Tim Crescenti on Lockdown Tech

Small World IFT’s founder discusses changes to the industry brought about by Covid-19, particularly how technology can help bridge the networking gap during social distancing.

When I started Small World exactly 15 years ago, the world was a lot less complicated. Formats had only just emerged from the shadows but were rapidly becoming the hottest shows in town – and I was lucky enough to be associated with one of the biggest and best of them, Dragons’ Den.

Back in 2005, old-school distribution was still going gangbusters. Contracts focused mainly on two sets of rights, were sealed with a handshake and took no more than a couple of days to complete. Advances were generous and there was money sloshing through the system. We didn’t realise it at the time, but we’d never had it so good.

Fast forward to 2020. Streamers, social media, big data, artificial intelligence, online video, cord-cutting. That over-used word ‘disruption’ hardly does justice to the impact of the digital revolution on traditional TV. And now we’re battling a pandemic, which is plunging us into yet more uncertainty while accelerating the pace of change.

After only six months, Covid-19 has transformed how our industry operates and communicates, and the general feeling is that virtual trade will continue to be the norm in the ‘new normal.’ Good things will flow from that, but there will also be challenges as we negotiate other ways of life and work. And the tools and technologies that will be needed in the post-Covid marketplace will reflect this.

While none of us could have foreseen the pandemic, many of us have been peering into the future of entertainment for some time. One of those is my old friend and colleague Joe Lewis, who started his super-successful live-events company Joe Lewis Company (JLC) two decades ago.

In recent years, Joe and I have been engaged in a conversation about how the worlds of television and events are converging and colliding, as brands and networks explore new ways to connect with their increasingly slippery consumers. If we joined forces, we figured, we could combine our relationships and skills in TV and live experiences to create and deliver a whole new entertainment experience.

Years of talk progressed to walk back in August, when we announced a strategic partnership https://www.c21media.net/small-world-to-grow-with-joe-lewis/ between Small World and JLC. Both Joe and I are continuing to do what we’ve always done – international format scouting and live events respectively – but we’re also exploring new forms of entertainment at the intersection of both of our core businesses.

Our primary focus is on the work coming out of JLC Hologram, which conceives and executes hologram experiences, from portable solutions for business applications through theatrical set-ups for stage shows, concerts and conventions. And then there’s the sci-fi end of the hologram spectrum – digital resurrection – which is the technology that magicked the ghost of rapper Tupac Shakur on stage at Coachella 2012, inserted Audrey Hepburn into a chocolate commercial and resurrected Michael Jackson for a performance at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.

Leading the charge for JLC Hologram is Gary Shoefield, one of only a handful of people in the world with the skills to bring these experiences to life. Over the last 15 years, Gary has conjured up the likes of Ronald Regan, Maria Callas, Roy Orbison and, most recently, Whitney Houston, whose hologram embarked on a triumphant world tour earlier this year.

This summer, JLC entered into a partnership with tech start-up PORTL, founded by hologram tech pioneer David Nussbaum. PORTL’s strapline ‘If you can’t be there, beam there’ sums up what its single-passenger ‘holoportation’ machine brings to the party. The phone booth-sized devices, which can be plugged into a standard wall outlet, allow users to interact in real time with a life-sized hologram of another person, dead or alive, civilian or celebrity –and, most importantly, to feel as though they are genuinely connecting and communicating with that individual.

Meanwhile, the pandemic grinds on. As we reach peak Zoom and cast about for new ways to communicate and entertain ourselves, PORTL’s moment has surely come. In the wider world, its applications are endless, from political campaigning (David recently told the BBC that he could beam the next US president from their campaign office into all 50 states simultaneously) to enabling museum visitors to quiz Einstein about his theory of relativity. But it’s PORTL’s potential to provide innovative and practical solutions to the broadcast industry, specifically, the 4K backlit display, which makes holograms appear bright and clear on camera, that’s exciting Joe and me.

Six months and counting into the Covid crisis, the global entertainment industry remains effectively on pause. Production, concerts, festivals, theatres and industry events have been either shuttered, moved online or rescheduled. And there’s no clear end in sight. Against this backdrop, holoportation offers a real solution to the problem of keeping our industry physically distanced but psychologically close.

I can think of several ways in which the tech could be used in my corner of the entertainment industry. For example, it would enable us to produce game shows with contestants from around the world — Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Barcelona — but without the hassle and expense of bringing them together physically. Or we could beam in Whoopi Goldberg, say, to host a show in London when she’s self-isolating in New York. Or I could interview a hot Korean format producer on a conference stage in Cannes without either of us leaving LA or Seoul.

Cometh the hour, cometh the machine.