Special treat for you today. To celebrate the release of Beowulf, we have a special interview with Joshua Greer, Real D’s President and Co-Founder, along with Elizabeth Brooks, Real D’s Chief Marketing Officer.
They share with us their stories of how Real D came to be, and their predictions of the future. Very exciting stuff!
MTBS: Joshua, let’s talk about you a bit before we talk about Real D. Among other things, you were the CEO of Digital Planet where you helped bring movie studios into the Internet world for the first time by helping establish their web strategies, President of the New Media Group at Digital Domain, and prior to being the President of Real D, you were the Co-Founder and Chief Convergence Officer for Walden Media. You strike me as being a serial entrepreneur. What general criteria made these businesses personally exciting for you?
JOSHUA: The most consistent thing that has driven my career is the implementation of innovative technologies for creative purposes. The challenge is that the entertainment establishment typically doesn’t want to change the way they do things, it doesn’t breed innovation – though there are exceptions. This is why I typically end up staring new ventures that attack from the outside rather than within. It’s typically faster.
When I worked at Universal I created a little interactive marketing kit on a floppy drive for the movie Sneakers. It was still a pretty crazy idea back then to market to people through a computer – but for some reason I couldn’t leave it alone! It drove me nuts! It was so obvious! Soon we would be using computers for everything. But it was hard to get traction inside the studio. I started Digital Planet shortly after that.
MTBS: Tell us about Walden Media. From what I can tell, they position themselves as a company focused on turning literary classics into cinematic masterpieces. As you co-founded it, fill us in a little on Walden Media’s history.
JOSHUA: When Cary and Michael first asked me to join, it was conceived as an educational website, which we quickly evolved into a interactive education-based television channel. The idea was always to try to engage, enlighten, and inspire kids.
We were Empower Media at that point and beginning serious discussions with cable channels when we met our future financier Phil Anschutz. He was busy buying up theater chains in the US (Regal, United Artists, etc.). He wanted us to refocus our energies on creating positive educational content for his theaters. It wasn’t long after Phil invested in us that we became Walden Media and within a few months we met James Cameron.
MTBS: “Co-Founder and Chief of Convergence”. “Convergence”…it almost has a 3D ring to it! What was the significance of that phrase at Walden Media?
JOSHUA: I was always looking for ways to “converge” various technologies to allow for more interactive and immersive experiences. First with the web, then interactive TV, then Digital 3D. When we starting getting into 3D I found out that “convergence” has other meanings in the 3D world, but it was a totally serendipitous discovery.
MTBS: The Chronicles of Narnia, Holes, Charlottes Web, and…what’s this? James Cameron’s IMAX 3D documentary Ghosts of the Abyss? DO TELL! What was your role in making that 3D movie a reality?
JOSHUA: We financed Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep, as well as a lot of great content including Holes and the Narnia Series. Cameron was really the guy who first introduced me to modern 3D. Probably the most significant thing I did at the time was build a first crude digital 3D projection system to help sell the movie. I also interfaced with Earthship productions, Cameron’s documentary company.
MTBS: What were the biggest lessons learned from financing that movie?
JOSHUA: I became somewhat of an expert on various ways to show 3D as well as a bit of the history. I also was consuming a lot of information about the early Digital Cinema Projectors and possible companies that could help make digital 3D a reality.
MTBS: 3D movies have been around long before James Cameron, why did this suddenly excite you?
JOSHUA: It’s hard not to get swept up in Jim’s enthusiasm for the medium. But I was frankly still a skeptic. I wasn’t sure how to actually pull it off – or for that matter, what exactly I would do.
I met my future business partner Michael Lewis around this time, and we started talking about 3D. He had produced two great 3D films: “T-REX and SIEGFRIED AND ROY” and “THE MAGIC BOX”. We both believed that the 3D experience when done correctly was superior to anything else in cinema, but the costs and the lack of screens made it very hard to figure out a business model that worked.
MTBS: During the development of the movie, you came to a realization about the problems of it getting distributed. Can you elaborate?
