LOS ANGELES -- Agents want to take 30-year-old Bobby Kotick to lunch. Screenwriters call him daily. And it can't be long before parking valets and waiters start pitching him story ideas.
Is he a movie mogul? A famous director?
No. Even better. Kotick owns a video software company, and he's interactive.
"I go to these cocktail parties now and I say I make video games, and people go, 'Wow.' I can attract crowds," said Kotick, whose computer game company, Activision, moved to Los Angeles from Northern California two years ago to be closer to Hollywood creative talent.
The company's top-selling "Return to Zork," one of the new generation of games played using CD-ROM disks, features live-action video, performances by 26 actors and a movie-quality soundtrack.
Unlike the more common cartridge-based games, CD-ROM technology has enough capacity to turn a game into an interactive movie. The player can choose different story lines and manipulate plot twists enacted by real actors, while pursuing some goal, most typically fighting off hostile characters or solving a puzzle.
The frontier where Hollywood and Silicon Valley meet even has its own name, "Siliwood." The frenzy to stake a claim has been marked by a flurry of deal-making, joint ventures and company buyouts.
With deals increasingly brokered by high-powered talent agencies, celebrities including Sylvester Stallone and former CIA director William Colby soon will appear in interactive games. They will join old hands such as musician Peter Gabriel and actress Margot Kidder.
The Houston International Film Festival recently inaugurated its first multimedia prizes for the best interactive product.
Not long ago, movie executives dismissed video games as geeky kid toys designed by computer nerds in the garage, an attitude overhauled by advancing technology and bottom-line economics. With up to a third of American households now owning a video-game system, sales of game software reached an estimated $6 billion in 1993, according to the CD-ROM Factbook, a trade reference guide.
Lagging behind that figure were American movie box office grosses, which totaled $5.1 billion in ticket sales last year.
With such numbers, Tinseltown wants to get into the interaction. Studios have been opening new divisions to retool existing movies into video games rather than licensing their film characters to outside software developers. Rock musicians, screenwriters, producers and directors are vying to help create or star in computer video games.
"It's the gold rush," said Strauss Zelnick, who astounded movie industry colleagues when he left his job last year as head of 20th Century Fox Film Corp. to become president and chief executive of Crystal Dynamics, a computer game upstart in Palo Alto, Calif.
"The good news," he said, "is there is in fact gold there. The bad news is there are a lot of people mining for it."
As nay-saying financial analysts and computer software companies deride Hollywood's precipitous leap, breathless bulletins are emitted daily from Siliwood. The peer pressure to go interactive has been so intense that when the one remaining major studio without its own game division, 20th Century Fox, owned by News Corp., called a news conference recently to announce it was getting into the game, company executives acted almost sheepish.
Hollywood learned fast about computing in 1993, when CD-ROM-based hardware finally took off, with U.S. sales of 3 million to 5 million units, said Lee Isgur, a partner at Volpe, Welty & Co., a San Francisco-based investment banking company.
"Hollywood wants to get a piece of the video-game business because they think it's big," said Isgur. "They're scared because they think it could be competitive."
But the future success and best business tactics for filmmakers and game companies have not been determined. "It has yet to be proven whether what makes a Hollywood movie interesting makes interactive entertainment interesting," said Isgur.
Some CD-ROM games are original productions. The first truly interactive movie game, Sony Imagesoft's "Ground Zero Texas," was an original production with a $3 million budget and its own film crew. In the game, players help military personnel shoot aliens called Reticulans, who are trying to take over the Earth.
But the video arcade, not movie theaters, traditionally has launched the characters with the most popularity in games designed for home use. The top-earning entertainment personalities last year were not live actors but digital game stars, the Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog, each pulling in about $500 million, according to Isgur.
Analysts point out that the oldest and most established interactive studio division, Sony's Imagesoft, has had only middling success marketing its movie game spinoffs "Cliffhanger" and "Bram Stoker's Dracula." Company executives insist those products have sold well, but they won't release numbers.