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How the web is changing Hollywood

by R Blank

Los Angeles and Hollywood are synonymous worldwide with entertainment, so it's no great surprise that many of the world's top After Effects magicians call LA home. For Flash, on the other hand, Los Angeles has largely been seen as inconsequential compared with other North American cities such as San Francisco, Toronto, Seattle, and New York. But as Flash 8 continues its meteoric rise, the scene in LA has rapidly changed, creating what is likely the most vibrant and dynamic playground for Flash and rich media development in North America.

As the largest city in the United States, Los Angeles has a local economy that is in the envious position of being driven largely by the dominant industries of entertainment and automotive — the combination of which has also seeded a lot of advertising work. As these industries have rapidly increased their adoption of Flash for the creation and delivery of rich interactive content into their fundamental businesses, LA is now home to a surging Flash industry, with powerful players across the entire value chain who use Flash on a daily basis to create an amazing variety of rich, interactive experiences — from movie websites and banner ads to e-learning modules and enterprise-level applications.

Flash invades Hollywood image

Flash invades Hollywood.

The biggest change in 2006 has been the surge in Flash video applications. Several top entertainment brands have launched broadband video networks powered exclusively by the Flash Platform. For example, E! launched The Vine @ Eonline.com built in Flash and powered by Flash Media Server, and Disney adopted a customized Flash Platform solution for streaming video across all its properties (including ABC and ABC News). More recently, NBC/Universal launched the AccessHollywood video player, also built entirely on the Flash Platform.

Of course, Flash has many uses beyond video. Fox Interactive Media (FIM) has the third largest reach of any Internet company, with more than 70 million users worldwide across its network of sites, including FoxSports.com, Fox.com, MySpace, and IGN, among many others. Tim Brady, senior Flash developer for FIM, notes that businesses like his have begun to notice a trend among users who are willing and interested in taking the time to create online content themselves, and hang out with others sharing that content. FIM builds applications to enable those trends, whether that's creating a widget to deliver FoxSports scores through a MySpace web page or building a new video distribution platform. Tim notes that the dominant industries in LA "have shown a willingness to be at the forefront of web ideas — often using Flash as the front-end technology. I do not see that changing anytime soon."

JibJab

Scene from "This Land."

Another popular form of Flash entertainment is animation, which Los Angeles has dominated for as long as the medium has existed. Numerous firms in LA now create amazing Flash animation. Perhaps one of the most well-known is JibJab, which creates, produces, and distributes animation and viral entertainment. Founded by Gregg and Evan Spiridellis, JibJab achieved renown during the 2004 presidential campaign with collage-style Flash parodies, especially one called "This Land." Aaron Simpson, VP of Interactive for JibJab (and proprietor of the definitive Flash animation blog, ColdHardFlash), explains that JibJab "moved our studio from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to take advantage of the proximity to the world's biggest entertainment community . . . In the near term, Los Angeles will continue to be the hub for entertainment, both traditional and new media [as] bandwidth concerns . . . have disappeared. Back in 2004, when our short 'This Land' launched, its relatively small file size helped users quickly download and view. Today, videos 10 times larger are easily and instantaneously streamed. The audience also seems more techno-savvy. Funny, user-generated videos and animations are popping up with such regularity, that it's hard to keep up!"

Other entertainment firms are finding new and imaginative ways of integrating Flash into their businesses. LiveNation (formerly ClearChannel Entertainment) has created a Flash-powered network that controls all the displays at all of its concert venues around the country, displaying videos and other sponsor-driven content, as well as enabling concert-goers to send SMS messages and pictures from any cell phone to those displays. This is an example of a business utilizing many of the unique features of Flash to create a completely new entertainment experience for its customers—sometimes, as in this case, designed to be enjoyed without a computer and without the user having any idea that they are enjoying a Flash application.

Often delivering rich Flash Platform experiences — particularly those infused with video or multiplayer functionality — requires Flash Media Server (FMS). While it is certainly possible to host your own FMS, it is often wiser to use a Content Distribution Network (CDN) that offers FMS services. Based on how much video content comes out of Los Angeles, it is not surprising that of the three main FMS CDNs, two are based right outside LA (Limelight Networks and VitalStream) and the third (Akamai) has a large presence here.

These CDNs tend to be priced for larger businesses, not independent developers or small firms. Los Angeles is also lucky to have Influxis, an FMS hosting provider that enables almost any developer to create and host awesome FMS-powered Flash experiences. According to Richard Blakely, president of Influxis, 2006 has seen "a surge in video and live communication with interest in community-supplied content and interaction" — a trend he expects to continue for some time.

As more content firms opt for Flash Platform solutions, more services agencies with Flash specialties have emerged — and the variety in specializations within Flash speaks volumes about the versatility of the technology.

The Corpse Bride website image

Corpse Bride website.

Blitz is renowned for creating award-winning, lush, immersive, branded experiences for top-tier clients. Ivan Todorov, CTO, also notes an explosion in demand: "Three years ago there was a lot more convincing [needed] to get big brands to do all-Flash projects. Today it's a lot more accepted. IT departments have gained more experience and comfort deploying Flash. Brand and marketing managers can leverage a few years of statistics proving that Flash content delivers higher ROI. . . Overall there is a huge explosion in demand for this type of work and I don't know many agencies who are not solidly booked a few months in advance." While Blitz operates internationally, Hollywood-based entertainment projects are what allows the Blitz team to shine, always pushing the creative boundaries (such as its recently launched Corpse Bride website).

