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What NERCOMP Innovators Can Learn from Hollywood. Keynote presentation by Scott Kirsner at NERCOMP 2008

Notes from: “What NERCOMP Innovators Can Learn from Hollywood”

A podcast of this general session is available at

Scott Kirsner, Columnist for the Boston Globe, The Future of Video, Tech and Innovation spoke on the topic of innovation. 

Abstract:  Technology innovators sometimes expect that users will embrace new ideas and new tools with open arms. In reality, most innovations are met with hostility and indifference, and it can take a lengthy campaign to persuade organizations to change the way they work. In an illustrated spin through Hollywood history, journalist and author Scott Kirsner will demonstrate how innovators like Pixar, George Lucas, and Bing Crosby (yes, "Mr. White Christmas") have changed the movie industry while facing enormous resistance. He'll also describe the three kinds of people that exist in every organization and some of the key reasons people tend to rebel (or go into a shell) when confronted with a new piece of technology.

Key message of this talk:  Innovators always underestimate the importance of persistence and making the right connections.  It’s not just about a better mousetrap.  Innovators need to have advocates and early adopters.

Kisner referenced a recent CIO Magazine “The Year Ahead” conference where the focus was  on 1) “users are adopting the new technologies and then we have to figure out how to respond and provide/manage it and  2) and, given all of the infrastructure we have to manage/maintain,  how do we carve out money for innovation?

He did a quick audience survey with the following questions:

1)  Is you’ve ever introduced a new technology or technology service, please clap.  The room was noisy with clapping

2)  If you’ve faced resistance introducing technology, please boo.  The room was loud with boos.

3)  If you’ve been to the movies, please clap.  Nearly everyone had been to the movies.

Kirsner went to SkyWalker ranch for a conference on digital technology where there was lots of show and tell but most of the actual discussion was around the issue of wanting to use new technologies but getting resistance from studios and cinema professionals.  He concludes that even if the technology is providing the “better mousetrap” and people should use it, there will always be resistance to it.

Film Industry and Technology Advances

In comparing IT to the movie industry he noted the tension between innovation and status quo. (preservationists)  His accompanying story was about Eastman and Edison inventing movies together – with Eastman’s flexible film and Edison’s camera.  He described Edison’s Kinescope with 30 seconds of “peep” film in B&W (1894) which was exciting, not because of the subjects of the films, but because of the new technology.  When they moved to films for groups they didn’t think there would be a market so Edison originally opposed this move.

When sound was added, the “you ain’t heard nothing yet” line from Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” proved that dialogue, as well as music, was powerful.   He noted that Irving Thalberg, an MGM executive, said “sound is a passing fancy” after seeing the film.

Kirsner noted that all of these new film technologies were Rube Goldberg contraptions in the beginning.  People were trying to innovate with what they had and could imagine.  The first Vitaphone records for the sound were only good for 20 plays, then they got too scratched and had to be replaced.  This was about the time that standards became important to the industry and the standards built around the technology that first added sound to film is essentially still being used today.

Technicolor came next.  A group of MIT graduates created their headquarters and film processing lab in a railroad car that they then took to wherever a film was being made because there was so little interest.  These founders of Technicolor got in touch with Douglas Fairbanks and convinced him to try it for “The Black Pirate” It was a terribly expensive process at the time and Fairbanks later said he wouldn’t make another because of the fragility of the process and the cost.

Walt Disney was very captivated however and had the animators change his “flowers and trees “ Silly Symphony to color in 1935 which led to Jock Whitney, a wealthy playboy, funding Technicolor and pushing for the novel “Gone with the Wind” to be filmed in their 3 color process.  This was in 1939.  It used very rich colors and this tipping point for color in the movies.  It took time to find the right backers and advocates for the technology which is the standard today.  “Color by Technicolor” improved box office receipts by 30-40% .   Color films competed with color TV.

