Warner Bros. eyes the future through its ‘tech ops’
The lobbies of most Hollywood offices are decorated with movie posters and Academy Awards.
But on the sixth floor of a building on Warner Bros.’ Burbank lot, the lobby is decorated with patents — 24 of them, for things such as “a method and apparatus for providing lossless data compression” and “motion picture anti-piracy coding.”
This might be a sneak peek at the future of the modern studio, where the digitization of delivery systems and the power of social media mean that making great movies and television shows is no longer enough to succeed. The new studio needs to manage complex processes as efficiently as Google and reach consumers as aggressively as Apple.
That’s a tall order for an industry known for its resistance to new technology, and a difficult transition for companies where promotions come from impressing the right senior executive, not taking risks on a new idea.
“We’re trying to function as a start-up, with a bit of a different culture than the rest of the studio, while still recognizing the impact of our work across so many different businesses,” said Darcy Antonellis, Warner Bros. chief technology officer.
Antonellis, who co-developed three of those 24 patents and can discuss film distribution as easily as she does Moore’s Law — a principle used in semiconductor design — has an engineering degree but has spent her career working at CBS, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. She grew up in New Jersey with a father who sold equipment to television stations.
“I spent many days as a child on a stool at NAB [the National Assn. of Broadcasters trade show] playing with production switchers,” she recalled.
No studio has been more aggressive in developing digital media than Warner Bros. It was the first to rent films on Facebook and led the way in launching UltraViolet, a multi-company initiative to sell movies online in a post-DVD world.
Warner’s apps can be used to watch a movie on an iPad or to share personal photographs securely with friends and family. The studio is one of the few companies in Hollywood that hosts Silicon Valley-style “hackathons” for employees to create innovative new projects.
“We need to control our own destiny in the digital world,” said Kevin Tsujihara, president of the studio’s home entertainment group and Antonellis’ boss. “We can’t rely on others for things that are incredibly important to the competitiveness of Warner Bros. and the industry.”
Handling that task has been a big challenge for Warner’s technical operations unit, which a few years ago was focused on behind-the-scenes processes. A major project called DETE (“Engineers are terrible at names,” Antonellis jokes), which enables the studio to deliver television reruns, promotional clips and every bit of associated data online, almost eliminated the expensive process of shipping physical tapes.
“We used to do things that nobody knew about, but now we are more front-facing and building direct relationships with consumers,” said Antonellis, who leads a team of about 300 developers, programmers and engineers.
Building software and running servers require a different work environment from those used to negotiate actors’ contracts or book movies into theaters. While “tech ops” and its sibling “advanced digital services” can’t boast luxurious campuses like those at Facebook Inc. or Google, they do have a vibe all their own.
Conference rooms traditionally used for meetings have been transformed into “scrum rooms,” where employees come together to work for several weeks at a time on specific projects. Posters for “Harry Potter” and “Man of Steel” hang on walls next to whiteboards with terms such as “queued development” and “code review.”
During a daily exercise in one of the scrum rooms, eight employees stand in front of their computers to update a “scrum master” on their progress.
“Today I’m planning to implement the token validation,” one says.
“The only thing I have left is coordinating on mobile development,” another says.
This “agile scrum” development process is used regularly at software companies but is novel at a Hollywood studio, where competitive cultures turn transparency into a weakness.
“The balance we have to strike is we want to show the good and the bad, but we can’t look incompetent,” said Joe Annino, executive director of technical project management, who like many of tech ops’ male employees has a beard and works in a dress shirt and jeans.
In an office decorated only by the books “Design Patterns” and “Action Scripts 3.0,” Web development manager Imran Saadi shows off a computer screen listing dozens of servers with internal nicknames such as John Goodman, Kiefer Sutherland and Buffy. Each has a green, red or yellow light next to it, indicating whether it’s currently working smoothly or has a problem.
Despite his use of Silicon Valley terms like “extreme programming” and “information radiators,” Saadi is a Hollywood veteran, having worked at Walt Disney Co. for six years before joining Warner in 2007.
“You get to use your creative side and work with cool brands that everybody knows about here,” he said. “It’s not like building the next version of Microsoft Office.”
Many of Warner’s technical employees share Saadi’s dual passion for entertainment and software. But their bosses recognize they have to do more to bring out the best in their tech teams.
“These kinds of employees have a different mind-set,” Tsujihara said. “You have to show them you’re willing to invest in their ideas and let them come to fruition.”
Last year’s hackathon resulted in Out My Window, a photo-sharing application Warner launched this spring that lets users share personal pictures without any fear they can be seen by strangers. While Out My Window doesn’t appear to have put a dent in the popularity of Facebook or Instagram — Warner declined to reveal user numbers — several staffers cited it as proof the studio encourages new ideas.
Technical employees who have been at Warner for a few years say they have seen a change in attitude throughout the lot. Previously, many in the feature film, television or DVD groups knew tech ops primarily as the people who guided tours for studio staffers at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
But as word came down from Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes at parent company Time Warner Inc. to focus online, the entire studio is seeking ways to digitize their operations.
“It used to be that we were knocking and scratching on people’s doors to get work in their divisions,” said Ethan Applen, executive director of technology and business strategy. “That has flipped to where people are knocking and scratching at our doors.”
One new project is designed to spread throughout Warner’s Burbank lot some of the software engineer culture that technical operations has adopted. WBHive is an online platform that offers employees the opportunity to answer vexing questions posed by management.
In a beta test with 1,400 home entertainment group staffers, 25% participated in two challenges: how to recycle DVDs and how to drive adoption of UltraViolet. Users voted on and provided feedback to ideas such as turning discs into solar reflectors and building sculptures from them. Eleven proposals were presented to senior executives.
As WBHive expands throughout the studio, some hope it could help ideas rise from a junior video game designer, say, to a senior television executive she has never met.
That’s standard in Silicon Valley, where companies pride themselves on meritocratic decision-making and open work environments. But at hierarchical Hollywood studios, where status, protocol and territory are everything, enabling ideas to bubble up from the bottom ranks could be a small revolution.
“How do we embed a culture of innovation through the organization and create a tolerance for risk?” asked Sohee Jun, manager of organizational development, during a recent WBHive planning meeting. “We know pockets of the studio like tech ops are starting to do it. But we want to blow it up and take it to the masses.”
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