David Womark, is an American Film Producer who has worked on over 35 films including, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Life of Pi. With Ang Lee and Gil Netter, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Life of Pi. Life of Pi was also nominated for multiple Academy, BAFTA and Golden Globe awards including Best Picture and Best Director and was an American Film Institute official selection for “Best Movie of the Year”.
David also served as Producer on Pete Berg's highly acclaimed "Deepwater Horizon" film: depicting the disaster in April 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil-rig exploded--resulting in the worst oil spill in American history.
In this part of the episode we talked about:
Algorithms behind a successful movie
How movies and technologies are merging together, how important is a technology for the success of a movie
Covid impact on film making and the future of film making in upcoming few years
The financial standpoint of any film making
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This is Silicon Valley Tech, behind the scenes, a podcast hosted by Shawn Flynn and Sunil S Ranka. Here's where we talk to the real heroes, to find out how decisions are made, and how they're executed to create the thriving businesses of tomorrow.
Showing things to people is a much better form of communication that's why we you know, you look at all the classes in your world, the tech lectures, jobs, gates, it usually hosts, the annual rollout of new hardware and software is done visually. So to me, I think that's the biggest thing is making sure that we're all communicating visually, because the visual communication has more unity in terms of understanding, whereas words we all know sometimes everybody looks at can look at things differently, I think, always having a visual element to any discussion for success.
Shawn Flynn 1:01
And this is Part 2 of our two part series with David Womark, who is an American film producer, who is nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Life of Pi. Now in Part 1, we talked about the similarities between tech and movies, David's journey into the Hollywood, and much more. But today's episode, well, I don't want to spoil too much for you so let's get right into the episode. Enjoy!
Sunil Ranka 1:28
So during when you take this journey, do you have an end product visualized already in your mind, or every step of the way you make the decision.
David Womark 1:37
I think, again, I'm going to use Ang Lee as a filmmaker, I think the great filmmakers to both they have a sense of where they want to go but they're open to opportunities, and to reel into nature into the organics of the organic elements of the process. Example, for many months in preparation and visualize the arrival of Pi in Mexico, which is the first time he puts us on land, almost like compared to eternity, almost like Jesus holding the rope and pulling this boat in through the water and the waves. Then he's walking through the waves with his last week of energy, but the location we chose, that was a perfect match to the actual Mexico location, even though the sun is very similar, never has waves. And in fact, a schoolmate, it tells because he has a hotel there, maybe if there's a storm, but usually it's just one to two feet so we show up that morning, and he's still hoping that the cinema gods are gonna give him waves, but there are no waves and he looks at all of us bases, his little handheld camera, and he did a completely different shot, which is the shot, that's a misnomer, it's probably a much better shot because it starts above the bow tie falling off, and you see his foot underwater on one shot and touch land the first time and it happens underwater, followed by him collapsing on the beach. So that's like a jazz player, that's somebody that goes sometimes you have to play jazz, you just can't play the notes because if you play the notes, you don't get the waves, or you have to do them with visual effects, and it's gonna look terrible. So there is yes, there's definitely a reactive part but I think that's in any product because you learn things as you go through. And you have to take that information and figure out how you achieve your goal, adapting. Nobody gets there, there is no even in between your products there's always revelations, correct me if I'm wrong.
Sunil Ranka 3:33
So very interesting analogy between the product and what you talked about the product we build. But we as technologists, have an abortion, do a very controlled release, release it to set of users, take a feedback and continue to improvise it in the form making.
David Womark 3:50
So the word improvised.
Sunil Ranka 3:52
Right! But in your case, do you have that opportunity where you can build make a film, do a controlled release, take the feedback, improvise it, Is that a possibility? You're saying?
David Womark 4:05
Film 2.0? Hmm, you know, it's a different process. But it's similar. What we will do, all filmmakers will do is once they have their first pot, what is called the director's cut, they'll bring it to the producers and they inner circle that they're comfortable with and then slowly you have to explain it to the studio. You're going to screen it to audiences, family and friends. So you're constantly along that journey, getting feedback and adjusting constantly. And then there are official test screenings that you have near the end of the journey where you can still modify things. So it's a constant journey of tweaking and modifications from that perspective. The only difference I would say is is our 10.0 is never followed by 10.1.
Sunil Ranka 4:53
Is there is any story where the film is fully done. And then you guys go back to the drawing room, say, man, you know what we made a mistake. I mean, we should have done it differently. But we are doing the same.
David Womark 5:05
I mean, I think it's like with an app, you can make a bad app and release it. And historically, it will be remembered as a bad app, you can give me some examples who probably have them. And they think it's the same thing with film, at some point, you have to determine that the product is done and there's only so much you can change. Let's use my favorite analogy, the audience, the viewer, versus the User Experience or User Interface. It's similar, you know, you can get a lot of feedback about User Experience and User Interface and we can do a lot of test screenings. But at some point, it falls in the hands of the audience, customer, and they decide they're the ultimate decision maker in any process.
