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Warner Bros. eyes the future through its 'tech ops'

Warner Bros. is embracing high tech, including hosting Silicon Valley-style 'hackathon' events to spur innovation. Studio's program is unusual in an industry known for resistance to new technology.

September 09, 2012|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • Technology team members at Warner Bros. work last month in a "scrum room," where employees come together to work for several weeks at a time on specific projects.
Technology team members at Warner Bros. work last month in a "scrum… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

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.

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