic, fast-moving images offers broad new possibilities for the entertainment industry. The Silicon Valley company hopes to establish a new worldwide consumer electronics standard, producing versions that will plug into a cable TV system and serve as a control box for interactive TV services.

But while 3D0 has bigger ambitions, in the short term it is aiming at the $5-billion video game market dominated by Nintendo and Sega. Both of the video game manufacturers are expected to introduce new generations of machines to challenge 3D0, though not at this CES.

Philips Consumer Electronics, for its part, will unveil an upgraded CD-I machine that will enable it to play movies stored on compact discs. Emiel Petrone, Philips' marketing vice president, says the studios are interested in the new format, which offers better picture quality and durability than videotape.

Casio and Tandy will introduce their jointly produced version of the much-heralded "personal digital assistant," a hand-held, pen-operated computer that can send and receive messages via fax or electronic mail. PDAs such as the Zoomer, as the Casio-Tandy product is called, and Apple Computer's Newton promise consumers highly portable access to on-line information and entertainment services.

In addition to all the hardware, massive amounts of video games and CD-ROM titles, some of which were developed in close conjunction with Hollywood studios, will be introduced. Sony's electronic publishing division, for example, will showcase "Cliffhanger" and "Last Action Hero," including video clips from the films.

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