DIGITAL MEDIA FROM THE INSIDE OUT: My focus is digital content -- production, distribution, collaboration, innovation, creativity. Some posts have appeared across the web (HuffPo, Tribeca's Future of Film, The Wrap, MIPblog, etc.). To receive these posts regularly via email, sign up for my newsletter here.


AFI & the Digital World - Excerpt from new book, 'Becoming AFI'

This post is an excerpt from chapter 7 of the book "Becoming AFI: 50 Years of the American Film Institute" by Jean Picker Firstenberg and James Hindman (Santa Monica Press), which I authored. Jean Picker Firstenberg, who was President and CEO of the AFI from 1980 to 2007, will be featured October 26th at a Writers Bloc event in Beverly Hills, in conversation with former AFI trustee--and ex-Monkee, Michael Nesmith. More information on the event, including how to buy tickets, can be found here.



It’s difficult to recall a world before the Internet, even for those of us who were there when it started. Just as AFI was setting out on its own digital journey, the Internet emerged from its academic and technical cocoon to take flight as a new and all-pervading data net- work that would soon transform all aspects of culture and business. In its infancy, the Internet was simply a marvel—a miraculous new utility that fostered community and created much beauty, rather than the corporate battleground it would become.

My Internet life started with AppleLink, a private email ser- vice for companies doing business with Apple. Logging on with a squawky dial-up modem, I felt like a member of a secret society of digital somebodies at a time when just having an email address seemed cool. Soon, we built AFI’s first campus email network.

Some in Hollywood heard about the World Wide Web—the graphical component of the Internet—at an “Information Super- highway Summit” in January 1994, organized by Rich Frank, an AFI trustee from Disney, who also chaired the television academy. (Rich Frank’s role on the AFI board, serving almost continuously since 1991, has been extraordinary. His Frank Family Wines have been served at many Life Achievement Award dinners, and he con- tinues to chair the TV jury for the AFI AWARDS every year.) Ev- eryone was there: Hollywood moguls like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Barry Diller, and Rupert Murdoch, as well as FCC chairman Reed Hun- dt and Vice President Al Gore, who would subsequently overstate his role in the invention of the Internet.

AFI’s first glimpse of the World Wide Web came a few months later during a campus tribute at AFI to Wired, the magazine that gave voice to “digital lifestyle” before anyone even knew what that was. After entertaining the audience with the magazine’s ground- breaking graphics and McLuhanesque content, Wired founders Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe blew everyone’s minds with a sneak preview of the web’s first commercial magazine, HotWired, which they were preparing to launch in a few months. Projected onto AFI’s movie screen using the Mosaic web browser, HotWired whipped us from one page to another—from words to images to video and back again—with a simple click of a mouse. This was something completely new, a revolutionary way of publishing, communicating, and connecting, and I knew that AFI had to be part of it.

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Entrepreneurship in China

China intends to win at yet one more key component of modern capitalism, entrepreneurship and the startup culture, as it has most certainly done in other areas of competition. Between 2000 and 2013, China’s non-state-owned business sector increased 18-fold, compared with the state sector that grew six-fold. Official government policy has strongly supported innovation and entrepreneurial enterprises in recent years. It is kind of mind-blowing to grasp the fact that this Communist-run economy may be the most successful capitalist in world history.

I say a few words at the pitch session during the Global Entrepreneurship Incubation Summit in Chengdu, China.I learned many nuances of the Chinese startup ecosystem during a ten-day trip, during which I visited seven business incubators and accelerators in four Chinese cities, and participated in a two-day Global Entrepreneurship Incubation Summit that marked the 30th Anniversary of the first business incubator in China.

Representing my client, Toronto’s IDEABOOST accelerator, I was a judge during a startup pitch competition on day two of the conference, along with a who’s who of the Chinese VC community. Many featured startups reflect China’s very strong focus on artificial intelligence and IOT solutions, as well as a few VR startups. I met dozens of interesting people from both China, and from around the world. Business is flocking to China, because the opportunities are immense, and of course, so is the market.Getting ready to begin a talk about the CFC's IDEABOOST accelerator program to a group of Beijing engrepreneurs at the UIS incubabator.

My trip to China was organized by United Innovation Services (UIS), whose CEO Christine Du is an amazing businesswoman I met at a VR conference last year, and who has joined IDEABOOST’s investment advisory group. UIS operates software parks across China’s major cities, which include incubators and accelerators for startups, alongside a who’s who of international technology firms.