Shawn Flynn 5:49
David had a question for you. I mean, here in Silicon Valley, investors will look at a product, analyze the market size potential, they'll look at the team and go, okay, what's their track record. Should I bet on them, and they, you know, calculate, by invest this much the likelihood of my return in this amount of time will be around this range? How do producers look at a script or an idea and make that judgment, this is something to invest in.
David Womark 6:18
I think it's interesting. I came up with an idea for an app a year and a half ago, that I'm currently partnered with, Fershido Mezzetta, who's the Ex head of Electronic Arts, Mobile Gaming, and Apps, $1.5 billion industry, little cottage industry. And what appealed to me about the idea of the app ended up appealing to him. So I think, in this case, it's a media assistant type app. And it helps you find content in a world of endless choices, and it's called Streaming, Strmim. But just to go back to the way I met Farshid, who grew up in the tech world, who still is involved with tech, and is built many apps, Sims and Simpson games, addressing the challenge itself has to be something you're interested in doing is my little understanding of your world, is that somebody identifies a challenge, or pain points, and goes well, there must be a smarter, better, or more efficient and more effective way of solving this problem through technology.
And I think if the problem itself is something that appeals to you, it's very similar to what we do in film. So it's the same thing too, if you have a story about a little Indian boy in a boat, and you discover at the end of this whole long journey, that you have your choice of either believing the story you saw was true. Or it was a master something else, or that both of these stories exist. It's something you get to choose, but you're attracted to it because you liked the idea to begin with. So I think it's very similar in that respect. Yes. You look at a story and you look at the elements of who's involved with it, actors, director, producer, studio, whoever's, what's the product, what's the story, what's challenged, executing, and it's very, very similar. I mean, if you think about it, every movie is a startup. It's one of the cons, you know, it's a start up with again, without a 10.1. It's not said, whatever that last version is that gets released. So we have some finalities, you guys have a little harder, because it can go on forever.
Sunil Ranka 8:31
So given one of the fundamental shift, what I'm seeing is nowadays, with the availability of stronger iPhone cameras, or any mobile cameras, plus availability of Netflix, or any Tik Tok, or any platform, right, that's eating the traditional business of the movie, because I don't need to wait till Friday. How do you perceive this whole industry changing over the years?
David Womark 8:57
I think first of all, the industry's already changed and that's why we're calling our Media System Streaming because conceptually, film and television are exhibition options. Now, everything is pretty much screens. It's streaming into the movie theater to digital streaming that you're watching on a different screen in different formats, so if you think of it in that context, then you're really have to look at the structure from professional just like sports, for example, professionally executed and produced material and material is done on the fly. And there's room for everything. I don't think either category threatens the other because there's so different, you know, Tik Tok with 100 million views, I don't think really is going to be a threat you top gun, to each a separate world. I think that's Reddits and this is one of the reason I got involved in this app is that we're now at a juncture where it's become very hard because of this proliferation thanks to streaming and decentralization, thanks to all the streaming companies and all the little fiefdoms that they've created, it's made it much more challenging for the user to find material that they want to give and a lot of the algorithms that the companies are using, apparently are financial algorithms and not necessarily user-friendly, but I like in everything in the tech business, I definitely seen that test probably the next challenge, the next level of viewing is making the viewer’s choice, let it have more and making it have more impact on the actual selection because right now we're kind of being told what to watch by visually putting things in front of us in the foreground, you know, to think about it the menus that dictate somebody times that's your first interface. Unless you're coming in with something, you know, if it's something you want to watch, and it's already a choice you've made, then it's simple. But I think most of us, when we choose content, or music, the whole point of it is, is to browse is to find something that.
Shawn Flynn 11:02
Even I couldn't agree more I had a conversation the other day with an individual about the algorithms just providing this data. And basically the conversation was he asked me if I'd seen his YouTube commercial that appears every moment on his feed. And I said, I'd never seen it and he's like, no, no, no, no, it's all the time, it's happened last 30 days and I said, no, it's not, it's not the algorithms that point that in my direction and we had this one of those moments, I was like, Oh my god! What's the data in that the movie industry uses, for the analytics to kind of feed in, because that decision process, I'm just so curious about the movie industry in that decision to make that movie are their surveys analytics, what's the algorithm that goes, this movie is going to be more successful, have a higher probability of success?
