Scott Ross: iacc-DeTao interview

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Visual effects guru Scott Ross is one of the most significant Hollywood players of the last 25 years with the companies he has run winning 12 Academy Awards and producing visual effects for a string of blockbuster hit movies.  In June 2014, Ross officially signed with DeTao in Shanghai, marking both his intention to bring his vast expertise to China, and a significant development in the Chinese film industry.

iacc-DeTao’s Chris Colman took a few minutes to get his take on the state of the visual effects industry and where China fits in it, the Chinese movie business, and what has brought him over here in 2014.

Why is China interesting to you?

I see China as the great opportunity of the 21st Century. Lots of people back in my parents’ and grandparents’ days talked about coming to America from Europe because they thought the streets of New York were paved with gold. That was the line. It was the land of opportunity and China is that example of the 21st Century.  So given my background, my expertise and my age I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to transfer my knowledge and my skills to a land that could really make a difference.

How have you come to be with DeTao in China today?

I was contacted about 9 months by Professor Robin King, who I sort of knew through Sheridan College over the years. You know, the visual effects and animation industry, if you’re old enough, goes back – it’s a small group, maybe several hundred people back in the 80s.  I guess he knew of me and I knew of him, and through DeTao’s interest in pulling together people who are preeminent in their field, Robin contacted me and asked if I would be interested in being involved.

As you see it, in what state is the movie business in China currently?

Just like everything else, birth is an interesting process. It takes labor and there is a lot of blood and guts and ultimately a child is born. I think we’re in the birthing stage in China right now.

One of the reasons I’m here is to try and help to shed some light on the way it really works – the way it really works in the film industry and the way it really works in Hollywood.  I want to help enlighten the decision makers in China not to make the same mistakes that other burgeoning financial countries have made over the last 2 or 3 decades – like the mistakes the Japanese, the Germans and the Koreans had made – and really understand Hollywood and not be taken advantage of.

 

“The power behind the industry is not the big towers and the logos of the major motion picture studios. They’re just the financiers and distributors…The powers of the industry are the men and women that create stories and make stories – the actual filmmakers.”

 

What were the mistakes that were made?

Let’s take Japan as an example. The Japanese, with the great financial resources that they had during the bubble years, the late 1980s and early 1990s, also saw the entertainment industry, as so many others have, as an opportunity. But they missed the understanding that the power behind the industry is not the big towers and the logos of the major motion picture studios. They’re just the financiers and distributors. What they should have realised is that the powers of the industry are the men and women that create stories and make stories – the actual filmmakers.

Since nobody really knows how to make a great movie, 3 things happen in Hollywood.  They first look toward technology to solve the problem. Good movies are not about technical issues, they’re about story. Story issues are critical. If you have a great story you have a great movie. If you have a great story with great technical prowess, you have a hit movie. So because creativity, and what makes a great movie is so elusive and there’s no tangible way to judge it, technology becomes a way to judge things.   What has happened in Hollywood, and I think to an extent in China, is that if there are certain technical aspects to your moviemaking, then you think that that’s the reason that you had a hit.

For example, my experience was, when Avatar was released in China and it became a monstrous hit, the Chinese film industry said ‘ah, Avatar is a hit because it’s 3D and it’s CGI. So now let’s make 3D and CGI movies and we’ll have hits.’ You couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason Avatar was a hit was because Jim Cameron crafted an incredible story with incredible art and he had great 3D and CGI. 3D and CGI on Avatar was the icing on the cake. It wasn’t the cake. The cake was the creative storytelling and the heartfelt nature of the movie. We’ve seen lots of movies that are very expensive that have lost a lot of money because there was no story.

Secondly, film financiers continue to go back to the well, to the same old folks that have made movies in the past that were successful, to make successful movies in the future, and sometimes that’s just not the case.