Christine Du, CEO of United Innovation Services, poses with me at her Chengdu incubator.

I visited UIS incubators in Beijing, Yangzhou, Chengdu, and Chongqing. UIS will soon announce its first venture outside China.

Here I am with some of the startup entrepreneurs at the UIS incubator in Beijing.

Some of the startups I met were part of the country's robust VR sector, both hardware and software. China is likely to continue as a major driver in the growth of VR, with massive investment, strong support from the government, and a media consumption pattern that supports arcades and out-of-home gaming experiences, like the kiosks I saw at train stations and airports.

I visited the HTC Vive X Accelerator in Beijing, one of a network that includes programs in Taiwan, Shenzen, and San Francisco – each of these accelerators invest in up to 20 startups per year, making HTC one of the world’s biggest VR investors.One of the startups in the Chongqing UIS incubator has developed a VR system that uses body rigging and sensors to enhance the gameplay experience.

I also was fortunate to visit the Beijing Film Academy (BFA), one of the top film schools in the world. Among the areas BFA’s digital lab program is developing are real-time interactive previsualization, immersive content (like VR), 3D visual information reconstruction, and next-generation sound stage.  The BFA will expand from its historic in-town campus to a new 110-acre campus in Huairou district, north of Beijing, where the government has created incentives for film industry companies to locate.

Standing at the entry gate of the Beijing Film Academy with my host, Lulu, secretary to the dean of the secretary of Film and TV Technology Department

The BFA case illustrates the Chinese method, in which the central government creates an industrial policy, then provides funding, infrastructure, R&D, private sector incentives, capital and educational resources to intensify the chances of success. Startups get a leg up in a favored sector, which means that entrepreneurs may start companies that stay alive, even if they are not long-term winners in the race to find customers and profits.

But once a company gains traction, they have access to a home market unlike any in the world. Just witness the amazing growth of homegrown Internet companies like Baidu, Alibaba, and TenCent – all are ubiquitous tools of daily life on a scale that is rivaled in the West only by Facebook and Google, both of which are banned by the Chinese government (although most tech-savvy Chinese I met routinely use virtual private networks to access these and other banned sites). We should expect the same results in other targeted sectors like big data, AI and IOT in coming years.

A scale model of the Xiaotao Big Data Valley outside Chongqing In Chongqing (formerly known in the West as Chungking) I visited the Xiaotao Big Data Valley, a government-directed industrial park focused on growing China’s big data cluster, including storage, cloud applications, small sensors/IOT, and data mining. A mix of Chinese and international companies have already moved into phase one of the development, which will unfold over the next decade. I spent time at Shining 3D, which manufactures 3D printing and scanning systems. The company operates a 100-seat classroom to train students (starting in middle school) on how to use 3D software. These parks generally include education, startup facilities, VC and other investment support, residential and infrastructure, including transportation.

Similar sector-specific “new cities” are under construction across China, including a “biodiversity new city” in Yangzhou that I visited. By the mid-2020’s, Yangzhou will have a new city center, planned around a cluster of skyscrapers above a bullet-train station connecting with Beijing to the north and Shanghai to the south and beyond.

Chengdu is proud of its network of innovation hubs for startups. I spent the most time in Chengdu, capitol of Sichuan province, home of the pandas, and a major inland commercial center. UIS’s Chengdu accelerator is part of an eight-building Jingrong Global Startup Center housing hundreds of startups. A few miles away is an office tower housing the Thinkzone incubator and a new Startup Bootcamp accelerator, which hosted an afterparty the last evening of the conference. Chengdu touts itself as China’s ‘ideal place for innovation and entrepreneurship” with these and other facilities built as part of the country’s 2015 national policy on entrepreneurship. 

When people ask, what do you think of China, the word I always come back to is ‘scale.’ It’s difficult to grasp the scale of this country, its built environments, number and size of initiatives, and the volume of companies and people involved in every area of modern enterprise. If you’re building a global company, understanding China is a must.


You Can’t Survive the InfoGlut without Filters. Herein I Share My Favorites

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the era of information glut, the crown goes to those with the best method of sorting, filtering, curating, prioritizing – in a word, ‘discovery.’

Five years ago I began to post my own favorites under the banner #NGIF – Nick’s Great Information Friday (bastardized #TGIF), a laborious curatorial chore that I could only sustain for a few months, suggesting that those who really cared about my info flow could follow @nickdemartino on Twitter.

