How CES became a 'must-see' event for Hollywood

What to Expect at CES 2016
What to Expect at CES 2016

Thousands of gadget lovers descend on Las Vegas in early January each year for CES, but the annual electronics showcase has also evolved into a must-attend event for Hollywood.

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Nearly 27,000 entertainment and content professionals attended the event in 2015, according to the Consumer Technology Association's annual audit -- a 350 percent surge from the 6,000 entertainment attendees five years earlier. That number is only expected to increase when as many as 175,000 CES attendees head to Vegas from Jan. 6 to 9.

This year's conference has a media-heavy lineup with keynotes from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, speaking on Jan. 6; and YouTube executive Robert Kyncl and NBCUniversal CEO Stephen Burke, both presenting Jan. 7.

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While some entertainment execs might find their way to the show floor, it's not the next-generation drones or self-driving cars drawing them to Vegas. It's the deal-making opportunities. Hollywood executives hold private one-on-one meetings to discuss distribution of their content on these new technology platforms, while digital publishers court the biggest advertisers and studios showcase new content.

"CES is great for all aspects of the Hulu business from distribution and ad sales to product and technology," says Hulu head of ad sales Peter Naylor, who will attend the event with a half dozen other of the company's distribution, marketing and content execs, including CEO Mike Hopkins and content chief Craig Erwich. "The companies we call on and the companies who call on us are there with their highest level executives so you really jumpstart the year with interesting conversations to drive business forward."

Other Hollywood executives expected to attend include DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and A+E Networks chief Nancy Dubuc.

CES didn't always draw such large crowds from the entertainment industry. Content companies have long sent their technology and innovation executives, but as technology and media have become increasingly intertwined, those companies encouraged their marketing teams and content executives to attend.

The CTA -- recently renamed from the Consumer Electronics Association -- began working with UTA ahead of the 2011 show to boost film, television and digital media attendance. Together they designed a programming track called Entertainment Matters to highlight Hollywood-focused events. In addition to panels and speakers, Entertainment Matters hosts annual keynotes and offers customized tours of the show floor.

The conference has also been reaching out to the advertising community, and the brands they represent. Those industries also have their own programming to fuel interest that help draw more than 26,000 advertising and marketing attendees to last years show, according to CTA. Last year, the CTA created a centralized CES home for those attendees called C Space that provides panels, networking events, and other meeting opportunities. C Space is expected to double in size this year.

"Many of the biggest publishers tell us CES is the single most important ad sales event of the year for them," said UTA partner Brent Weinstein. "It has become a critical event for anyone who is looking to get business done in this space."

Michael Kassan, CEO of consultancy MediaLink, which oversees much of the C Space programming and sends out party invites to everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Tim Armstrong, adds that CES is one of the few events where executives from different disciplines all come together. "What we were able to do was carve out a niche to bring marketers together with with technology partners and digital partners. It's the place where it all comes together."

For CES, the expansion into these industries has become a way to provide new relevance to conference-goers as the technology landscape shifts. "Technology is rapidly changing how media companies make, market, monetize and consume content, how advertisers reach their audiences, and also how people consume media across an ever-increasing array of platforms and devices," said CTA Senior Vice President Karen Chupka.

The result of these efforts is that CES has established a permanent place on the media conference calendar. This year, that's highlighted by the lineup of programming focused on such attendees.

In addition to the content-focused keynotes, Hulu and Google will both throw cocktail events, brands and content companies will rub elbows at the annual MediaLink bash, Twentieth Century Fox will show off its new The Martian virtual reality experience, and YouTube stars Joey Graceffa and iJustine will tour the show floor as the event's entertainment ambassadors.

"It's not just a tech show anymore," says Kassan. "It's a must-see conference now. If you're a content company, you don't have a choice. You have to be there."

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