21st: Festival in search of a medium

Milia, once Europe's hot multimedia showcase, now struggles to figure out where the future is.


Karlin Lillington
February 18, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

CANNES, FRANCE -- The choice of Cannes as the location for Milia -- the international new media festival that's been a showcase for the digital world's most culturally ambitious projects for five years -- always seemed to make sense. Multimedia and the film industry have been on a long-heralded path toward "convergence," and this, by rights, ought to be ground zero for that union.

Certainly, the celluloid glamour has always been there: What could beat the mix of midwinter sun, Cannes cachet, bonhomie, expensive sunglasses and renegade young multimedia developers? Milia delegates last week conducted their Cote d'Azur schmoozing in the same oceanfront Palais des Festivals complex used by the more famous film festival here. As with Hollywood, their interactive medium now typically requires teams of specialist artists and technicians as budgets climb skywards for more complex titles. And, spurred by movie director David Puttnam, the widely-respected British Academy of Film and Television Arts, which presents the U.K. equivalent of the Oscars and Emmies, has decided to launch a new set of awards this year for interactive entertainment.

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However, there's one key difference between the two industries. While the movie business produces an endless variety of films that appeal to paying customers, the new media crowd is still hunting for its audience. It keeps cranking out the equivalent of small art-house films that few want to see.

As a result, Milia continues to slide away from its original raison d'jtre -- a meeting place for buyers, sellers and creators of "content" -- into an unfocused hodgepodge that reflects the fretfulness and stagnation of the entire interactive media business (excepting games and porn, those booming industries for boys and bigger boys). Two years ago, the exhibition halls seethed with publishers trawling for hot new developer talent. Now, even the biggest publishers mostly hang out in the hotel bars and slink around talking to contacts without bothering to rent a booth at the show.

The content-buyer casualty list for this year included Time Warner, America Online and Microsoft (which last year made developers' mouths water with the promise of a $10 million honeypot for content development for the now retrenching Microsoft Network). And so more and more developers are bypassing the show, realizing there's hardly anyone to sell to -- especially if you have an intelligent, visually lush art project to pitch.

Nonetheless, there are worse places to watch your business hopes crumble. The Palais nestles against Cannes' serene yacht harbor on one side and marks the start of the Croisette, the long, arching promenade lined with couture boutiques, smugly elegant elderly hotels like the Majestic and newer graceless monstrosities like the Nago Hilton. Moments of exasperation can be relieved instantly by a stroll along the waterfront -- where you can gape at the civil servant whose luckless job it is to ride an exquisitely polished motorcycle specially equipped to vacuum up the deposits left by Cannes' resident army of poodles.

DVD-ROM was supposed to be this year's Big Thing at Milia, but the new high-capacity format created little buzz either during sessions or in late-night barside conversations in the prime beachfront hotels. Developers said they are exasperated by the bickering over standards, and there's no strong evidence that the users who rejected CD-ROMs will embrace the far more expensive DVD (except, again, for games). As veteran British games designer and keynote speaker Peter Molyneux said, "It's just another storage medium."

Instead, it's the potential of the Internet that got him and many others
excited. That's in contrast to last year, when discussions of the probable
importance of online content and the weakness in the CD-ROM market had
delegates anxiously attending sessions with titles like "The Winter of our
Disc-content." This year, the word "online" was ubiquitous in the sessions
-- but it still had hardly found its way down to the exhibitors' products
in the vast halls beneath the Palais.

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Despite multimedia's current becalmed state and a drop in attendees,
Milia has increasingly become the domain of suits, ties and furiously
chirping mobile phones. This year the best-attended sessions were the ones
that talked about business models rather than the nature of interactive art.

The optimistic view, chanted like a soothing mantra at Milia, is that
"content is king." But of the few products that are being received royally
in the marketplace, most are increasingly vicious action and strategy
games. Much to the surprise of many delegates, Milia's organizers this year
aggressively wooed the games industry, no doubt hoping they would be
flattered into taking pricey booths in the halls of the Palais (and indeed,
Sony, Eidos and others took the bait).

But the gaming world is alien to many of Milia's tonier multimedia
developers -- as became especially clear at Milia's final awards ceremony.
Previews of the mostly violent games evoked a bemused silence, and the
jury's decision to give the overall grand prize to "F-22 Air Dominance
Fighter" was not popular, garnering only scattered applause. Last year's
choice, Peter Gabriel's "Eve," delighted the Milia crowd; this year, most had expected Bröderbund's "Riven" to take top honors.

A glance around the halls confirmed that Milia is risking losing its
international focus as it becomes more dominated by French exhibitors and
attendees. Most ominously, many of the American companies that are driving
much of the technical innovation in interactive media didn't show.
(Arguably, the most thrilling technological developments this year were in
the Palais restrooms, where a nation famed for squat-and-go facilities had
installed toilets requiring a bizarre jumble of button-pressing to get the
seat, draped in a hygienic paper liner, to lower.)

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Instead, Milia's hall was crowded with developers showing depressingly
similar products. Even the porn kings who used to dot the exhibition no
longer feel the need to attend -- their numbers were reduced to a single
publisher called MacDaddy, which set up house across from a French
educational house. All day, men surreptitiously looked sideways at
MacDaddy's lingeried nymphettes while pretending to learn about everyday
life in ancient Egypt.

Some hope for the beleaguered publishers came from speaker Esther Dyson, who opined that there's no single catch-all blueprint for a
successful new-media business model. Dyson proposed an analogy to the
restaurant world -- where "the question is not what business model you
choose but whether you do what you do well," and the success of McDonald's
does not threaten the table d'hôte establishment.
Of course, at the moment nearly all the online restaurants -- haute cuisine
and fast food alike -- are giving away meals for free.

Bruised by a punishing marketplace, Milia's melancholy attendees may
find no more refuge in Internet publishing than in discs. But as long as
the conference makes its home at Cannes, at least they'll always have a
luxurious place to nurse their wounds.

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Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington is a technology writer in Dublin whose work appears regularly in the Guardian, the Irish Times and other publications.

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