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Growing Multimedia Industry Takes Root in Southern California

Many of the new jobs require combining the skills of traditional entertainment with high technology.

February 26, 1996|AMY HARMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Hi. Want a job?"

That's how Nick Rothenberg, co-founder of a digital design studio in Culver City, answers his phone nowadays.

His firm, which creates sites on the Internet's World Wide Web for clients such as Paramount Studios and KCRW-FM (89.9), has quadrupled to a dozen full-time staff members in just over a year, and he is always on the prowl for computer programmers and graphic artists to conscript into a growing army of freelancers.

And Rothenberg's W3-design is by no means the lone recruiter in Southern California's burgeoning digital media job market. In a refreshing switch from the layoffs and downsizing that continue to plague more established industries, new businesses based on emerging technologies are actually posting "Help-Wanted" signs.

And because many of the new jobs require combining the skills of traditional entertainment and media with high tech, many of the new employers are drawn to Los Angeles' talent pool to look for candidates.

"This is the logical place for them to locate and indeed many, many multimedia firms are choosing to make their headquarters in Los Angeles," says Rohit Shukla, director of the Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance, a nonprofit group that studies the Southern California economy. "Over a three- to four-year period, I am forecasting the region will see a great appreciation in jobs."

Shukla estimates that about 80,000 people are employed in various parts of the multimedia technology business in Los Angeles, and more than 150,000 in the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura.

Both the number of multimedia firms--now at about 4,000--and the number of jobs are expected to continue to expand.

Fueling the growth is the emergence of the Internet as a new platform for everything from soap operas to selling hot sauce; new ways of meshing entertainment with technology, from CD-ROMs to special effects; and less sexy but potentially more solid business applications of new communications technology such as video conferencing and multimedia training tools.

"We're hiring like mad," says Sherri Herman, president of American Cybercast in Marina del Rey. The firm's success in producing "The Spot," the World Wide Web's first and most popular soap opera, compelled Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency to take a stake in the venture last year, and Herman is planning five new shows within 18 months.

Analysts caution that many of the fledgling businesses have yet to turn a profit. While every self-respecting corporation is rushing to put up a site on the Web, no one has figured out how to make money from it yet. Hundreds of start-up CD-ROM developers have been forced to close up shop.

And interactive television, which was supposed to be just around the corner, has proven to be far more costly and complicated than expected. Pacific Telesis Group, among others, recently scaled back ambitious plans in that area, resulting in layoffs for workers who had thought they had found security building the high-tech future.

Still, while some multimedia businesses may be over-hyped, they are hiring. And for many multimedia wannabes, the risk is part of the appeal.

Robert Kotick, chairman of Los Angeles-based Activision Inc., says he filled some of his 75 open positions with a Harvard University-educated physician and a federal court judge's clerk (who also happened to be the world Tron champion when he was 16).

The video game maker, which moved from Northern California to be closer to the entertainment industry, has doubled to 325 employees in the last year. "[Moving] is the best business decision we ever made," Kotick says. "We're totally taking advantage of the Hollywood talent pool and figuring out how to franchise into television and film."

The work force at DreamWorks Interactive, the interactive unit of the new studio formed by media moguls Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, has swelled from three to 60 over the last year. Like other Los Angeles firms that blend entertainment and computing, DreamWorks has found the technology side of the equation harder to fill.

But in a migration trend that distinguishes the multimedia business, talented programmers are starting to move south.

"I'd say at least half the people here have relocated from the Bay Area and Seattle," says Noah Falstein, a senior producer who moved from San Francisco to be employee No. 3 last May. "And the plan is to keep hiring."

Traditional Hollywood studios are branching into the digital world as well. Walt Disney Co.'s online division, whose first effort debuted in February, recently ballooned from six to 60. Using the studio production model, Paramount's new Digital Entertainment unit is forming teams that will work on programs for distribution on the Web and then disband.

Sony Pictures Entertainment's digital effects arm, which started out just over two years ago, now has almost 200 employees and expects to grow by another 50 in the coming year. Positions range from digital artists to software engineers.

Sony competes with other Los Angeles-based digital effects firms such as Digital Domain and Boss Film Studios, all of which feed Hollywood's growing appetite for creating illusions on the computer. And while conventional wisdom says that technology eliminates jobs, executives in the new digital industries disagree.

"People think for every one digital artist there are 10 guys laying down the hammer," says Sony Executive Vice President Kenneth S. Williams. "But all the infrastructure development and capital investment has a sort of domino effect that works to create more jobs. It's not replacing people. It's just doing things in a way that couldn't be done before."

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