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Industrial Light & Magic Goes Outside The VFX Box For Its New Head of Studio

Producer Sam Mercer becomes topper of visual effects titan

Industrial Light & Magic, Disney/Lucasfilm’s venerable visual effects giant, has tapped veteran producer Sam Mercer as head of studio.

Mercer will oversee and coordinate activities of all four ILM studios: the San Francisco HQ, Vancouver, London and Singapore. He will report to Lucasfilm general manager Lynwen Brennan.

The vfx studio had been without a top executive since Brennan was promoted in February from her former role as ILM president. Lucasfilm restructured its management at the time and eliminated the position of ILM president. Mercer assumes many of the oversight duties that had been her domain.

Over his long and varied career, Mercer has worked on numerous hits in various roles, from location manager to unit production manager to producer. However he has never worked in the visual effects industry. It was a deliberate choice by ILM to seek out a non-vfx pro to run the company.

Brennan told Variety Lucasfilm’s president, Kathleen Kennedy, first suggested Mercer would be a good candidate to run ILM.

“We have such a great bench here of people who know how to run a visual effects studio, we wanted someone who is a storyteller and could have a relationship with the people we work with,” said Brennan. “We really wanted someone who had relationships in the industry at a different level than you generally have within the visual effects industry.”

Mercer’s credits include location manager on “Stripes,” the original “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “The Escape Artist” and “The Witches of Eastwick.” As a production executive at Disney, he worked on “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society,” and rose to become VP of motion picture production for Hollywood Pictures. He left Disney to become an independent producer, beginning with “Congo” for director Frank Marshall. He became M. Night Shyamalan’s regular producer, with credits including “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs.” He was also executive producer on “Van Helsing” and “Jarhead,” and a producer on “Snow White and the Huntsman.” He most recently produced Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG.” He also has roots in Los Angeles, having been an associate producer/unit manager for KCET-TV early in his career. There he won a Daytime Emmy fpr the live presentation of the San Francisco Opera’s production of “La Gioconda.”

Kennedy visited Mercer in Vancouver, where he was working on “The BFG.” Mercer said: “She asked me point blank whether I’d consider working at ILM. I never dreamed that the opportunity would come my way. I’ve had so many great collaborations at this company and respect it so much.”

“One of the things I’ve been thinking about in the industry is just how quickly things are changing, because the limitations on filmmakers are very few now. We can do almost anything we can think up,” he said. He said he will be “putting the word out to other filmmakers and producers that one of our group is at a company where the door’s kind of open. Bring us your story, bring us the challenge of what you need to achieve.”

The selection of Mercer arguably represents a watershed moment for the visual effects business. Long a field where much of the energy went to solving technical problems, vfx has now reached a point where the focus is on storytelling problems, not technological challenges.  “Sam is an amazing creative problem solver,” said Brennan. “It’s not down to just the shots and the dollars per shot, it’s what’s the story your filmmaker is trying to say, what’s the emotion they’re trying to elicit in the audience, and how best to approach that.”

Mercer’s official first day on the job was Monday, Sept. 14. He is commuting from Los Angeles to ILM’s San Francisco headquarters. He will keep his home in Los Angeles but added “I will be global.” and will spend time working out of all four ILM locations.

With a steady stream of work on “Star Wars” titles expected for the next decade or so, ILM is uniquely suited among vfx studios to undertake long-term planning and investment. The company has recently announced a virtual reality arm, ILMxLab, which is developing “Star Wars” virtual reality experiences, among other virtual reality and augmented reality content.

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