Does the 'film' industry exist anymore?
Tom Burns
Issue: April 1, 2016

Does the 'film' industry exist anymore?

From its earliest beginnings in the 1880s, to cutting-edge all-digital blockbusters like Avatar that transformed the industry, motion pictures ultimately have the same end goal after all these years: to tell great stories. At EMC, we’re passionate about helping our customers and partners in the media industry to create and deliver those stories — working closely with film and broadcast studios, visual effects and post production houses, as well as content distributors. Thanks to the pioneering technical advancements that are re-defining the industry, the film and post production business has never been more exciting! 

In fact, one of our customers, Jon Landau, a producer, COO and partner at post production house Lightstorm Entertainment, recently stated on our EMC Pulse Blog  that “there’s no such thing as a ‘film industry’ anymore,” given the evolution of companies like Lightstorm to become 100 percent digital. “Nobody works on film anymore…,” Landau writes. In this environment, storage workflows, technologies and infrastructures are also evolving to help organizations more efficiently manage, secure and share their data with global partners and teams. 

And Lightstorm Entertainment isn’t alone. Based on numerous conversations with our customers, we’ve identified some macro trends that are significantly impacting how and where storage solutions are being deployed in the media and entertainment space in order to meet demand for an increasingly digital industry. For example: 

The world is getting smaller

Increasingly, major studio productions are turning to “follow the sun” production techniques and using production talent across myriad global locations such as Singapore, Thailand, India and China. To support these collaborative efforts, studios and production houses need a robust file-based pipeline running on global networks supported by enterprise-grade storage meeting MPAA-certified security practices. 

In Australia and New Zealand, companies such as Weta Digital, Animal Logic and Luma Pictures are working globally with production offices located locally and in the US. This capability helps them win the big contracts for blockbuster CGI sequences. This places additional demands on the storage infrastructure, such as easy replication, fast file transfers and global MPAA-audited security domains.

VFX and post teams are working more efficiently

It’s easy to argue that a higher number of creative iterations yields a better product. However, many studios are working hard to rein in production costs for their tent-pole productions; against the backdrop of shrinking budgets, production and post companies are under pressure to do everything faster.

Today, feature and episodic production resemble nothing so much as “agile” software development, in which a series of creative sprints produce the next iteration of the program. We are seeing VFX and post production talent increasingly maintaining a virtual presence in the production office, rather than in separate facilities requiring the post supervisor to shuttle between locations to approve sequences. This keeps the creative editorial, producers, VFX artists, colorists and finishing artists tightly coupled to the production office, with common engineering support to quickly diagnose and solve workflow issues. High-speed (40-100 GbE) data links and shared storage platforms enable this trend.

Distributors pressed to meet demand for anywhere/anytime viewing

Consumers have shown they want to watch their media anywhere and anytime, resulting in “avalanches” of deliverables for distributors. For digital cinema, this can mean more than 400 different versions of a movie to be made and tracked; packaged and broadcast media requires 100 or so versions each, and each streaming title needs more than 200 packaged versions due to the range of codecs, packetization schema and bit-rates required to make a title available to all potential streaming viewers. Further, for a “Day & Date” release (simultaneous worldwide theatrical, DVD & online availability), all of these versions need to be kept online for revisions until the last possible second, resulting in a huge storage outlay for a traditional post facility. 

Managing this capacity growth is the #1 issue at post production facilities. This drives the trend towards tiering to less-expensive, on-premise storage, as well as using private cloud storage, especially when more than one geographic location within the company can efficiently utilize the private cloud (for example, to “park” projects while waiting for funding).

Content providers are transforming into “entertainment service providers” 

The enterprise IT tools and architectures that allow efficient service delivery in the IT space are being applied to the media space, especially in the area of software-defined storage and software-defined networking. Below are a few ways that innovative content providers and artists are changing the way they distribute and market their offerings: 

- Content providers are selling direct to their customers: One example is actor/comedian Louis CK’s distribution of his comedy specials, and recent online series Horace and Pete, to his fans via his own website for between $2 and $5 per episode.

- Analytics for media fueling second screens: Analytics are now being used to mine scripts, scheduling and budgetary information from the production documents. Crunching that metadata informs both programmatic advertising and recommendation engines, and allows shopping and advertising data to be embedded within a show to feed a second screen experience. 

- Successful movie franchises are leading to virtual reality theme parks, helping to leverage the creative investment in VFX. Not to mention that immersive displays based on LED walls require very high resolution — often over 12K. 

So are the days of movies shot on “film” a dying breed? Not necessarily. There will always be tent-pole pictures with star directors who convince the studios to pay for film. But the cost advantages and efficiencies of a 100 percent digital pipeline will certainly win out in the long-term, especially as artists and studios alike continue to embrace new models for distribution. 

Tom (T.V.) Burns is the CTO of Media and Entertainment at Hopkinton, MA-based EMC Corporation