Ironically, my clients at the Canadian Film Centre’s IDEABOOST have now asked me to provide a similar compendium called TLTR:BRA (too long to read: but read anyway) as part of a monthly newsletter. 

Until we get to the point where info discovery is entirely automated by AI robots, I find that I still spend a lot of time shaping the information flow that comes onto my screens every day. The good news is that there are some great tools to help – perhaps my own journey can help you save time and decrease anxiety. Let me know in the comments if you have better ways to find and sort.

By far the greatest improvement to my daily in-box has been my adoption of the Unroll Me app, which presents you with three choices for every email -- unsubscribe (that’s right!), leave in your inbox, or roll it up – the latter being a daily email you get that displays the front page in a scroll on mobile or desktop. On one account alone, I’ve unsubscribed to 316 accounts and rolled up 154 (though most don’t appear daily). It’s easy to manage and really unclutters my email life.

Aggregage offers a new way of finding content organized by vertical industries, such as these examples or Virtual Reality Pulse, a site and customized daily newsletter which showcases the best posts through a combination of peer engagement, machine learning, and human curation. I’ve subscribed to four verticals, and find that I no longer have to hunt down dozens of publications (even though I subscribe to many like VR Reporter, Upload VR, VR Scout)

Very few humanly curated sites are as useful to me as those in Jason Hirschhorn’s REDEF network, with daily blasts covering Media (most useful to me), Sports, Fashion, Music and Tech.

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Prognostication: 2017

My thoughts about media and technology trends for 2017 as Chair of the IDEABOOST Investment Advisory Group.

Along with December’s holidays, the end of the year traditionally brings a predictable flood of prognostications and crystal-ball gazing from pundits and digerati. After such a tumultuous 2016, it may be advisable to exercise extra caution when trying to chart a reasonable set of expectations for 2017.

But chart we must, at IDEABOOST, which sits at the intersection of media, technology, finance and culture. Why? Because the entrepreneurial focus of our accelerator and related programs are all about the future – what opportunities will flourish in the near- and long-term future? What new markets will emerge that solve problems and disrupt old orders? What kind of innovations could propel a company’s success?

In recent years, accelerators around the work are betting on hot markets like the Internet of Things, big data analysis, SaaS platforms, financial technologies, and mobile apps --- reflected (perhaps coincidentally) among 2016 IDEABOOST investments.

Computer science and technology will power vast changes in the world’s business infrastructure with the growth of advanced machine learning, intelligent apps and devices, virtual and augmented reality, blockchain/digital ledgers and currencies, mesh systems and voice interfaces, and a host of new digital platforms. (See this post from Gartner and another from Forbes for more detail.) Buried within these “categories” are huge industry-disrupting developments like commercial drone and autonomous vehicles, peer-to-peer funds transfer, automated fish farms, and many others.

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Looking for Community Partners for 'Pulse on VR' survey

My clients at the CFC Media Lab recently launched with OMERS Ventures and a host of partners, a study focused on the VR ecosystem in Canada and California. Titled Pulse on VR: A Workflow and Ecosystem Study, the study aims to identify the key players in this emerging industry and the primary workflows used to bring Virtual Reality (VR) to users. 

Click here to view and take The Survey

Click here to learn more about the study and to view the Press release

We would like to invite relevant organizations to become Community Partners of Pulse on VR. What this partnership entails is quite simple:

What you get:

  • Participation for your membership and stakeholders in a wide-ranging VR ecosystem study that will help put them on the map
  • Early access to findings of Pulse on VR
  • Early access to register for our new VR News Aggregator site called VIRTUAL REALITY PULSE 
  • Logo recognition as a Community Partner on most collateral materials, but most notably on the Pulse on VR website where we will publish an interactive map and/or visualization of our findings (Fall 2016)
  • Invitation to Pulse on VR events and launches

What we need:

  • Call to action email or campaign to your stakeholders and members to complete our Pulse on VR survey
  • Call to action social campaign to your followers to complete our Pulse on VR survey
  • Your LOGO
  • Information for at least 2-3 members of your organization so we can invite them to our events

If you are part of an organization that represents VR Content Creators and/or VR Technology Companies and think you would like to be a Pulse on VR Community Partner, please send me a note, and I'll set up a call with CFC chief digital officer Ana Serrano, who is spearheading this effort.