Silicon Screenings

Pretend you're an average geek, tooling away at your computer doing neat geek things. Like writing your own computer language. Dabbling in virtual reality. Maybe exploring the sexy new frontier of "multimedia." You know, splicing music, animation and live video together, just to see what happens. Along comes this big white limo. Out steps an apparition in shades and Italian suit. "Wanna do a deal?" he asks. Besides admire his cuff links and carefully moussed coiffure, what do you do:

(a) Brush the bits of Cheez-Its off your shorts, ask for $10 million and a date with Demi Moore.

(b) Kick back your chair, prop your sandals on the edge of your desk and inquire, "You from L.A.?"

(c) Throw the bum out.

These days, any or all of the above would do. The digital age is dawning, the Information Highway is coming -- and Hollywood wants a piece of The Future. Everyone who is anyone in entertainment -- from movie directors to TV producers to actors and agents -- is descending on Silicon Valley. They come dropping names and talking "alliances." Programmers are courted like starlets. T-shirted developers and bespectacled engineers are promised dazzling new careers as screenwriters and producers. "It's a digital gold rush," says one entertainment exec, both astonished and appalled by the frenzied mating dance. Yet ironically, techies aren't that interested. Maybe it's "Revenge of the Nerds," or just a klash of alien kultures. Whatever, they view the invading glitterati with a skepticism bordering on contempt. They don't like their limos, their suits -- and least of all their "deals."

Not long ago, the roles were precisely reversed. New Age pioneers were about as welcome in Hollywood as shaggy-haired prophets shouting, "The Coming is nigh!" Just ask Tom Zito, head of Digital Pictures in San Mateo. Five years ago he scraped together $24 million in venture capital and went calling on major movie studios, cable companies and TV networks. "They looked at me like I was a weirdo, a kook," he recalls. Never mind that he has since taken the emerging multimedia world by storm. ("Sewer Shark," the company's interactive videogame, is a best-selling CD-ROM). Now the 45-year-old enterpreneur is saying no to the big shots who once showed him the door -- among them such giants as Sony and Sega. "They come to us saying, "You guys are the only ones who know how to do this'." Zito just laughs.

Hollywood's conversion came about 18 months ago. Barry Diller, the town's favorite ex-mogul, bought the QVC home-shopping network -- and called it "interactive" television. Then studio chief Strauss Zelnick defected from Twentieth Century Fox to Crystal Dynamics, an up-and-coming software firm. When Jeff Berg, head of International Creative Management, a leading talent agency, hawked the rights to a Dr. Seuss CD -- and struck a deal not with Sony or MGM but with Broderbund, the Silicon Valley educational-software company -- the trend was on in earnest. People wearing black and sunglasses began showing up at Digital World, the Los Angeles electronics fest. In the bistros of Sunset Boulevard, there was heady talk of a new $10 billion industry, maybe even as big as the movies themselves. Major studios set up new media groups. Actors styled themselves "vactors," would-be stars in virtual-reality games. Agents canvassed the Silicon cosmos for electronic talent, beefing up staffs and hiring seasoned technologists to spearhead their drive to the future.

Perhaps it will all turn out as Hollywood hopes. But for now, the hype and hard selling is a turnoff. Goodness, says one Silicon Valley executive, exasperated with the rapacious movie-landers. "They are obnoxious." So obnoxious, in fact, that The Hollywood Reporter recently published a manners manual for moguls. "Hang up your cellular phone, pull your Range Rover onto the shoulder, take off your Armani jacket," it admonished. And remember: "Geeks don't "do lunch.' They eat." The folks at Id Software, producer of a hot videogame called "Doom," are even more tartly dismissive. The Texas start-up is a long way from the Valley, but apparently not far enough. So many Hollywooders have worn a path to its door that Id has rolled up the welcome mat. Listen to its phone-answering service: "If you're calling to discuss some great idea you have on how you can make big money with our product, please press 5 now. If you're calling to license the "Doom' technology, forget it!"

Rightly or wrongly, Id echoes a common concern: that Hollywooders care only about a quick financial score and give little thought to developing the technologies underlying the Info Highway. Sometimes it's as if the two cultures don't speak the same language. Jerry Katzman of the William Morris Agency describes a meeting at a software publishing house. When he used the phrase "in development," he meant a project that was as yet merely an idea. When techies used it, on the other hand, they meant designing a specific game or program. Ultimately, says Katzman, he had to bring in a blackboard and literally define his terms. "It was like when the Japanese first came to Hollywood," he recalls. "They had to use interpreters, and we did too."

How will it all end? Perhaps surprisingly well. After all the initial missteps, Hollywood seems to be bridging the cultural divide. "The last year has been a real learning curve for us," says ICM's Jeff Berg. Agents are ditching their limos and power threads. They haven't quite gone geek, but they are at least trying to do business the Valley's way. Berg plans a new high-tech joint venture in San Francisco. William Morris has a half dozen "new media" specialists. Creative Artists Agency even went outside Hollywood and hired the former chief financial officer of AT&T, Robert Kavner -- an architect of the telephone company's drive into the worlds of communications and entertainment.

Clearly, the two worlds are converging. The line between electronics and entertainment is blurring. Consider interactive games like "Critical Path," from Media Vision, or Crystal Dynamics' "The Horde," both live-action adventure thrillers that couple animation with sound, music and video. Making them requires the skills of a director and scriptwriter as much as a developer or programmer. There's not a lot of plot or character development, nor do the stars of Silicon Valley earn as much as Hollywooders. (A writer might earn $5,000 for a CD-ROM game, for instance, compared to $15,000 for an episode of a TV sitcom.) But it's easy to see how quickly that might change. Instead of throwing the bums out, techies might just "do lunch."