Boston’s Digital Entertainment Economy Begins to Sense Its Own Strength

6/19/09Follow @wroush

Let’s say you live in Boston and you’ve just hit on a great concept for a cross-media property, with all the attendant merchandising tie-ins: a special-effects-laden movie, a console video game, a comic, a kids’ cartoon, action figures, a novelization, a persistent online world—in other words, the next Matrix or Transformers or Harry Potter. To make it happen, you’d probably need to hire filmmaking talent from Hollywood, writers and publishers and marketers from New York, programmers and game designers and media network providers from San Francisco and Seattle and Los Angeles, and so forth, right?

Actually, no. Most, maybe all, of the talent and technology you’d need to build your dream media empire is right here in New England.

While the rest of us weren’t looking, and without consulting one another, thousands of creative types have been flocking to the Boston area over the past decade. They’ve built a critical mass of game studios, film production companies, graphics software houses, 3-D modeling companies, digital marketing agencies, online hangouts, and the like—what amounts, in fact, to a self-sufficient digital entertainment ecosystem.

Of course, there would be no particular reason to build your media property using only New England talent. You don’t get green laurels or political-correctness points for restricting yourself to creative services from within a 100-mile radius, the way you arguably do if you buy locally farmed food. And in an age of Friedmanian flatness, your investors will probably force you to offshore as much of the work as you can anyway. My point is that you could find the services here if you wanted to. And that’s something new and remarkable.

We’re going to explore this emerging sector in depth during a panel discussion that I’m moderating on June 24 as part of the Xconomy Summit on Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship. (This full-day event, featuring more than 50 speakers altogether, will be held at Boston University’s School of Management; the full agenda is here and registration information is here.) My panel is entitled “The Digital Entertainment Cluster: Boston’s Best Kept Secret,” and I’ve lined up participants from local companies and organizations that represent the whole spectrum of digital media production and delivery. Not coincidentally, these are all companies I’ve written about for Xconomy—just follow the links below to go deeper.

First, we’ll have Brett Close, CEO of Maynard, MA-based 38 Studios, which was founded by local baseball hero Curt Schilling and is building a cross-media property very much like the hypothetical one I outlined above; it’s based around a massively multiplayer online environment with the cheeky code name Copernicus. Then there’s Chris Gardner, chief marketing officer at Newton, MA-based Extend Media, which sells software that media companies can use to distribute a single piece of digital content to multiple devices, including PCs, televisions, and mobile phones.

Kyle Morton, vice president of product at Cambridge, MA-based EveryZing, will also be on hand; EveryZing is a spinoff of local engineering powerhouse BBN, and has turned its original speech-to-text technology into the core of a universal search engine that helps media companies catalog the digital content they own, facilitate consumer access, and monetize it through advertising. We’ll also hear from Brian Shin, the CEO of Boston-based Visible Measures, who will talk about his company’s project to index and track all the world’s viral videos, the better to help clients measure the success of their marketing campaigns.

Finally, we’ll be joined by Jason Schupbach from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Office of Business Development, who has the coolest title of all the panelists: “Industry Director, Creative Economy.” Schupbach’s job is to connect people in the creative industries to the extensive resources offered by the state government. He’s one of the main people in the Patrick Administration promoting services like export planning, equipment loans, affordable housing programs for artists, and the 25 percent film tax credit. (That tax incentive, available to anyone who creates at least 70 percent of a film or digital media project in Massachusetts, is one of the main forces behind the state’s sudden emergence as a film-industry outpost; no fewer than four major movie studios are planned for construction in Massachusetts over the next two years.)

I’m very excited (or XSITEd, as we’ve been saying around here all month) to be gathering these particular panelists at one event, because I think they can tell a compelling story about why it’s useful to have so many elements of the digital media production and distribution pipeline available in one place; why Boston is an attractive place to build a digital media company; how having all of this talent in one place creates opportunities for projects that weren’t thinkable before the sector emerged; and what the companies in this area, as well as Governor Patrick’s office and legislative leaders, should be doing to ensure the sector’s long-term growth.

These panelists can also speak about the special ability that Boston-area engineers and entrepreneurs seem to have to invent a cool technology, connect it to a market need, and hone it over time until customers can’t live without it. EveryZing, for example, started out in 2006 under the name PodZinger, and spun its technology as a way to make the content of podcasts more understandable to search engines—a useful but not immensely lucrative idea. Now, just three years later, the startup’s technology has morphed into a versatile platform that creates tags and metadata for text, images, audio, and video, and is used by media giants like NBC Universal to index thousands of media files across scores of allied Web properties.

That said, there are plenty of other organizations around town who could have supplied great panelists. Just to eliminate room for skepticism about my “critical mass” claim above, let me list a few of them. In what you might call the digital tools area, there’s Autodesk, Avid, GenArts, Parametric, Spaceclaim, Solidworks, and Z Corporation. In virtual worlds, there’s Hangout Industries, WeeWorld, and the North American office of Weblin. In online communities there’s GamerDNA, Mocospace, Nextcat, and SnapMyLife. In media hosting and infrastructure, there’s Extend Media, Brightcove, Maven, Seachange, and Verivue. In the area of search, measurement, and monetization, there’s Echo Nest, EveryZing, Jumptap, Localytics, Third Screen, and Visible Measures. In the area of music and technology, there are too many companies to mention—see a list we created in 2007. In digital publishing technology, there are companies like Zmags and E Ink. In video games, there’s Conduit Labs, Creat Studios, Galactic Village Games, Harmonix Music Systems, iRacing.com, Lycos Gamesville, Muzzy Lane Software, Quick Hit, Rockstar New England, 38 Studios, Turbine, 2K Boston, and Worldwinner, to name just a few.

And, of course, there’s an array of supporting organizations and institutions; the MIT Media Lab, the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Lab, the Interactive Media and Game Development major at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and the Creative Industries Initiative at Northeastern University come to mind. I haven’t even touched on the fields of design, architecture, marketing, and advertising, which are all becoming more digital every day. And none of these lists are even close to comprehensive: indeed, the state says there are over 14,000 creative-industry businesses in Massachusetts, with 80,000 employees overall and a net economic impact measured in the tens of billions of dollars.

In the end, if you’re someone who simply enjoys the creations of the media industry, or who cares more about whether people are fulfilling their creative potential than about where they do it, the fact that Massachusetts has a strong digital media cluster doesn’t mean a whole lot. And indeed, I’m not trying to build an argument that Boston’s innovators are more talented than people in other technology clusters (like Seattle or San Diego, to take two non-random examples), or even that they offer anything that can’t be found elsewhere. But I am saying—in the spirit of the XSITE motto, “The Recovery Starts Here”—that the local digital media sector is positioned to pull a lot of weight as New England and the country create a new foundation for prosperity. I hope you can join me next week as we talk about exactly how we’re going to do that.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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