Technicolor at 100: Hollywood Legend Pivots From Colorful Past to the Future

100 Years of Technicolor
Photo Courtesy of Technicolor

It’s one of the great, glorious names from Hollywood’s Golden Age. It conjures magical nights watching epics unspool on giant screens in rococo movie palaces. The word itself entered the language, as slang for “vivid.”

Steven Spielberg is one of the millions whose pulse quickened at the word’s very mention.

“You have to be almost my age to understand the excitement when a bigscreen feature film boasted in its main title credits ‘Color by Technicolor,’ ” he says. “It was a promise kept by thousands of Hollywood productions when great cameramen captured the natural wonders of the American landscape with colors so bright they could singe your eyes and make them moist.

“More than CinemaScope or 3D or even before Super Technirama 70 and Imax, Technicolor was Hollywood royalty, and could draw an audience in its early years as much as a Clark Gable, Errol Flynn or Judy Garland could.”

Technicolor’s processes and people were among Hollywood’s greatest legacies. But as the 21st century began, it was an analog-technology company facing the dawn of digital. By 2008, it was drowning in debt. The financial statement that year for Technicolor’s parent company Thomson (which has since taken the Technicolor name) listed a net loss of more than $2.5 billion.

That was the year current CEO Frederic Rose took the helm, and he saw that no matter how great its name, Technicolor (along with its parent Thomson) needed to reinvent itself, and fast, or go the way of Pan Am and Polaroid.

Technicolor’s 3-strip process gave Hollywood’s Golden Age its rich, saturated colors. photo courtesy of Technicolor

“Sometimes the weight of the legacy is there, and what has been exciting was to get an opportunity to move beyond that legacy,” says Rose. So he and his right-hand man, Vince Pizzica, senior exec VP, strategy and technology — who came to Technicolor as a team from telecom company Alcatel-Lucent — gave Technicolor a mission for the digital age.

“We understood that bringing entertainment to mobile phones and computers would have to be where this company would go,” Pizzica says. “We need to deliver directly to consumers.”

That reinvention of Technicolor, from a professional film services company to a digital technology company serving pros and the public alike, had two parts.

First, the company evolved its professional services to digital, closing its final film lab in 2013. “Technicolor had people who were very much attuned to the upcoming digital world, evaluated it, and realized that changes would come and took advantage of opportunities to accommodate that,” says Marc Solomon, Warner Bros. executive VP, feature post-production.

At the same time, Technicolor resisted pressure to shutter or sell its prized R&D labs. Pizzica notes Technicolor labs have done serious work on a number of technologies, such as High Dynamic Range (HDR), which have both professional and consumer applications. That’s a hallmark of Technicolor research. “Often the problems that filmmakers are trying to solve, we’ll find in our consumer devices five or seven years down the road,” Rose notes.

The second part of the reinvention was a greater departure for the company: Investing in entertainment startups. That pivoted Technicolor toward consumers.

“We feel we can embrace change and risk-taking,” Pizzica says. “We taught ourselves how to be a start-up.” Among the fruits of those efforts is M-Go, a multiplatform digital content app to stream and share content across multiple devices.

As it enters its 100th year in business, Technicolor is a leaner company than when Rose took the helm. It sold some businesses to pay down debt, has attracted new investors, and though it posted a ¤92 million ($117.8 million) loss in 2013, its continuing operations are in the black.

The company will soon launch a campaign to re-introduce the Technicolor name to the public, using the tagline “Feel the Wonder.” The company that started out by bringing color to theater screens now has ambitions to do nothing less than “define the language of next generation of entertainment,” in Pizzica’s words. “We aspire to be around not just another 100 years but 200 or 300 years.”

As it pursues that dream, Technicolor will have the support of plenty of fans in the industry, Spielberg among them.

“It is an industry standard which I want to see flying high over this town for many years to come,” he says.