Dan Birnbaum, an entertainment executive currently with Dolby Laboratories and formerly with Technicolor and Disney, spoke to interns about the importance of looking ahead to stay on top of today’s rapidly changing industry.
Birnbaum finished his undergraduate at Northwestern University with a film major. His interests always lied in the intersection between film and technology, and he found a match with visual effects. At the time, 90% of the visual effects industry was based in Los Angeles, so straight out of college he made the bold move West. He got his feet wet at Hammerhead Productions, a privately owned digital production studio specialized in computer graphics and feature film visual effects. He fondly looks back on his days as an inexperienced worker walking the sets of one of his first films Sky Captain World of Tomorrow, fascinated with this new world. After working on more movies such as Alvin and the Chipmunks, Birnbaum started to see a shift in the movie industry: it was chasing tax credits outside of California. Movie production costs were cheaper in places such as Albuquerque, Canada, and India, and there was no decrease in the final product’s quality. So what production company wouldn’t choose to move away from the states?
Knowing that he wanted to stay in Los Angeles, and in the entertainment industry, Birnbaum knew he couldn’t stay in visual effects; he wasn’t willing to compromise for either. That’s when he decided to pursue an MBA at UCLA Anderson School of Management. He had already met a lot of people in the entertainment industry, so he had a greater leverage in terms of networking—one of the key facets of a successful businessman. Straying away from working directly on films, he took advantage of working on Disney’s post production crew. At this time, Disney was spending 30 to 40 million dollars on movies that weren’t bringing in enough revenue at the box office. This was the start of a trend we still see today: a pivot towards big blockbusters and a move away from smaller, independent films. Ever notice that at theatres, nowadays, you see more of Spiderman and less of When in Rome?
Simultaneously, advancements in technology were paving the way for more changes in the film industry. Dolby Laboratories came up with a much needed solution to reduce tape and, later, film reel hiss. With all the studios jumping at the chance to increase their sound qualities, Dolby was making a lot of money. With their patent, anyone that wanted a digital soundtrack had to come to them. One of their latest inventions, Dolby Atmos, is a new audio format that creates and play backs multichannel movie soundtracks. Tracking up to 200 objects with speakers placed all over the room, Dolby Atmos allows for a full, high quality three-dimensional audio atmosphere. It’s sound like you’ve never heard before.
Shortly after technologies such as these were introduced, Birnbaum joined Dolby’s Content Solutions team. There, he strategizes about which movies should be released with Dolby Digital. Currently, Dolby Cinema is at AMC theatre in the U.S., but it is a lot more prevalent in China and is in the process of expanding to Europe. With other innovative and entrepreneurial minds, Birnbaum works together to look for new uses of Dolby technology…VR and AR application? In cars? Just for music? Can there be a system where each seat hears a different sound without being disruptive to the driver?
As for how virtual reality is going to change the film industry, Birnbaum doesn’t think it really will. A movie is a passive experience with someone telling you a story as you just take it in. With virtual reality, however, the experience is so enveloping you can get exhausted; that’s why you hear of people vomiting all the time. Although he doesn’t think that virtual reality has much of a purpose in entertainment, he believes there is a future for it in real world applications. For example, for power plant workers, the ability to foresee dangers before they inflict harm would be a huge advantage.
Reflecting on his career thus far, Birnbaum emphasizes the importance of looking ahead. After seeing the trend in the film industry, he acted fast and decided to move away from the more creative side of movie production.
“For most people, whether it’s the market that changes or whether you just hate what you’re doing, it’s important to always come up with a plan.”
Everyone wants to stand out, and with more and more people achieving higher levels of education, people want to know what it takes to rise to the top of an industry. Birnbaum advises:
1. Have a a good work ethic: There are always going to be people ahead of you, so just be the best you can be in the stuff you have control over.
2. Network: Talk to people outside of your company. You never know when that random person at that career fair could help you out, or that random person’s friend’s friend.
3. Cease the opportunity: Just say yes.
4. Be confident: Whether he or she is right or wrong, the loudest person in the room tends to get the most attention. Birnbaum admits that he is more reserved, but he encourages people to speak up more!
“Think where you want to be in the next 5 years, the next 20 years. Put out feelers on where else you want to be headed, and do a lot of informational interviews. Always try to be 2 or 3 steps ahead of everyone else because it’s becoming a lot more cutthroat with everyone vying for the same jobs.”