Studio helps set biz pace in 3D, digital

Hollywood has long gotten used to the fact that most studios are now owned by media or industrial congloms such as News Corp. and GE, but Sony Pictures Entertainment is the only one owned by a technology company — a fact that, not surprisingly, infuses much of the tech activity at the studio’s Culver City lot, including a broad-based push into 3D. Whether or not that underpinning has elevated the studio’s product and vision is an open question.

Over the years, a handful of companies sought synergies between appliances and programming, to use the terminology of an earlier era. In the 1940s, TV maker DuMont tried to push set sales by starting a network featuring such shows as “Cavalcade of Stars” and “Life Is Worth Living.” David Sarnoff launched NBC to produce shows that would be consumed on his RCA radios and TV sets.

But Sony’s commitment today dwarfs those initial efforts, as a $78 billion global behemoth spanning hardware (consumer and professional electronics, games, computers) and content (music and the film studio).

Moreover, the company is trying to spread tech orientation beyond its lot by educating people who work at other studios, and in the production community at large. In February it set up a 3D Technology Center on the studio’s Culver City lot to teach the ins and outs of 3D content creation to pros such as d.p.’s, editors, directors and game developers from throughout the biz. Some 600 people have been through the tuition-free program so far.

Outsiders may find it curious that Sony is spending its own money to train outsiders, but Buzz Hays, the center’s main instructor, says there’s precedent, pointing to a program set up in the early days of high-def. “We’re not trying to indoctrinate anyone about Sony-specific ways to do stuff,” he says. “If a byproduct is that somebody uses a Sony camera to shoot a movie, that’s a payback in a way, but it’s not the point.”

Within the Sony family, 3D appears to be the next big thing in the company’s plan to leverage capabilities among its various units. The technology was the main focus at a June press event at which Sony trotted out its biggest guns — including Sony Corp. chairman Howard Stringer, Sony Pictures Entertainment topper Michael Lynton and the heads of its electronics and home entertainment units — to tout a corporatewide commitment to 3D across films, TV, games, professional products and consumer goods.

The abundance of technology inside the studio’s DNA also infuses the mandate of Chris Cookson, Sony Pictures’ tech prexy, who is spearheading the development of a “digital backbone,” or common data infrastructure that would connect and support all elements of production and distribution.

Mastering technology has never been more critical to the studios’ business and survival, Cookson says.

For nearly 100 years, film technology changed little beyond adaptations for color and sound. But the digital growth of the past two decades is unprecedented, and Sony execs believe their reaction has been quick and encompassing.

• Its Sony Pictures Digital Prods. unit, which consists of Sony Pictures Animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Imageworks Interactive, specializes in character animation and vfx for pictures.

Imageworks actually gets much of its business from outside the Sony family. Projects include Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland,” on which Imageworks creative head Ken Ralston served as vfx supervisor, and Warner Bros.’ “Green Lantern.”

“We own all our patents,” says Rob Bredow, the unit’s chief technical officer. “When we work for hire, we don’t generally share technology — open-source technology being the notable exception. We generally apply our technology to work that was begun elsewhere and deliver the final images.”

Significant investment in new technology “differentiates us from other studios,” says Bob Osher, prexy of the digital productions unit, which employs anywhere from 500 to 1,000 people, depending on the volume of business. Its interactive branch creates websites, iPhone and iPad apps for films.

• Sony Pictures Studios, with 22 soundstages, also includes post-production facilities with dubbing, scoring and editing. Its roots lie in the old MGM studios, which occupied the Culver City lot before it became Sony Pictures. The unit is home to the studio’s re-recording stages, many of which are large, art deco theaters with names like the Cary Grant, the William Holden and the Kim Novak — studies in contrast, as they house state-of-the-art sound equipment. Sony says the Grant, with 330 seats, is the largest dubbing stage in the world.

The post unit employs a staff of about 160 (rising as high as 300 in busy times) and provides such services as film editorial, dubbing and foley stages not only for Sony projects but to the all of Hollywood.

“Historically about 30% of our work has been for third parties,” says Tom McCarthy, who runs the unit along with Richard Branca.

Michael Bay’s “Transformers 3,” a Paramount picture, and Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean 4″ are two of several high-profile pictures skedded for post work at Sony in the near future.

“It’s talent driven,” says Branca, explaining why a project distributed by a Sony rival would post in Culver City. “Michael Bay has a relationship with (Sony-based sound re-recording mixer) Greg Russell.”

“Sometimes we have to discount the facilities because of the competition, but it’s more important to utilize them as near full-time as we can because it justifies the money we’ve spent to upgrade them,” says Gary Martin, head of physical production on the Sony lot.

• Sony Pictures Technologies includes Colorworks, a digital-intermediate facility launched in November 2009. It has processed films such as Sony’s “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” as well as films from other studios, such as the recent restoration work it did on Fox’s “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

With all these initiatives humming away, Sony touts itself as “more holistic in terms of production and post-production facilities than any other studio,” says a spokesperson. But while company execs routinely tout Sony’s tech prowess, some observers are skeptical about the technological thrall in which the studio is held by its parent company.

“A neutral observer would be hard pressed to point to a lot of examples where the technical connection has benefited the studio,” says Paul Sweeting, founder of consulting firm Concurrent Media Strategies (and a former Variety writer). “In many cases, it’s been a hindrance to Sony.”

Sweeting cites the recent Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD format war, in which Sony of Japan battled Toshiba, and ultimately won.

“Sony Pictures was not free to make an independent strategic decision as to which format to support,” he contends, “and the industry picked the wrong format largely because of Sony’s efforts. HD-DVD would have been in the market two years earlier, more cheaply, and would have done more to reverse the decline in consumer spending on homevideo.”

Analyst Jack Plunkett of Plunkett Research also questions the parent company’s attempts to meld gadgets and content creation.

“Sony Electronics would have been better served by focusing on its core business rather than diversifying into entertainment,” Plunkett says. “It was once the world’s greatest innovator in personal electronics. Now it’s been left in the dust by Apple. You don’t see other large consumer electronics companies like Samsung producing films,” he says.

Lynton makes his case for the tech initiatives of both the studio and its parent.

“Technology investments are made to support the business and stay competitive in the service of making entertainment,” he said in a statement. “The opportunity to leverage our investments with third-party clients is what brings additional returns and helps reduce fluctuation in the business cycle. … When it comes to building (what we need), Sony Electronics can service our needs … and create a product and take it to the market.”

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