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Creating the Creators: Where Will the Digital Shakespeare or Spielberg Come From?

‘Tis the season for guest lecturing and graduation, and for giving free advice to future job hunters. Joining the digital-media revolution to become a creator, particularly in one of its epicenters, must be the hot thing on campuses now, right?

Well, maybe, but not as much as I expected. I recently visited three classes at two big Los Angeles universities, talking digital media, technology and the ever-so-complicated state of the entertainment business. And out of that, I was left slightly puzzled.

Now is the digital revolution. Where are the troops? Perhaps more importantly, who will be the auteurs of the new platforms? Who’s going to be our digital Shakespeare or Spielberg? Who’s looking to make the entertainment of the future? Maybe they’ll come from our great universities. Or maybe they’ll come from somewhere we never expected, a creator who takes advantage of the fluidity and openness of the current moment to build their own media/entertainment empires in fields just now coming into view.

My questions started last week, when I travelled to the USC School of Cinematic Arts, one of the world’s most celebrated film schools, to moderate a panel on the “importance of digital media.” That such a panel is still needed at this point says something of the convincing that some still require.

The panel featured a smart young alumna named Melissa Purner, who worked on reality shows for MTV and elsewhere while still in school. Six years after graduation, she now heads of her own production company, which created Snapchat’s first unscripted series and a series on couples who met through gaming, for Warner Bros.’ about-to-launch digital destination, Stage 13.

Also on the panel was Luke Wang, another 20-something USC alum (his was a joint degree with USC Marshall School of Business). After stints with Machinima and Omnia Media, Wang now handles content acquisition and channel development for Verizon’s Go90 mobile-video service. Both Wang and Purner are in the thick of the digital revolution. As for many of their film school successors, I’m told that’s much less the case.

Many of those students want to be the next Spielberg of the film business. Making movies is what moves them. Too few are jumping into digital or are making content for entertainment’s future, in promising growth areas such as virtual reality, mobile or video games.

Spielberg certainly has had a remarkable career, but have you looked at the state of the film business?

Three-fourths of revenues come from overseas, and it’s only growing because average ticket prices keep rising. The Chinese will soon be the world’s No. 1 film market and already c0-finance, co-produce and censor many of Hollywood’s biggest projects. The only way the industry makes money is by besieging people with endless marketing campaigns for nine-figure blockbuster superhero films that can make $1 billion or can bomb spectacularly.

Television, lodged in its complicated Peak TV era, has replaced film as the happening place. Linear networks such as HBO, Showtime and AMC and digital contenders such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are spending lavishly to build audiences as the cable bundle frays. Meanwhile, dozens of “over-the-top” networks are trying to earn spots alongside the giants as audience-favorite apps on their Roku or Apple TV.

Despite all the spending, it’s a diffiicult time for many in television. Small channels such as Esquire and Cloo are being turned into digital-only outlets or shut down outright. And you know it’s getting complicated when even ESPN, long the fattest cat in the cable universe, lays off 100 employees, including some prominent on-air veterans, as it did today.

And this is all happening even as jobs keep spouting among some of the new digital companies that are close by. Less than 15 miles west of the USC campus sits what I call the Golden Triangle of digital media, named by some Silicon Beach.

Snapchat is headquartered in the heart of the Golden Triangle. Nearby are offices for Google and YouTube, Facebook, the X Prize Foundation, Electronic Arts, Activision-Blizzard, Riot Games, Lionsgate, Yahoo, the QYou, DanceOn and Jukin Media.

The area also is home to a dizzying number of virtual-reality startups,  digital agencies, content-marketing companies and even e-commerce giants such as Dollar Shave Club, MeUndies.com and Tech Style that combine smart online programming, social media and marketing to sell clothing, accessories, personal-care products and more. Many others are based in Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena or the San Fernando Valley.

Simply put, there’s a lot going on, close by, and a lot of opportunities for people who can tell a story, especially with video. Meanwhile, many USC kids are focused on making the next “Munich” or “E.T.” (I’d settle, happily, for the next “Stranger Things,” with its smart homages to “E.T.” and other ’70s/’80s cultural touchstones).

digital creators class Cal State Northridge

A class on directions in digital media gets set to begin at California State University-Northridge.

I followed the USC visit with one this week to California State University-Northridge, where I spoke with two survey courses in digital media. This time, I made the visits more fully interactive, asking students what they were doing, using, creating and hoping to be.

All the students in the classes of long-time digital-media veteran Anna Marie Piersimoni were pursuing degrees in digital media or media management (the class is a degree requirement for each). That the students are pursuing those degrees suggests they understand where the creative future is headed.

Indeed, one student has four YouTube channels. Another said he’s made more than 300 online videos for various clients and outlets. Still another shoots music videos for bands tied to labels he knows. One, backed by her sorority’s regional organization, is creating webisodes to provide career and personal advice for other young African-American women.

That said, I was surprised how few students were actively creating digital content outside of school. It’s an era when the tools of production are cheaper than ever, when the methods of distribution are more open and far-reaching than ever. Young creators can make money, even big money, while building the skills, relationships and track record they’ll need for future success. And yet, half to two thirds of the students in each class weren’t doing much of anything.

Some of it can be blamed on an outmoded sense of How Things Are Done: you go to school, you get a job, you work your way through an organization for years. College (if not lifetime employment at one organization) certainly remains  a path to success for many. That said, the truncated educational careers of and subsequent fortunes accrued by digital pioneers such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Parker and Sean Fanning suggest other potential viable paths.

I might also, in part, blame slow-moving academics, who may be insulated from the rapid changes roiling the entertainment industry. Such professors may not aggressively urge their young charges to get creating sooner than later.

Purner talked of trying to find a USC faculty member six years ago who would sign off on her senior thesis about Netflix and the rise of a la carte programming. It turned out to be a prescient topic but she struggled to find a faculty endorsement. One professor even told her Netflix would never challenge Hollywood because it was just a company that “sent DVDs in the mail.”

Purner finally found a professor to endorse her topic, but only, he told her, because she seemed so passionate about it. I’m guessing by now that at least that professor and some others have a sense of Netflix’s potential, especially given that it just told investors it would pass 100 million subscribers last weekend.

Regardless, what are these soon-to-be job hunters waiting for? If you’re hoping to make a living in the entertainment business of the future, what are you doing to make it happen now?

Forget being the next Spielberg of film. We need to find the creative talents who will make the first masterpieces in virtual/augmented/mixed reality, or some crazy immersive experience that drives millions to IMAX VR pods. Or maybe it’ll be some hybrid game experience beyond Pokemon Go’s huge success, or a compelling vertical-format mobile series that hooks fans across the globe. Possibly it’s a live-streamed show on Periscope or LiveLy or Facebook.

Regardless, it’s time to get to work building the great stories of the new platforms. I don’t know if the next generation of game-changing creators will come out of our great universities, or from someone’s back bedroom, or somewhere completely unexpected but I know they need to come. It’s time.