How I Made It: Kenneth Williams worked from the fringes to his creative center
Kenneth Williams, 62, is the chief executive and executive director of USC’s Entertainment Technology Center, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
The ETC is known as one of the biggest and most influential think tanks in the entertainment industry, with George Lucas helping to create the center in 1993.
Conducting research and convening meetings with industry heads, the ETC has championed technological innovations such as the switch to digital from film and, more recently, the industry’s adoption of virtual reality.
Williams joined the center in 2012 after spending much of his career at Sony Pictures, where he headed its digital studios division.
Raised by Artists
Williams grew up in a creative environment, raised by two professional musicians in Tulsa, Okla. His father was the choir director at his church and his mother, a piano teacher.
An avid singer himself, Williams considered a music career but settled on a more stable career path. After graduating from Harvard in 1978 with a degree in history and philosophy, he entered the business side of the entertainment industry.
“I loved the aesthetic of it. Even if I wasn’t going to be on the front stage, I wanted to be attached to it or involved in some way,” he said.
Williams joined Chase Manhattan Bank’s Wall Street Training Program, working in the media and entertainment lending group for more than three years.
“I found that part of the business really fascinating.... It made me want to understand the business even more hands-on,” he said.
Building relationships with movie studios while at the lending group, Williams joined Columbia Pictures in 1982, becoming assistant treasurer that year. He was promoted to treasurer two years later.
The studio agreed to put him through business school, and Williams earned a master’s degree in business policy from Columbia University.
When Sony purchased Columbia Pictures in 1989, Williams was put in charge of studio operations, giving him the opportunity to lead the renovation of the Culver City headquarters for Sony Pictures.
An advocate of emerging technology, Williams wanted to build a studio for the digital age, equipping it with the latest audio technology and the first DVD authoring facility.
“This became a showcase for Sony, and it gave me an opportunity to really be an early adopter of these technologies,” he said.
Working in the entertainment industry, part of Williams’ job was building a nurturing environment in which creative people could thrive. He wanted Sony to offer technology that gave filmmakers unfettered access for their work.
“Part of what I think I contributed in my career is respecting what I would call the below-the-line creative ethic and creating an environment where [creative talent] felt comfortable and supported, where they had the best tools, and where they could execute their creativity,” Williams said. “There’s an element of respect that they feel from someone in my position, and when they ask for something, they know I won’t initially disregard it as just more money and more expense.”
Enter the ETC
When the center approached Williams about the job in 2012, he was already familiar with its operations. The Sony veteran had been the studio’s representative on the center’s board almost since its inception.
He was eager to take on a job that would give him a fresh perspective on an industry he’d been a part of for years.
“I feel like I have this unique view of what’s happening in the industry, and you see how different their strategies are,” Williams said. “They’re all being as innovative as you can imagine, but they’re all executing in different ways.”
Trial by error
Experimentation is a core value at the ETC and it sparks innovation. That process was new for Williams, who’d spent a majority of his life in an arena where high-stake risks can cost millions and end careers.
“As a 20-year studio executive, I could tell you, failure at a studio is just not cool,” he said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter what you learn. You want everything to work the first time, you take calculated risks and then you hang on. It’s not the best place to fail. But at the ETC, that’s part of our mission — just to try stuff, make it work where it can, understand why it didn’t work, and failure is permitted because it’s part of the discovery process.”
One of these latest ongoing experiments is analyzing how media companies can best integrate cloud technology — online storage and processing software — into the production and post-production process.
A good day on the job
The best days at work, Williams said, are the ones in which he’s away from his desk and working most directly with industry members.
“It’s when we are convening the industry around some topic. I want to be one of the first places where people in this industry dig into what might be useful,” Williams said. “It’s when we can act as a catalyst to bring industry partners together and start to make progress on how technology can work.”
One of Williams’ jobs is to convene meetings with industry heads to discuss how emerging technologies such as blockchain might affect the industry.
The Entertainment Technology Center also is researching how virtual reality, coupled with data analysis, can create more interactive forms of advertising. Imagine, for example, a Harry Potter fan wearing VR glasses who might converse with Ron Weasley about products at a nearby store.
“That’s the sort of thing we want to be a part of and be a thought leader for the industry,” Williams said. “We’re going to start doing some demonstrating in the next 12 to 18 months…. We want to gear up our members to start thinking of this and the opportunities they want.”
Williams has been married to his wife for 28 years and raised a son and daughter who both now live in New York. He still sings and is a member of his church choir and a Harvard alumni a capella group.
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