20th Century Fox CEO Jim Gianopulos is mostly a fan of digital technology.
For starters, digital advances have made it possible to recreate the visions of top filmmakers like Ridley Scott, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg on the big screen.
“One of the most profound aspects of my career is being able to see over the years how much technology has transformed our industry,” Gianopulos told HPE CEO Meg Whitman and an audience of thousands at the vendor’s Discover conference this week.
“For great film makers and storytellers, it’s really been transformative. There’s no longer any limitation on their imagination and their creativity. They can now project their most incredible, creative inner vision onto the screen for the rest of us to experience.
“[But] we find that we always have to push the boundaries and limits of technology in order to continue creating amazing storytelling.”
Fox earlier this year laid out plans to push boundaries around the three sequels of 2009 box office hit Avatar using digital technology.
Sequels are planned for release in December of 2017, 2018 and 2019 – and they will be accompanied by an “immersive digital experience” for Avatar fans that Fox, the film’s producer and technology partner HP believe will be a world-first.
”This digital experience will connect all aspects of the Avatar franchise to make it easy for our fans around the globe to really engage with our world and its themes and, if they want, become part of the story,” producer Jon Landau said back in June.
Gianopulos believed this type of fan engagement would become more common around forthcoming films, particularly those in his stable.
“Fan engagement now exists that extends before and after the theatrical experience, especially with franchise properties which allow a continuum of content, connection and dialogue separate from the individual film properties,” he said.
“And various social platforms provide a great opportunity for us to have an ongoing direct relationship with the consumer.
“A few years ago that wouldn’t have been possible but it’s enabled – especially by our partnership with HP – increased access to consumer analytics so we can follow [film fans, for example] from one Planet of the Apes movie to the next.
“We remain connected to our consumers and engaged with them in a way they enjoy.”
Gianopulos sees the film industry’s embrace of this direction in digital technology as not being too far removed from its general predilection for technology.
“Digital technology has changed the creative process,” he said.
“It has allowed us to eventually make films – and there are many other examples at other studios of course – that otherwise aren’t feasible and really couldn’t be realised at the same level until technology caught up.”
For Gianopulos, Avatar is a prime example of a film idea conceived well in advance of the technological advances needed to actually make it.
He recalls James Cameron coming to his house for lunch “after we did Titanic”.
“He brought this envelope and gave it to me and said, ‘When you have a chance, read this’,” Gianopulos said.
“I said, ‘What’s this about?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s a treatment I have and I have some ideas and at some point we should do it’.
“I said, ‘Why can’t we do it now?’ And he said, ‘Well it’s not ready yet, I haven’t finished writing it.
“I said, ‘Well, what’s it about?’ and he responded, ‘Well, it’s about technology that allows humans to inhabit genetically-formed alien bodies and we work and live among these alien species on another planet’.
“I said, ‘Well that sounds cool, why can’t we do it? And he said, ‘I haven’t really figured out how to do it yet’.
“And that was about five years before we started on Avatar.”
It wasn’t until advances in both CGI and performance capture occurred that Cameron’s vision could be realised.
“The challenge really was … the facial capture that he achieved with Avatar,” Gianopulos said.
“You could see the emotion and nuance of the actors’ performances coming through in the humanoid form. And that was a truly great achievement”.
The film’s photo-realism was also important. Gianopulos said he still gets questions about which jungle was used as the basis for the environment. The answer, of course, is none.
“There’s not a single blade of grass in that film that’s real,” he said.
“So Avatar’s an example of an incredible imagination in that filmmaker that was realised only through the years of advancement of technology that allowed it to be possible.”
The flipside to digital disruption in the film industry is that securing IP assets is increasingly challenging.
So while digital has in part made the film business possible, it has attacked it in other areas.
“Protecting our content has always been top priority,” Gianopulos said. “But we do lose a lot of economic value to piracy.”
Ry Crozier attended HPE Discover 2015 in London as a guest of HPE.