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EVAN S. DOBELLE

Digital media beckons

IT WAS welcome news when the Massachusetts House recently passed legislation to help the state become a more attractive location for filmmakers. It's a strong step that should bring many additional benefits to the state's economy. The Senate should move quickly to send the bill to the governor.

But we shouldn't stop there. Movies are only the beginning. Thanks to our combination of imagination and technological savvy, New England has all the resources at hand to become the digital media capital of the country, if not the world.

Digital media -- a term that encompasses computer games and iPods as well as Yoda's acrobatics -- is the intersection of the information and creative economies. It's a multibillion-dollar industry that will only continue to grow.

It's also an ideal industry for our region. Compared with other parts of the country, New England lacks natural resources and inexpensive land. Think tanks and policymakers have long agreed that our future success will depend on a strong creative economy based on industries that rely on human capital and ingenuity.

Digital media is the quintessential creative industry. It's also one in which New England has a solid head start. We have dozens of companies, large and small, developing computer games and simulations. The Berkshires region has a burgeoning computerized special effects industry that provides services to the Hollywood studios.

We also have a backbone of colleges and universities with degree programs that train graduates for precisely these fields. MIT's Media Lab has an iconic stature in digital media circles thanks to decades of innovation.

Meanwhile, this fall the Worcester Polytechnic Institute will introduce the first computer game design major in the country. It will combine technical programming with work on literature and dramatics. The program will help deepen the cultural roots of this new art form. And the New England Board of Higher Education will hold a conference in October in Mystic, Conn., to develop creative economic ideas and initiatives.

Most colleges in the region have some digital media programs or departments, be they computer programming, film studies, Web design, or others. But too often those graduates have to move elsewhere to find work.

With all this talent and possibility, there is no reason not to attract -- or grow -- a regional digital media industry that can compete on a national level. But getting there will take an outlook that draws on the strengths of all six New England states.

First among those strengths is our educated, creative workforce. These are the people who are starting new companies from the ground up. As new technology makes the production and dissemination of media cheaper and easier, individual creativity becomes the only limit to a media start-up's potential.

Careful state investment could help those companies along. High-quality studio facilities, developed and supported with funds from all six states, could be made available to productions that pledge to film their projects entirely in New England. In exchange, the film crews would bring revenue, and publicity, to our cities and towns.

Former military bases throughout our region may have a new life as film studios or other digital ''media campuses." Recycled bases would offer housing, theaters, and hangars that could be converted into soundstages. Those campuses could also serve as meeting places bringing together film, special effects, and game companies in a collaborative atmosphere.

Just as Peter Jackson, director of ''Lord of the Rings," has transformed his native New Zealand into a major international center for moviemaking, we should aspire to create a local digital media industry of global significance and reach.

We have the scenic landscapes, the urban settings, the four spectacular seasons, the writers, the artists, the programmers. We have vast reserves of creativity waiting to be tapped. All we need now is some creative policymaking to set it in motion.

Evan S. Dobelle is president and CEO of the New England Board of Higher Education.

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