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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

"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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