JOSHUA: It’s simple, we had James Cameron, one of the world’s greatest directors making his first film since the blockbuster Titanic. The only problem at the time was there were only about 60 screens in the US where it could play. Considering a typical movie release goes out to 3000 – 5000 screens, we calculated that we could probably make our money back in about 15 years. The answer: GET MORE 3D SCREENS!
MTBS: How did Walden Media react when you wanted to pursue this stereoscopic 3D concept with them? Why did they react this way, and what steps followed?
JOSHUA: I actually proposed that we make this a venture. The problem was that with Anschutz’s investment in the Cinema chains, they didn’t want to make any investments in Digital technology without studio support. It also was not really in line with Walden’s mission. I had been speaking with Michael Lewis and decided to go off and explore what I could do. Walden let me go with their blessings.
MTBS: Now Elizabeth, you studied “Mass Communications” at Emerson College. I studied “Communications” at Concordia University and I tell people that’s why I talk a lot. I?m sure Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message” has been beaten to death in your schooling days too. In your opinion, if stereoscopic 3D is the medium, what’s the message? How is the message different from traditional two dimensional TV and movies?
ELIZABETH: The message, and medium, is fairly revolutionary in that it is actually a new way for consumers to see. So 3D enhances all forms of communications as well as inspiring creative people to come up with new ways of telling stories, or showing reality. Next-generation 3D is so real that is it unprecedented.
MTBS: Tell us about your work as a marketing and talent development executive. I understand you worked with “underground” artists. What did you do, and what were your biggest challenges getting raw talent artists from point A to point B?
ELIZABETH: My job, basically, was to find artists with a fresh vision – saying something that hadn’t been said, bringing a new sound – and then to help them gather the tools to make records that would best embody their art.
Getting the word out was and is always the hardest part. At the time there was not a truly viable Internet network to build a band up from scratch, although people were certainly using the Web to discover music, so touring was crucial, and probably the most difficult thing was that without radio play it was virtually impossible for an artist to survive the major-label environment.
It was always a marketing challenge: defining the audience to fit the art, and communicating the art properly so it could find its audience.
MTBS: You worked at Napster! The famous peer-to-peer software program that got the music industry all fired up! I used to work at Hotline Communications, another peer-to-peer several years ago – let’s share stories! What did you do for Napster, and how did you get involved with them?
ELIZABETH: I was the head of marketing for Napster and one of its very early employees. I thought that the company would be a game-changer for the industry, for artists, and certainly for consumers. I joined Napster because I saw that promise, and because after years of looking for the “next big thing” in music, it became apparent to me that the next big thing in music was technology.
MTBS: Having worked in the music industry up close, were you surprised that they came down on Napster as hard as they did? Why or why not?
ELIZABETH: I was not surprised at the lawsuits; I was surprised that so few industry leaders truly “got it” early on. There were a few, probably more than people imagine, who wanted to make a deal with us to create a paid and licensed service of some kind, which was our end goal. However, a few was not enough. I think with 20/20 hindsight, it is clear that the labels should have purchased Napster and learned how to work with a system which their consumers clearly wanted.
MTBS: As a marketing professional, what lessons did you walk away with from that whole experience?
ELIZABETH: The whole world of consumer marketing has changed with the web. The “digital consumer” makes the rules, essentially, and dictating how they are going to consume media, for instance, simply doesn’t work. I was the beneficiary of one of the first crystal-clear examples of that happening. I had the privilege of “owning” a brand that was seen and beloved by millions, and understood the subtlety and nuance of brand management that way.
I also learned how to work fast and smart on a shoestring budget, became more adept at handling high-pressure PR and legal situations, and probably most importantly developed “grace under pressure”.
MTBS: You’ve been a Senior/Executive Vice-President at a lot of places. Buy.com, GoTV, and BMG Music to name a few. I think that taking on a senior role in companies like these requires a personal commitment and a realization that the company meets certain criteria that makes you excited enough to jump on board. What excited you about these companies? Did they have a commonality?