David Womark 11:51
I will quote, the easiest most famous poker is about the film business, and it applies to the television business as well and its William Goldman ventures in screenwriting, nobody knows anything. We don't know, we find out we discover, we try and put as many elements together but at some point, it goes back to what we were talking before about the user deciding, and the user will decide which app to play with which movie or television to stream and it's really up to you, so at some point, it does become the app developer, the producer, the director going this is a challenge, I want to address via this medium and I think that really is so parallel, because even in your business, you know, you can have 20 apps in the same arena and sometimes none of them battles, but sometimes one or two of them click and there's a battle to some of the last person standing or sometimes there's no battle, it just story gets continued, because nothing works yet. So it's very similar nobody knows anything, you go with your gut.
Sunil Ranka 13:03
So David, in this world of technology, how movies and technologies are merging together, how important is technology for success of a movie?
David Womark 13:15
I think technology has given the entertainment business, amazing access to users, and amazing tools and if you think of those two things, because they're kind of separate. Access to users, because it's now right, there's no limit. Pre-streaming, there was X amount of content to watch now it's, the cloud goes forever and there's streaming infinity of content. On the tool side, it's digital development, obviously. But it's also to go back to the first side, too, you have the marketing side, where now all of a sudden, you can, as a filmmaker, be more in touch with your audience, you can as a filmmaker, release little things along the way. Easter eggs, clips, you get it's a little bit like social media now so everything is kind of sold I think now on social media. So, I think technology has hopefully, once we figure out how to make the user's choices that are when they're streaming and less frustrating, has been a positive influence because more choices, more tools.
Sunil Ranka 14:20
So David, I think a few weeks back when we were initially talking you, you brought a very interesting point that Covid and filmmaking people are not able to meet social distancing is prevalent, needs to be, you know, observed. What do you see the future of moviemaking between now and next few months, or two years?
David Womark 14:41
In terms of what sorry, I lost the question in terms of what, Sunil.
Sunil Ranka 14:46
Ok, the Covid has fundamentally change the way we behave in a society, social distance is must. But when it comes to the movie making, you have to be close knit you have to work together as a team. Now with Covid been there social distancing is prevalent. What do you see of key changes? Or how do you see the filmmaking changing between now and next few years?
David Womark 15:09
I think filmmaking entertainment will be very much parallel to the rest of these industries where it will be step by step. Initially, lots of problems be solved by quarantine. So actors are comfortable interacting with each other, because that's the most important element, really, everybody has to distance themselves because they're not on camera, once you're on camera, you can't make an entire film with a restriction, social distancing, because it unless it's a movie about quarantine. But I did see as an optimist, you know, we'll look back at these days is another challenge and in a year or two from now once there's a vaccine, and it says we'll be doing the same thing we've done through almost 100 years.
Sunil Ranka 5:52
Beautiful! Like most of the small businesses got wiped out during this period, they are on the verge of bankruptcy. What do you see, from a financial standpoint? What are the impact of film making?
David Womark 16:04
I think the impact on the entertainment industry is very similar to sports and then business industry, where interactive workplace where people have to interact with each other in order to get the product. You can't completely do a film on zoom, although you could do poly via zoom film but for most films, that's not really a solution, it's a temporary solution and it restricts your options in storytelling. So, I do think our business, it's been much more difficult. It has been to the theme park, business and sports business. And let us not forget, most importantly, all the people that work in these industries really don't work remote and can't work remote so they're sitting at home right now with a double edged sword and that's why I think it's challenging right now to be a politician to be a leader because you have people sitting at home on the one hand, I need to go back to work, on the other hand, I want to be safe, myself and my family. I think those are very difficult decisions. I think everybody's dealing with, but I think people in the entertainment industry and it's a theme park or you know, it's going to be a lot harder that's why I think Governor Newsome has put us in Stage 4, to get amusement parks, I believe its Stage 3 but Film Production, Television Production, I believe is now Stage 4, of the reopening the last stage.
Sunil Ranka 17:25
God got it. This has been an entertaining so David, we asked this question to everyone.
David Womark 17:31
Sure, hit me.
Sunil Ranka 17:32
Anything which we did not ask you, you would love the listener to listen to any story which you fundamentally believed that I should be put out there.
David Womark 17:41
I think we hit I think we hit some good stuff. I can't think anything else right now off the top of my head that is. You know, sure. I'll say one thing, I'll say one of the critical.
Sunil Ranka 17:52
David Womark 17:53
I think one of the great opportunities is, producing life apart and working with that. Because beyond even the film itself it goes to the fact that the book, and the film, have a team of all stories can coexist and I think because of my journey of growing up in the Middle East, that was such an important aspect of the film that was important for me to be involved in and very proud of. And as we see now in the age of COVID-19, I think that's another tool that we can all use is that all our stories exist, and they can co-exist. I think it comes down to the word respects. Thank you guys.
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