The third thing that they do is they say ‘no’. In Hollywood, if you’re a salary man and you’re making decisions about what movies to make, it’s a lot easier to say no to a project than to say yes. Because if you say yes to a project, you might not make a good movie, in which case you could get fired. By saying no, you save your position as a development executive.  If I say ‘yes’ there is a likelihood that I will fail. And if you do say yes, you’d better say yes by having Steven Spielberg direct it, and Vilmos Zsigmond shoot it, and Industrial Light and Magic do the visual effects because, if it fails, I can then go to my boss and say ‘well I had Steven Spielberg’, in which case I can still keep my job.  There’s a lot of fear in Hollywood.

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How will these lessons reach the financiers and the decision makers here in China? Is it inevitable that China will develop into a worldwide moviemaking power?

I think the Chinese are different, and that’s the reason why I’m here. I also think DeTao is a perfect example of why they will make it. As opposed to, let’s say, what the Japanese did, which was to buy Universal studio or buy Columbia Tristar, it seems that the Chinese on the whole are not that interested in going in and buying existing companies because you can’t control them and you’re just the bank.

On the other hand, one can’t say ‘I’m just gonna go and make movies’. If you want to be a global media player, you have to make movies for a global marketplace. Chinese movies are not global movies. DeTao has reached out to world class global players to infuse their knowledge, their expertise and their creativity into the Chinese culture.

 

“My dream has always been a collaboration of cultures.”

 

What would you like to see happen?

My dream has always been a collaboration of cultures. I’m a jazz saxophonist and my hero is a jazz saxophonist by the name of John Coltrane.   He’s like god to me, the greatest saxophone player that ever lived.  One day, John Coltrane was at a supermarket. He walked in and he had his jazz saxophone strap around his neck. The woman at the checkout counter who was taking his groceries looked at him and said ‘ah that’s interesting, what religion are you?’.  He said ‘I’m a devout jazz musician’.

I love that concept – the concept that, as filmmakers, we can all be devout filmmakers as our religion, as our culture. And it doesn’t make a difference if you’re a Chinese filmmaker, a Japanese filmmaker, a French filmmaker, American. We are now a global community of filmmakers with a global audience. That to me, oversteps any nationalism of who you are by your face, your creed or your color. It says, I’m an artist and I make movies for the world.

I’ve heard some filmmakers say ‘China has 1.3bn people, we don’t need to worry about the rest of the world – we can make stories and movies just for our own market’. How would you respond to that?

I think that’s a mistake. The days of setting up borders for a country where your countrymen and women only get to see your content – those days are over. There’s a thing called the internet, and there’s international distribution. There’s a reason why Avatar and many Hollywood films have done so well in China.

Chinese films are interesting and yes, you can do very well in the Chinese market by making Chinese films. But they will not be the number one films in China, because there are so many other films from around the world. I think the Chinese population will desire films that are global, because they are part of the global community. 

At the Beijing International Film Festival this year, Oliver Stone said that ‘most co-productions are bullshit, they’re just about money’ no matter what filmmakers, directors and financiers say. What do you make of that?

I think Oliver is right. I’ve known Oliver for years, he’s a very interesting guy. But I think what we’re not considering is time. This is an evolutionary process, not revolutionary. We’re seeing the evolutionary process of China and Chinese film becoming intertwined with a global filmmaking community. It’s not going to happen overnight.

What’s attractive about China to the West for studios? Money.  The Chinese have a lot of money and, seemingly from the Wanda Group, willing to spend it willy-nilly.  Hollywood, particularly corporations, has been very good at sucking up other people’s money for their own purposes.  I don’t think screenwriters think that way. Studios think that way because they are not run by filmmakers, they are run by business people – MBAs and corporate CEOs. They’re public companies that have to answer to their shareholders. I think that a lot of those folks see China as a bank that supplies capital to them making their films.