ELIZABETH: You are absolutely right. I love working with leading-edge technologies, especially those which result in the creation of a consumer experience – make that a personal experience. I also love working with the kind of people who are drawn to create or to work with these technologies. It’s not just a job, it’s a mission, and that makes, for instance, the craft of branding much more exciting. All of the places you name had creative people trying to push the boundaries. That’s the best way to work, whether it’s a twenty-person company or a 20,000 person company.
MTBS: You clearly have a strong career path in the music industry and related online media. Real D seems extremely different from your previous career choices. What attracted you to the company? Why the big change in industries?
ELIZABETH: It’s really not so different. Everything I said about leading-edge technologies applies to REAL D, and, like Napster or mobile content or a music company, REAL D creates technology which culminates in a consumer experience. It is an experiential, narrative, fun, and cool brand. It’s a fast-growing company, leading the market in a very talked about space.
I am at heart a brand marketer, and I’d be hard-pressed to find another brand today which offers such a richness of opportunity to take an incredible experience into the marketplace. So, in this light, it makes perfect sense.
MTBS: Ok! Now we can talk about Real D! Let’s talk about Real D stereoscopic 3D technology. How does it work?
JOSHUA: A good 3D presentation involves sending slightly different views of a scene to each eye. The brain then translates the differences in the images as depth. Delivering each image as cleanly and clearly as possible is the key to a great 3D presentation.
REAL D actually produces multiple ways to see 3D. The system we use in the cinema is called a “passive circular polarized” system. It involves a single DLP cinema projector, a specially formulated silver screen, and a number of optical and digital technologies that work with the projector.
The projector actually takes the left and right images and alternates them back and forth, 6 frames for every 24th of a second. We have a technology that polarizes the light in a way that matches our eyewear. When a left image comes up, a device in front of the lens polarizes the light in a “left circular” format. Then the right eye image appears and the device changes to “right circular” light – back and forth 144 times a second! The image bounces off the silver screen (which preserves the polarization of the light) and then is “decoded” through either the left or right lens in our eyewear.
MTBS: How does the Real D solution differ from already existing polarized S-3D solutions found in theme parks like Universal Studios and Disney World?
JOSHUA: We use circular polarized lenses and digital projectors. Most of the theme parks use film projectors and linear polarizers – much like it was done 50 years ago!
We are targeting this product as the ultimate add-on to a digital cinema system. It’s designed to switch back and forth between 2d and 3D in about a second. It’s also designed to be able to view 3D for much longer periods of time.
MTBS: When you developed the Real D theater solution, what criteria were you looking to fill?
JOSHUA: Very high quality presentation, easy to operate, cheap to deploy. But it starts with a great image.
MTBS: The Real D solution is an add-on to existing projectors. There is also a silver screen requirement. There have been criticisms raised that exhibitors don’t like silver screens because they are expensive and they aren’t as good as traditional white screens for 2D content. Is there any truth to this? Why or why not?
JOSHUA: Several theater chains have gone on record that they have no problem with silver screens. We have also done extensive presentations for many communities within the film industry. Most consider it a non-issue.
MTBS: Are there advantages to silver screens that haven’t been well publicized?
JOSHUA: Because of the light properties, images often have better contrast and saturation. There is also a significant energy savings using silver screens. Since the screens reflect back more light you can run your 2D presentations at lower power. This typically translates into about $1,300 a year in energy and bulb savings, as well as stopping about three tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.
MTBS: Does Real D actually sell movie theater equipment, or is there a different business model at work here? What are the advantages for exhibitors?
JOSHUA: The business model for the Cinema group is based on a lease. We did this because we were concerned that the technology would continue to evolve and we didn’t want to leave our customers with obsolete technology. With our model, our customers know they get ongoing upgrades as well as ongoing support. Typically we come in after they have purchased their digital projection system. We then do the upgrade.
MTBS: From a marketing point of a view, is the silver screen part of the bundle, or is it a separate expense?