Animax Entertainment, an award-winning digital production studio that produces character-driven experiences for all screens, is another Los Angeles–based service agency that has distinguished itself by its outstanding creativity delivered through Flash. Michael Bellavia, general manager, explains that "we have been experiencing a rapid growth in the demand for original broadband content." This spike in demand has begun to realize a corresponding increase in industry recognition, as exemplified by Animax's recent win of an Emmy award for its "Off the Mikes" segment created for ESPN — one of the first Emmys that has involved Flash technology.

A different type of LA-based service agency is Almer/Blank, which offers high-end video and application development for the Flash Platform, building tools that enable businesses to exploit Flash to create quantifiable business value. Markus Almer, president of Almer/Blank explains, "All of our best projects — such as the in-store furniture planner for IKEA or the online medical device planning system for Medtronic — enable businesses to interact with customers in new and unique ways, often creating new revenue channels for our clients."

Despite all the commercial activity and sunny prospects, almost every firm interviewed for this article reports the same challenge moving forward: available talent.

Los Angeles likely has more creative talent than any other city in the world. Yet, outside of animation, LA has not developed a rich pool of talent experienced in interactive media. There is a painfully insufficient supply of good interactive design, motion design, and particularly high-level ActionScript programming. For decades, the entertainment industry siphoned off the best for themselves — it was far more lucrative to work in Avid or Flame than design websites or interactive CDs. Now that the economic drivers of the region are shifting, the LA community is also shifting to support the emerging demands.

The biggest source of hope for an infusion of talent is the number of post-secondary institutions that have integrated Flash and rich media topics into their curricula. It is perhaps not surprising that art-focused schools such as the Art Institute of California, Los Angeles and the Art Center College of Design (Pasadena Art Center) offer Flash. It may be more surprising that the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering teaches Flash and ActionScript as part of its web curriculum. Santa Monica College, one of the top community colleges in the nation, also offers several Flash-related topics.

California State University, Northridge (CSUN) has a multimedia program in the Cinema and TV Arts (CTVA) department run by Mary Schaffer. When Schaffer began her position five years ago, "the multimedia program focused on corporate media and instructional media. Since I have joined, we have upgraded the computer lab and acquired much software, including Flash, After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator, Fireworks, Dreamweaver, and Premiere" among many others, and the number of majors in the program has risen from 8 to 48.

Most of Schaffer's students are motivated to study Flash because of how excited they are by the technology. As Dylan Olson, a Flash student at CSUN, explains: "I recommend that every student take Flash. Flash is not only a tool used in every area of online commerce, but it's an outlet of self-expression. Artwork done in Flash will knock your socks off." Schaffer continues that "students enjoy learning Flash. When they first see things move, they get extremely excited. The general ease of use of the program also allows the students to be more creative and focus on creating interesting user experiences versus getting tied-up in code." Or, as Schaffer explains, "Flash is, in many ways, the ultimate tool for the integration of multimedia and interactivity; these students are learning fluency in the multimedia—which is becoming an increasingly important platform for communication." The generation of students in college now will be the first with a high degree of fluency in multimedia and, as they graduate, the pool of talent will increase. Even those who do not work directly in tools like Flash will have a far greater understanding of them.

Outside of universities, Los Angeles has a very strong and tightly knit series of Adobe communities. The LA Flash Adobe user group is well known as one of the largest and most successful Adobe communities in the world, with over 1,600 registered members in three separate Flash based user groups. Through its regular monthly meetings, vibrant online community, employment fairs, and training sessions, LA Flash has become a driving force in the creation of a consciously styled Flash industry. Indeed, LA Flash's training arm has grown so significantly based on community demand, that it has created a new organization called the Rich Media Institute, which provides small, affordable workshops taught by renowned experts from around North America.

Los Angeles is also home to the Southern California Adobe Technology Exchange (ATXSoCal.org), the only remaining user group from Adobe's older community days, catering to a crowd of traditional Adobe users across desktop publishing and print media. More recently Adam Bell (who used to run the New Orleans User Group prior to Hurricane Katrina) launched LA Adobe, devoted to all of Adobe's products (other than Flash).

Later in 2006, for the first time Los Angeles will host a major Flash and rich media conference. For the past five years, FITC, based in Toronto, has provided one of the best and highest attended conferences on Flash. This year, because of all the activity and creativity coming from the LA region, it decided to hold FITC Hollywood, devoted exclusively to entertainment applications of rich media technology.

Los Angeles is an amazing city for so many reasons. Increasingly it's becoming an incredible place for Flash and rich interactive media development. Video and community applications, as well as user-generated content, are huge drivers of rich media across the dominant industries in Los Angeles. We can expect to see a continued rise in activity and creativity coming from this uniquely positioned town.


R Blank is CTO of Almer/Blank and Founding Manager of LA Flash. He is also the author of Inside Flash 8: Project-Based Training on DVD.