I think the kinds of films that China and America are going to have to make as co-ventures need to address both the Chinese market and the rest of the world market as well.  It can’t be just ‘we’re a Hollywood movie, we’re going to make a Hollywood movie and we’re going to just use Chinese capital to do it’. From a financial point of view, if the Chinese lawyers and business people are smart enough, hopefully they can put together contracts that are attractive enough to see their return. But my experience has been that Hollywood will never allow that to happen. You will just be treated like money, and not be involved in the process and maybe you’ll be invited to the premier.  That’s been the history of Hollywood.  That’s why I suggest that the Chinese film market not go down the traditional Hollywood path, and instead go below that corporate studio structure and work with filmmakers not with studios.

Oliver Stone also said that filmmakers here will not be able to compete with their counterparts around the world because there isn’t the right creative culture in China.  There isn’t freedom of expression and filmmakers can’t be truly honest in their filmmaking, especially on subjects like Mao and the Cultural Revolution. How would you respond to that?

Again, we have to think of things in time. We talked about the birth of a child. Let’s get the child at least up and toddling and walking forward, and then let’s talk about their creative ability.

It’s the responsibility of the most senior people, the top level officials and top level Chinese creative people, to understand that it’s a problem. We need to open the youth culture up to be able to feel that they can fully express themselves without retribution.

The exciting part about it is that China changes so quickly, it so easily adapts. I was here in 2010, and here we are 4 years later and it’s a different China. So if the people on top really set their minds on changing that narrative and changing that culture, I think the growth will be geometric, not arithmetic. It will just explode.

 

“It’s the content that’s important. It has no depreciation schedule. We’re still seeing the Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind or Star Wars today. China needs to make that leap into understanding that content is king. Content will live on.”

 

We talked earlier about China and whether they can become a global visual effects player. Does China really want to compete on that stage?

I think China thinks it wants to be a visual effects player, and it gets back to that comment of ‘if you don’t know how to make good films, at least you know how to do good technical’.

I think China is using old world models by the outsourcing concept. China has obviously built an incredible amount of wealth in this period of time by doing outsourcing. Foxconn is an unbelievably wealthy company, but it just manufactures stuff. So I pick up my iPhone and it says ‘Created in Cupertino, California, Made in China’. That’s got to change. It’s got to say ‘Created in Shanghai’.

That’s the transition that an economy has to make. If it just says it wants to be outsourcing for visual effects, the bad news is that the manufacturers of visual effects in America and Britain and New Zealand that would be doing the outsourcing – they don’t make any money. So you’re taking work from somebody who doesn’t make any money, therefore you won’t make any money. So why are you doing it? Is it sexy? Yeah, it’s sexy. Is it interesting? Yeah, it’s interesting. Is it technically challenging? Yes. But it’s not a business. The business is the creative side.

If China goes down the path of wanting to build great visual effects companies, it’s going to do it on the backs of price.   Why would Hollywood use a Chinese visual effects company? Because they’re good and because they’re cheap. And they’re going to have to be cheaper and cheaper and cheaper and cheaper and it’s a swim to the bottom.

But if that same group, the people that create those visual effects and animations also can create content – different story. I think China has an issue with intellectual property (IP) that it has to overcome. The ephemeral nature of IP is something that’s counter-intuitive to the Chinese and the Chinese culture. Again, that will change. Bricks and mortar and workstations and people and factories and real estate – that’s been the culture of China over the last 20 years and that’s where value is placed.  But in future, the buildings, the land, will not be anywhere as important as what comes out of people’s head. It’s the content that’s important.  It has no depreciation schedule. We’re still seeing the Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind or Star Wars today. China needs to make that leap into understanding that content is king. Content will live on.

Let’s look at Industrial Light and Magic, for a long time the world’s powerhouse for visual effects. And then look at Pixar, which was part of LucasFilm at the time. ILM and Pixar had very much a shared genetic DNA. The men and women that worked at Pixar and at ILM were very similar. The value of ILM today is probably one thousandth of Pixar’s. Pixar creates and owns content. ILM is just a services company. It’s a manufacturing plant – a great manufacturing plant, but just a manufacturing plant. Wouldn’t you rather own Nike, than the plants that make the products in India?