JOSHUA: Depends on the deal. We have tried to be as flexible as possible with our exhibition partners. We vary the model depending on how much capital they can afford to invest up front. We want to make it so everyone can have the experience.
MTBS: Let’s talk about the glasses. You chose to go with a disposable glasses system rather than a more durable pair that lasts for several movie showings at a time. Why did Real D go in this direction?
JOSHUA: It really comes down to operator cost. As soon as you add collection, cleaning, inspection, etc. you are adding labor to your operation, not to mention the real-estate and the water and power. Also, since the cost of reusable glasses are more expensive, if someone leaves the theater with a couple of pairs you have lost your profit for the show!
We wanted to make it as easy as possible for exhibitors to operate. The glasses are treated as souvenirs, they can take them home, or they can drop them off in one of our recycling bins. We will collect, clean, and if necessary recycle every part of the glasses.
MTBS: “Seinfeld” had a great episode where he was forced…er…”hired” to be a movie bootlegger and shoot movies with his camcorder for sale on the street. With YouTube and Peer to Peer online networks, this problem is even more prevalent than before. In addition to offering a visual benefit and a potential ticket sales boost, is there an additional business interest at work here by showing movies in S-3D?
ELIZABETH: Of course there is an advantage to rendering pirates virtually helpless. We are huge supporters of content creators and are glad to offer a situation where their rights are well-protected.
MTBS: Elizabeth, when you came on board with Real D, I’m sure you researched the industry. It’s had its share of ups and downs, and you took a risk to jump on board from a completely different industry. What convinced you? Why do you think S-3D is going to be such a success this time around?
ELIZABETH: Well, first of all, if you look at my history, apparently I have a high risk tolerance! That said, while I am a huge film fan, I was not a huge fan of 3D before I came to REAL D. Like most people, I thought of cardboard glasses and anaglyph technology.
When I saw the depth and realism of the experience and what it could lend to virtually any cinematic or other experience, and when I saw how the company has established market dominance, I thought about 3D completely differently. I researched extremely thoroughly, I know this is a superior technology, and I have total confidence in REAL D. I believe that this is 3D that everyone can love. If you think of it as simply adding depth to the screen rather than as a special-effects gimmick, it is truly revolutionary.
I have shown REAL D 3D to a myriad of people from different disciplines and all you have to do to “get it” is see it. People from all walks of life leave the theatre converted.
MTBS: Congratulations on the Real D premiere of Beowulf! How did it go?
JOSHUA: It was amazing! Although I had been working with the filmmakers for over a year and had seen many shots, it was the first time I got to see the whole film. It was a great experience – it is truly the best realized 3D film ever made. It was very gratifying to see the audience cheer the 3D and really enjoy it.
MTBS: Can you describe the movie theater experience? What did the audience do at this showing that they normally don’t do in traditional theaters?
JOSHUA: We typically get a cheer when our bumper first appears on the screen. But Paramount’s logo and all of the opening sequence really fired the audience up. After that, you kind of just have to hold on and experience it. It’s a pretty intense movie. Very different from the other (children’s) films we have done.
MTBS: When moviegoers left the theater, what did they talk about more, Beowulf, or seeing Beowulf in 3D?
JOSHUA: I think anyone who sees this in 3D is going to recommend seeing it that way. Eventually we (and others) think that it will be the only way to see films….
MTBS: Thinking back at your experience with Ghosts of the Abyss, how will Beowulf’s 3D movie theater distribution look in today’s market? How available are Real D theaters around the world?
JOSHUA: It’s a totally different world now. We have the beginnings of a real deployment of digital cinema. As these systems enter the market they can all be upgraded to REAL D. Right now we have 1,100 screens with 70 exhibition partners in 24 countries! Not bad, considering our first screen deployed 2 years ago!
MTBS: Real D and other S-3D movie theater outfitters are laying down the groundwork for the content makers. Beowulf is coming out in S-3D this month, Dreamworks Animation promises that by 2009, all their releases will be in S-3D, and there is general excitement all around. Is this enough? What puzzle pieces do you think are critical for our industry to succeed?
