Academy wields influence over digital

Sci-Tech Council rare neutral body in industry

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences hasn’t lacked for influence over the years. Simply bestowing the Oscars gives it clout.

Mainly, however, the Academy’s function has been, well, academic: rewarding excellence, encouraging scholarship and preserving the history of cinema.

Yet recently, the Academy has acquired a level of influence on the future direction of the biz unlike any the Acad has had in some 75 years.

And it is doing so through one of its least-publicized arms: The Science and Technology Council.

The Council’s first product was its report on the costs and difficulties of digital archiving, “The Digital Dilemma” (Variety, April 20, 2007). It has also been working on developing recommendations for an “Image Interchange Format” that would ensure digital images look consistent as they’re passed from place to place.

The Sci-Tech Council has become one of the rare neutral bodies in the industry, which can move forward issues like the digital conversion of Hollywood without having to worry about partisan business interests.

Just 5 years old, the Council has a roster that reads like a who’s who of movie technologists, all of whom serve gratis. Some of its activities are well within the Acad’s familiar functions, such as archiving and public programs, but it also serves as a forum for discussion and research on emerging technical issues.

Council director Andrew Maltz says the org has evolved into one that’s affecting the direction the industry is taking.

Chris deFaria, executive vice president of Digital Production, Animation & Visual Effects at Warner Bros. Pictures, speaks for many in the biz when he calls the Council’s work “wildly appropriate.”

The Council brings together many of the best technical minds in the industry to find solutions to a next generation of problems.

Though few remember the Academy serving such a role, several Academy bodies helped the industry make the transition to sound, training some 900 studio engineers and technicians and publishing a popular how-to textbook on the subject.Ray Feeney, prexy and founder of RFX and one of the industry’s leading technologists, says “We view — at least I personally view — the conversion to digital as significant an upheaval in the industry as the invention of sound or the addition of color to motion pictures.” After at least 50 years of tech stability, he says, “It’s the Wild West all over again.”

While some people view the digital future as a time of crisis, Feeney calls it “an exciting time of wonder,” and says the Acad is taking a leadership role in guiding the industry “toward generally beneficial mechanisms for getting through this period of upheaval.”

Maltz credits some of the industry’s leading technologists, like Feeney, Jon Erland, the late Dick Stumpf, Richard Edlund, David English and Don Rogers — who began petitioning the Acad’s board to create a new tech council, with recognizing the need early on for such a politically neutral, technologically forward-thinking body.

“Their careers are based on looking out and identifying which way things are going,” Maltz says.

Academy president Sid calls the Council’s work a comfortable role for the Academy.

“The nonpolitical, nonpartisan role of uncovering technical issues and presenting them as the voice to the industry, not of the industry … and in the case of the digital archival work, to other industries” is an important one, Ganis says.

Feeney credits some of the Council’s success to the fact that it has not asked movie companies to open their coffers to support it.

“We actually had a few people who stepped up and said, ‘Hey, that sounds really great. Is there stuff we can sponsor?’ And we said, ‘No no, we’re not asking for money, we’re asking for time. If you’ve got key technologists who understand this stuff, then give them your blessing to come to our meetings and do the homework and the assigned projects.'”

Going forward, the Council is working on a follow-up report on digital archiving, this time looking at the problem of independent films, where resources are scarcer than on studio pics.

There’s also a new internship program aimed at finding “the next Ray Feeney,” in Maltz’s words.

It may well be that once the Council has served its purpose and brought law and order to the digital Wild West, it will run its course and dissolve, as its predecessors did.

Or it could peter out sooner if it runs afoul of companies’ desire to protect trade secrets and profit from their tech innovations.

That helped do in the original Research Council, spun off from the Acad in 1947 and dissolved in 1976, as well as the Technology Council of the AMPTP, which dissolved in 1998.

“This is a different world in some ways from how it was in the ’20s when the Academy first started,” Maltz says. “And in some ways, it’s no different, if you look back at why Hollywood exists. Why did people come out here? It wasn’t just for the weather, it was to get away from the Motion Picture Patents Co.

“So we have to look at the realities of intellectual property policies and issues and navigate that. And so far we’ve been successful. It’s challenging, but there is a core desire to do this sort of collaborative problem-solving in a way that benefits the industry and still allow companies to benefit from their innovations. It’s a difficult balance to maintain and it’s something we have to spend time on.”

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