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Company Town : Can Technology Brighten the Picture? : Economy: State turns to JPL imaging for help holding on to production work.


With an alarming share of production moving out of state and California in need of a boost, the California Film Commission hoped NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory might use its technological talents to earn a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

Last year the CFC, envisioning a high-tech marketing tool to stimulate local production, asked the Pasadena-based JPL to design a computer imaging program for its location photo library--one that would enable location scouts to view shooting sites and obtain filming permits on-line.

After a labor-intensive collaboration, an initial prototype of the new "Library Automation Project" was completed last month. But while it should fulfill its promise to strengthen the CFC's competitive advantage, that advantage may be short-lived: Rival film commissions have been pressing the CFC to reveal the new technology.

"We've been approached by other film commissions about the system we're developing, but (we) must walk a fine line between protecting California's economic interests and promoting the global interests of the California-based film industry," says CFC director Patti Stolkin Archuletta. "Of course, we want to cooperate, but our first responsibility is to strengthen California's competitive advantage."

Nearly everyone in the image technology business--from on-line services to photo CD firms--has lobbied relentlessly in recent years for film commissions worldwide to automate their location photo libraries. But in an era when intellectual property rights are redefined by each new deal, how real is that advantage?

The JPL's basic technology is available to any U.S. film commission, since the CFC obtained it in a non-exclusive deal. But the CFC has the first option to license its exclusive commercial rights for a renewable, two-year term in a deal with the JPL.

"If the tool used to create a database is available to anyone, you can't create a competitive advantage simply from the rights to license it," says Roger McNamee, a partner in Menlo Park, Calif.-based Integral Capital Partners, a software investment firm. "Other factors then become important, like lead time in the marketplace, quality of the database and how user-friendly it is."

At risk is California's $16.3-billion production industry, which employs 164,000 residents directly and 184,000 others in supporting businesses from catering to advertising. Other filming venues throughout the United States and Canada have captured millions of production dollars by cutting red tape, handling film companies with kid gloves and, most importantly, offering financial incentives such as cheaper labor and tax credits.


As a result, California has lost 60% of all current one-hour TV dramas and made-for-TV movies to other locations--a record loss. And though local feature film production has remained stable, technological advances will soon enable facilities throughout North America to challenge Hollywood's 95% hold on producing situation comedies.

While the new electronic library won't resolve the crucial issue of higher local production costs, the CFC believes its sheer volume of resources and their accessibility will have a big impact on production company decision makers.

The menu-driven program--based on computer systems that enable scientists to study the massive volumes of planetary images collected during explorations of outer space--will allow production personnel to view more than 200,000 site photos from multiple perspectives. It will include logistical, historical and aesthetic information for landscapes and buildings; list nearby vendors for equipment, food and lodging; combine still photos with full-motion video, and provide mapping capabilities, elevation and even weather information.

"Some scientists want planetary information relevant to a specific scientific problem and others want peripheral information, so we've had to learn to handle huge data sets quickly," says the JPL's J. David Nichols, who never expected to be in show business. "Similarly, if you want a site location for a cowboy movie, you could call up images of Western street scenes all over California, while the next user could take a video tour of the interior of an urban building or warehouse."

On the commercial front, 10 film commissions and several major studios are already testing Kodak's Eastman Exchange Location Search Network--a photo CD imaging system designed to create a global hookup for location scouting. While the CFC has not signed on with Kodak, last June the two innovators did agree to collaborate.


So far, state government has pledged an undisclosed annual sum to develop the system--to be funded in stages--and NASA has committed $150,000 in personnel hours every year for three years. But the CFC suffered a minor setback last week when the Clinton Administration's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program denied its request for a $250,000 grant. Eventually, the California Department of Trade and Commerce, the CFC's parent agency, hopes to expand the new database to promote tourism and real estate development statewide.

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