JOSHUA: We need more digital projectors, more 3D cameras, and a blockbuster hit. More projectors so we can get more 3D turned on. We need more cameras – live action is still a lot harder and there are really only a few companies out there that make decent rigs. We probably have 20 to 30 really good 3D rigs. We probably should have around 200. A 3D blockbuster will get the final naysayers off the pot and everyone will be making 3D films.
MTBS: How are creative artists being informed and educated about S-3D?
JOSHUA: It’s actually quite easy. We bring them into our screening room and show them our demo reel. Rarely does a creative person come out of that without being inspired to try it.
It’s too early to write the book on how 3D should be made. When we talk to these artists, we stress our role is to provide useful resources to properly arm themselves – and we have seen a lot of different interpretations on how to produce 3D. We often talk about who will make the Citizen Kane of 3D – meaning who will crack the cinematic language for 3D in the 21st century.
ELIZABETH: REAL D starts with movie fans, of course, and those who are passionate about the ways in which movies are made. Then it spreads to the general public. This is happening pretty rapidly, and Beowulf is certainly a huge step forward in that process. Again – you see it and you want to see everything in REAL D. So, there is a similarity in engaging passionate early adopters to evangelize something game-changing which is of the highest quality.
MTBS: I know you work in the movie industry, but I think you will agree that there is a strong link between the movie industry and the video game industry. With S-3D taking off in home solutions from iZ3D, TDVision Corp., Mitsubishi, Samsung, and more, do you think that the video game industry will suddenly look like it is standing still or behind the times if it doesn’t adopt S-3D alongside the film industry? Do you see a customer demand pressure building from the growth of S-3D in the movie theaters spilling over to the home markets in video games and consumer entertainment?
JOSHUA: What’s interesting is how closely video games and animated films are to each other. Both face the same challenges with 3D. Both are essentially created in a 3D world but the 2nd eye is lost.
GPU companies like nVidea can already take that 3D data and output a pretty good stereoscopic image – but 3D animation released in 2D often has cheats. Is that mountain range really a model, or a matt painting? You don’t notice it in 2D but when you go 3D it sticks out like a sore thumb.
The video game industry is going to have a very similar education curve that the film community is going through right now. Long term, 3D changes the experience for all entertainment. It will take a few more years but no doubt all displays will eventually be able to show some sort of 3D experience, and we expect to see new forms of 3D experiences – not just movies and games, but concerts, sporting events – the list goes on and on.
MTBS: A key selling point behind S-3D in movie theaters is that it will drive ticket sales. At-home 3D solutions are popping up too through 3D HDTV, PC monitors, head mounted displays, projectors, etc. A few years down the road, let’s work on the premise that these technologies are well adopted by consumers. Do you see them as friend or foe, and why?
JOSHUA: Ultimately it’s a friend. The film business has relied on the home ancillaries for over 50% of their revenue. If they can see a similar model emerge for 3D, then we will most likely see more content produced. Also as good as their monitors are starting to get, they still do not compare with the size and experience of a movie screen.
MTBS: I ask this question of all my interviewees. If a genie appeared and gave you any three things to help your industry, with the exception of thousands of theaters using Real D systems, what would they be?
JOSHUA: Complete adoption of Digital Cinema, 25 more directors committing to making 3D content, and give me another 25 hours a day to work….
ELIZABETH: There’s a joke I would tell here, but it’s too long. I’ll go with Digital Cinema adoption, the willingness and imagination of creatives to do new things with 3D (like alternative content and live action), and for everyone to experience a truly great 3D-intended production in REAL D.
MTBS: Elizabeth, maybe I can get you to tell that joke in your next interview! Elizabeth and Joshua, if there was a single message our readers could walk away with from this interview, what would it be?
Joshua & Elizabeth: GO SEE BEOWULF IN REAL D!
Well, I know I’m going to be seeing Beowulf this weekend for sure!
A follow-up interview is planned. Post your comments and questions HERE!