NEW ORLEANS, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- Macedonian filmmaker Julija Naskova came to New Orleans to screen her film "Kitchen Bird Cocoon" at the inaugural New Orleans Media Experience and found herself on stage at the Krazy Korner on Bourbon Street singing "Respect" with the house band.
"I don't remember when I had this much fun," said Naskova, whose musical adventure summed up the changing face of New Orleans tourism under mayor Ray Nagin. Nagin has been working hard to make New Orleans an entertainment industry hotspot, and last month the city took a huge stride toward that end by hosting a pair of large-scale events, the New Orleans Media Experience and the contemporary rock Voodoo Festival.
Though the Voodoo Festival, which took place over the Halloween weekend, was in its fifth year, this was the first year the event was expanded from one to three days. Marilyn Manson, George Clinton, 50 Cent, the White Stripes, Iggy and the Stooges, Gov't Mule, Galactic and other headline acts drew tens of thousands of rock fans to City Park for what has become one of the country's most significant rock and rap festivals, a 20-something companion to the venerable New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which takes place in New Orleans at the end of April each year.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune heralded Voodoo Fest and the Media Experience as "a fall tourism magnet," good news for a city that has seen its normally reliable convention business slump in recent years.
The Media Experience is a perfect tie-in with Voodoo because it targets a similar demographic, the digital-age audience that gets its music via video games, soundtracks and music videos. The theme of the conference, "Worship at the alter of convergence," articulated a vision of an entertainment industry future in which popular music, film and video games are involved in a complex symbiotic relationship.
The Media Conference was significant if only for the terms in which the discussions were framed. A generation ago rock artists argued the pros and cons of allowing their music to be used in commercials at all. Today's popular music artists compete aggressively for commercial placement. Even Iggy Pop, whose performance with the Stooges at Voodoo Fest was the most overtly political of the weekend, is probably best known as the singer of "Lust for Life," used as a soundtrack for a cruise commercial.
At the "Co-Branding and Product Placement in Music Videos" panel, Mark Humphrey of BandAD noted: "'American Idol' is kind of the beginning of the end of the music industry because it's not about groups, it's about people singing. But it was a tremendous breakthrough for AT&T. The voting mechanism got a lot of people with cell phones who had never used their text messaging feature to use it for the first time, and many of them continued to use it."
The most dramatic moment of the conference came when the producer of an upcoming $70 million film project set in New Orleans but scheduled to be shot in North Carolina challenged a panel of local business executives to make it worth his while to film in New Orleans.
Scott Ross, CEO of Digital Domain Inc., said it would be $4 million cheaper to film "Instant Karma" in North Carolina rather than New Orleans, but Ernest Collins, New Orleans' executive director of arts and entertainment, vowed to come up with an incentive package that would enable Ross to film in New Orleans as cheaply as he could in North Carolina. Ross was still unconvinced that New Orleans had the skilled digital technicians required to develop his film, but the city's determination to change his mind indicated the lengths Nagin's team will go to to drum up this kind of business.
Though attendance at the Media Experience was low, organizers HSI Productions of Los Angeles were happy with the impact it made on New Orleans and the good time attendees enjoyed.
"It's like the first years at Sundance," said actor Pat Donahue. "Now Sundance is vast, but when it started you could meet everyone at the event."
In addition to feature films, the Experience included several great music programs, including outstanding music documentaries on the Memphis sound and gospel queen Mahalia Jackson. The Memphis documentary compared favorably to the recent PBS "Blues" documentary series.
"I wanted to stay away from using the same stock footage you see in all the blues documentaries," said producer-director Jeff Scheftel. "We did a lot of primary source research to unearth period footage that no one has used before."
New Orleans has a long history with the film industry dating back to 1896, when the city opened the world's first movie house, Vitascope Hall, at the corner of Canal Street and Exchange Alley. Though a number of films have been set in New Orleans in recent years, producers have complained about the hidden costs of keeping projects on schedule in the Big Easy.
Nagin's administration is bending over backwards to change that perception. As part of the Media Experience the city turned lower Canal Street into a giant open air movie house, projecting several films onto the side of buildings to the delight and bemusement of unsuspecting tourists en route to shopping at Riverwalk or gambling at Harrah's casino.
With the steep cost of hiring big name acts for a three-day festival, Voodoo promoter Stephen Rehage can't afford to be sanguine about soft numbers, but more than 100,000 people showed up over the Voodoo weekend, ensuring that the event would continue on the same scale in the future.
Voodoo has captured the hard rock and metal audience, but rap and jam bands did not show up in force to see the bands designed to attract them. The convergence championed at the Media Experience did not translate to the concert stage at Voodoo, where fans knew exactly what they wanted. Huge numbers of people collected for Marilyn Manson and Cowboy Mouth, while 50 Cent and George Clinton played to only a handful of people.