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Multimedia Battle Is a New L.A.-S.F. Grudge Match : Rivalry: Will the recently hatched industry nest in Northern or Southern California? Or worse yet, Seattle?

Last Of Two Parts

October 01, 1994|AMY HARMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been a while since Los Angeles and San Francisco had a hot new issue to feed their simmering rivalry. The water wars have receded, Southern California's political dominance is firmly established, and Angelenos cheerfully acknowledge that San Francisco is a terrific place to visit--even though few northerners return the compliment.

But there's a new tug of war going on now, a geographic struggle over the heart and the soul and the dollars of the emerging multimedia industry. Born of the marriage of computer technology to video and sound and storytelling, it's an industry destined to shape the economy of California for decades to come.

Will it be centered in the north, with the computer programmers and venture capitalists and software patent lawyers? Or will it be in the south, home of the movie studios and entertainment writers and sound designers? At stake are thousands of jobs, as well as the evolving culture of two regions that have for years been defined by the two massive industries that are now giving birth to multimedia.

By most measures, the north is winning so far, and some headline-happy civic leaders in San Francisco are already declaring victory. "If you think about it," says Tim Boyle of the San Francisco Multimedia Development Group, in the ultimate digital-era insult, "L.A. is really very analog."

But where the industry ultimately settles--insofar as it settles in one geographical location at all--will be determined by a host of complicated economic and sociological factors that have only begun to play themselves out. And Los Angeles boosters--who do, after all, have a stellar historical track record--say they have just begun to fight.

"These nerds in the north are not going to be the ones to make this thing work," says Joel Kotkin, an economist with the Ontario-based Center for the New West. "This region has not yet figured out what it's next act is going to be--that's one of the problems--but multimedia is clearly a big part of it."

The industry is developing quickly, spreading across the state like a benevolent, self-replicating computer virus.

Boyle's group, founded a year ago with financial help from the city, has nearly 800 members. The organization's informal monthly get-togethers at the Press Club--beer and distilled water are sold at a makeshift refreshment stand, pretzels are free--are jammed with multimedia entrepreneurs and wanna-bes.

The Los Angeles New Media Round Table--whose monthly meetings at the posh Loew's Santa Monica Beach hotel include a sit-down dinner and full-service bar--reports similar growth.

Orange County has become a minimultimedia capital itself. San Diego's recently formed Digital Multimedia Assn. has signed up 65 members in a few months.

And all across the country--from New York to Atlanta, from Texas to Seattle--ambitious cities and states are making efforts to develop a local multimedia industry.

California is way out in front in the interstate struggle, and some argue that the north/south split should now be bridged: It is the respective talents of the two regions together that will bring the greatest prosperity in the long run. There have been efforts at building unity--Pacific Bell is even working on a high-speed phone network to enable multimedia developers to exchange data in a form of virtual reality sometimes referred to as "Siliwood."

Still, "I think there's reason for a little friendly rivalry," says Paul Gormsen of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. "I'd put it as the No. 1 industry, in terms of the most desirable, most likely to succeed, most likely to add dollars to the cash register we call the city of San Francisco."

Rohit Shukla, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance, says: "We're going to go after this industry in a major way because it's part of our bread and butter."

It's hard to say exactly how much bread and butter multimedia will be worth. Many a forecast shows it becoming a multibillion-dollar industry very soon, but such predictions amount to little more than guesses about how quickly and enthusiastically consumers will respond to the CD-ROMs, interactive television programs and on-line services that the industry is just beginning to produce.

Similarly, it's hard to discern the precise geographical outlines of an industry made up of companies ranging from start-ups with fewer than 10 employees--often working out of their homes--to large media and technology firms.

A report released last month and sponsored by the Bay Area Economic Forum found about 62,000 people in more than 2,200 firms engaged in multimedia-related activities in the Bay Area, more than twice the national average.

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