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This time last year you made a presentation with Scott Squires at NAB where you talked about the state of the visual effects industry and how it has come to be where it is today. You concluded that talk by saying you were optimistic about the future. Have you seen any changes for the better in the past year?

Last year at NAB when I spoke with Scott Squires I was hoping that things would change because I was looking for the foundation of an international trade association in visual effects that has not come to pass. The reason is hasn’t come to pass is, frankly, because of great fear amongst the companies that if they step out and say ‘we’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore’, that they will be blackballed and not be given any work. So things have not gotten any better. In fact, things have continued to decline.

So the end to subsidies that you discussed in that presentation is still not close?

The subsidy war continues to go on. Actually, we see Canada, which was 35% in Vancouver, now bumped up to 40%. We’ve seen Montreal and other entities and states continue to come online, and I think ultimately in some period of time things will implode. Because the taxpayers will say, ‘wait a second, why am I spending my tax money on allowing motion picture studios to make movies and we see nothing as a result of it? What about my fire department and my police department and my roads and my schools and education for my kids? Shouldn’t that be where my tax dollars are going?’ And I think it’s a situation that is going to come to light and people are going to start to get really upset about it.

Did you foresee this coming when you sold Digital Domain in 2006?

Oh, I wish I could say I saw this coming. No, I’m not prescient and I didn’t see it coming. I’m just really lucky that I got out when I did.

What drove you to first start Digital Domain?

The motivation to start Digital Domain was that I was really frustrated running my divisions over at LucasFilm because I was working for a man who, in my opinion, didn’t really understand the industry. And I didn’t have access to George Lucas enough, who did understand the industry. George had separated himself from the company at that period of time. In the years that I worked at LucasFilm, I might have had 5 or 7 meetings with George and I didn’t really get to work closely with him.

It was at the time where companies were being founded and there was a lot of entrepreneurial spirit, particularly in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay area. I thought to myself, since I’m running this organization and I’ve been making these decisions and we’ve been relatively successful and the employees support and believe in me, why not start my own company? That was the basic reason for it.

When you look back over the years that you ran Digital Domain, which are the projects that you feel most proud of?

The most difficult project and the most famous was obviously Titanic and I’m proud of it. Wherever you travel in the world that has stayed on my shoulder. Even last night I went to a party here in Shanghai, and I was introduced as the guy who did Titanic. That’s the moniker that I get to carry.

But it’s not the project I had the most fun on by any means, and it’s not the project I’m most proud of.  Interestingly enough I think it was an earlier project – Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. One reason is that Ron Howard is a prince amongst princes as a director. Another is that Tom Hanks is maybe the nicest working man in Hollywood, and the project is about dreaming and doing things that were extraordinary. It wasn’t about blowing people up, or aliens from outer space who are going to eat our guts – it was a film about courage and hope and passion and thinking outside the box. That really rang true with me.

We’ve talked recently a lot about Ed Catmull’s book Creativity Inc. and the way he’s run Pixar. He talks about mental models, which help directors and producers think about and make more manageable the process of making a movie. Do you have any mental models that you found useful when working on a movie project?

I hate to say it, but making a movie is like fighting a war (laughs). There are enemies at the gate. There are people that are constantly trying to second-guess you. There are people that are constantly trying to battle you. You have to know who your friends are and who your enemies are and if you know who your enemies are you need to treat them in a way that’s almost nicer than you treat your friends. You know the old adage that you keep your friends close and your enemies even closer.

Also to quote Lao Zi – you have to know that if you’re going to fight a battle that you’re going to win it. Don’t fight a battle that you’re not going to win. You have to know when to make the right choices and don’t walk in without enough power to make the choice that’s really critical to you. At times you’re going to have to give a little to get a little. Make sure you understand what you want when you walk into the meeting so that the things that you give aren’t as important to you but they are important to the person that wants them. I’m a pacifist but it really is like fighting a war.