Other technologies were tried but not all stuck.  Vincent Price made “The Tingler” the only horror movie to star a lobster as the beast.  They put a vibrating buzzer under some of the seats in the audience.  These went off when the beast was in shown on the film.  It wasn’t high technology but it worked but not well enough that we still have buzzers on the seats.  The mantra became that these needed to be fun and provide experiences we don’t have in our regular lives.

Home video had its original seed when Bing Crosby convinced NBC to move from live shows to taped shows.  The first video process recorded only 16 minutes of bad video.  Other companies began working in this arena and Jack Valenti argued against the new video technology and the Japanese companies that made VCRs by saying that the VCR was to the American film producer and the American public what the Boston strangler was to a woman at home alone.  Eight years later video revenues surpassed ticket sales.

New filmmaking tools have also been resisted.  Film editors like the personal Movieola editing machine esp. because of the physical experience of using it.  The screen was only for the editor to look at and was his own private kingdom.  When George Lucas and others moved to computer editing where lots of people could provide input and the editors felt they lost control.   There were a number of seasoned editors who vowed that they were never going to use electronic editing.  Users are ever resistant to change.

Kirsner said you need to find and work with the early adopters.  Ed Catmull, a founder of Pixar wanted to use computers to make animated features.  Lucas gave them a place to work for a few years and then sold Pixar to Jobs for $5 million. The early images were fairly crude, and they definitely weren’t up to the standards for Disney but Disney missed the speed of the progression of the new technology.  Now everyone wants to work with Pixar.

Lucas was tricky.  He wanted to do special effects and use digital cameras.  There was some digital work in the Phantom Menace.  When he wanted to go all digital and there was resistance, he asked them to identify the differences in the Phantom Menace but they could not and lost their arguments.  There was the issue of making the Sony cameras “look” like the old film cameras in order to make the cinematographers happy.  Lucas apparently said when confronted with something new, preservationists come up with all of these reasons why it can go wrong and they don’t come up with any reasons why it is the right thing to do.

The new technology now is, of course, YouTube.

Past the film industry history Kirsner offered the meat of his presentation.

Innovators, Sideline-sitters, and Preservationists

In Hollywood and every established industry, there are three kinds of people

  • Innovators
  • Sideline-sitters
  • Preservationists

In different situations the same person can act in different ways

  • Edison and projections
  • Spielberg and digital cinematography
  • Lucus uses legal pad to write screenplays not word processing

Kirsner says innovators typically don’t spend enough time understand and addressing the factors that cause folks to resist change

  • Too busy
  • Too expensive
  • Not reliable
  • Doesn’t integrate into work process
  • Concern about losing control/authority
  • Attaching to tradition and heritage
  • Fear and more

Innovators always underestimate the importance of persistence and making the right connections.  It’s not just about a better mousetrap.  Innovators need to have advocates and early adopters.

Closing quotes from the film industry

When I walk into a cutting room where there’s film hanging from the racks, it smells like victory.  It’s also tactile.  I can pick it up and look though it.  I look at it as a talisman of my forefathers – Steven Spielberg

What haven’t you done yet?  That’s the only interesting thing to be doing.  That’s what gets me up in the morning – James Cameron

Kirsner will provide free ebooks of “Inventing the Movies” or “The Future of Web Video by writing Kirsner at  See


Q  How do we decide which technology is important? 

A  Think about what speaks to you.  Think about how it really might be a solution.  For example:  when you have that gut feeling that it will work to do something.

Q  Purists/perfectionists - do we need to think about this fourth set of folks?

A  They are always looking for absolutely the best that matches the “original” but not actually helpful in getting the technology moving forward.  More important is the role of the experimenters.  Things won’t get better without them.

Q  Are there technology dead ends that didn’t pan out?

A  “The Tingler” buzzer technology didn’t last.  3D didn’t at first but may be back.  Cinerama - 180 degree panoramic was hard to shoot to make it look good. It was interesting but killed by expense and complexity.

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