Story’s the thing at Variety Entertainment Summit

Tech must serve content, customer

There was plenty of high-tech buzz — about mobile and cloud computing in particular — at Wednesday morning’s panel of high-level studio technologists at the Variety Entertainment Summit, but the speakers reminded Hollywood to keep the basics in mind: Telling stories to auds, and making those stories simple and easy to consume, is what all the tech is for.

Addressing UltraViolet, Sony Pictures president of technologies Chris Cookson said it was important to remember why the cloud platform was created in the first place: “I shouldn’t have to think about what’s the shelf life of the technology I might buy in order to determine whether or not that channel is the one I want to get to put the movie in my library. The question is ‘How do I engage the content I’m interested in and have the technology serve me, not the other way around?'”

Darcy Antonellis, president of Warner Bros. technical operations, told attendees of arriving at her high-tech Las Vegas hotel room, puzzling over the control interfaces for the room’s features, then feeling sympathy for the average consumer.

“I had this vision of someone sitting in the middle of the room, completely frozen, unable to shut the lights off,” she said. “It resonated with me that if I work in the tech sector, and if I’m stunned by an environment like that, what does the average consumer do? Other than shut down.

“I think the point is that any of these services we look to launch, the consumer is first, they have to be first. They don’t want to know how it works, they want it to be transparent. We love that challenge.”

In addition to Antonellis and Cookson, panelists included Arnaud Robert, senior VP of technologies for the Walt Disney Co., and Ed Leonard, chief technology officer for DreamWorks Animation. Guy Finley, executive director of the Media & Entertainment Services Alliance, moderated.

Arnaud cautioned that there are still two major issues with cloud platforms like UltraViolet. First, he noted, is consumer confidence.

“They don’t even trust the hard drives on their computers, because it crashed once and they lost all their data,” he said, “so we have a confidence barrier we have to go through.”

The second issue is setting realistic expectations. “If we say seamless access, consumers will do the leap of faith and think it’s really any device and really anywhere. ‘And right now, I’m travelling to Africa with this non-smartphone, how come I can’t see my content in HD?’ That’s an expectation we need to manage, I think.”

Asked about whether there’s a future for physical media like Blu-ray and DVD, Cookson said, “The content is about the story or the experience or the engagement with the characters. It’s not about where the bits got delivered.”

Disks are one way to deliver bits, he said, but other ways can deliver the same bits and the same experience.

“For us to think in terms of DVD or Blu-ray as being the product, I think ignores the point that really, what’s on the disk is the product,” Cookson said. “So we shouldn’t be concerned about are the fortunes of the disk. It’s about, are people engaging with the product?”

Antonellis believes the entertainment and tech industries are at “an incredible paradigm shift” as development cycles speed up. “The notion of a multi-year, standard-setting development process just cannot exist. We just announced a product yesterday that was built in less than six months through TechCrunch. We like to say we have 8,000-plus brains across the studio and we want to unlock those ideas. You don’t have to be an engineer to bring a terrific idea that we can, and have the responsibility to, fund and apply a bunch of talent towards.

“Creating that culture, and creating that ability to churn ideas and convert them into services and products, is really what our business as a technology-based studio is becoming. And I don’t think I’ve had as much fun in my years in the business because of this paradigm shift.”