Ireland at the dazzling intersection between Hollywood and Silicon Valley

1 Oct 2012

ITLG president John Hartnett and Irish actress Sorcha Macari at at the ITLG's Innovation in Entertainment event at Sony Pictures Studios on Thursday night. Photo by Chris Ryan, Views of the World

It is 2012 and as the future of Hollywood is increasingly linked with that of Silicon Valley, the impact of the Irish and Irish-Americans on these two iconic centres of industry on the US west coast became strongly apparent last week.

At the iconic Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles last week, the birthplace of Columbia Pictures, luminaries from Silicon Valley mixed with a diverse plethora of technology talent and rising screen stars and other creatives.

As I took in the historic sites and sounds around me amidst Oscar telegrams to John Wayne, a commemoration of Columbia co-founder Harry Cohn and props from the sets of movies like Men in Black III and Total Recall, it was apparent the kind of impact young Irish people are having in Hollywood.

As executives mingled with stars, Disney vice-president for technology (Client Relations) Una Fox was leading the first CoderDojo to be held in a Hollywood Studio. As Sorcha Macari arrived in from location to help co-host the ITLG awards on Thursday evening, her fiancé Colin Devlin (of The Devlins) revealed to me how he’s working hard on building his musical career in Hollywood and Kevin Ryan who co-stars in the popular BBC America drama Copper said he was looking forward to filming season 2 of the show in the coming months.

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The first CoderDojo to take place in Hollywood. Photo by Chris Ryan, Views of the World

“Almost all the success of Hollywood is due to Ireland and the Irish-Americans,” George Bailey, chief transformation officer and group executive of Sony Corporation told the crowd, recounting the key role played by Irish people in movies like Mutiny on the Bounty, The Wizard of Oz and The Quiet Man to the roles of actors like Liam Neeson, Peter O’Toole, Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster.

Bailey also noted the current US presidential race: “Paul Ryan’s family came from Tipperary. Joe Biden’s mother is Kathleen Finnegan. And of course the most famous ‘Irish’ of all, Barack Obama, has deep links to Ireland.”

Bailey also revealed how the rate of innovation evolving from the technology world will reveal new challenges and opportunities for the technology world and the entertainment world.

Reminding the audience of the old Sony Trinitron TV sets, Bailey took the audience past developments in HD and 3D to the latest TV breakthrough, 4K.

“4K promises incredible picture clarity. At 8m pixels, it has four times what you get with even the best Sony HDTV and transforms the viewing experience. It is really immersive and reminds me of the first time I saw HD – you can’t go back. Sony has an 84-inch 4K TV with 10 speakers and incredible 3D. To play a video game on this is positively frightening. If you play Uncharted on this you will be scared.”

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Sony’s George Bailey on Thursday night at the ITLG’s Innovation in Entertainment event at Sony Pictures Studios, Los Angeles. Photo by Chris Ryan, Views of the World

Bailey also pointed to advanced camera technology, such as its F65 camera which with was used to shoot After Earth with Will Smith, the first movie to be shot entirely in 4K. “Seventy-five per cent of the 4K films you will see will be seen via a Sony 4K projector as Sony has 75pc of this market,” Bailey said.

Bailey also demonstrated the new Sony Wonder Book technology, which involved the tech giant collaborating with UK author JK Rowling to bring magical worlds to life using the latest camera technologies.

Bridging Silicon Valley with Hollywood

ITLG president John Hartnett said the Irish Technology Leadership Group – which was recently selected by the Obama administration as the ideal template for linking nations’ diaspora with the US – was focused not only on bridging Silicon Valley with Ireland but also bridging it with Hollywood at a pivotal time for both the technology and entertainment industries.

“With the shift to cloud computing and the shift to mobility, the worlds of Hollywood and Silicon Valley have come together in a very strong way.”

Outlining the investment activities of the ITLG through Irish Technology Capital, Hartnett explained that the fund has invested so far in 10 Irish and Irish-American companies, including MCor, which has revealed the world’s first 3D colour printer.

Another new investment by Irish Technology Capital has been in Pirate Eye. “This company has developed a fascinating new technology to help the movie industry, which is so challenged by piracy. The last mile in the battle against piracy is in the movie theatre and Pirate Eye has created technology to counter this. So in terms of linking entertainment with technology we are putting our money where our mouth is.”

NBC producer Chuck Labella, who has worked with our own Zig and Zag and Podge and Rodge in Ireland to producing top US shows including Bronx Bunny and Kings of Late Night, as well as four seasons on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice, Last Comic Standing, as well as talent producer for the History Channel’s Top Gear USA, also took to the stage.

Labella revealed that a chance meeting at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin led to the Vertu luxury phone being the main phone used on The Apprentice. “Brendan Morrissey took out the device and asked me how I could get it into the hands of Donald Trump. I told him to invent the Trump Phone first.”

Labella, who is in Ireland three to four times a year, said Ireland can be a powerful force at the intersection of entertainment and technology. “If it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.”

To prove his point, it is worth noting that top global TV show Game of Thrones by HBO was largely shot in Northern Ireland.

Some 250 executives from companies like HBO, 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney Studios, Sony Pictures, Dreamworks, AT&T and NBC Universal came to see the Hollywood 50 list of Irish and American executives honoured on the night.

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Philip Campbell from Inlifesize picks up the Gaming award from ITLG president John Hartnett. Photo by Chris Ryan, Views of the World

It was equally fitting that before this powerful audience two young Irish technology companies were honoured for their impact on technology and entertainment. Inlifesize picked up a gong in the Gaming category. The company’s Fairy Magic iOS apps technology was created by a team that has worked on games and movies for Electronic Arts, Sega, Glu, Disney, Lucasfilm and ILM. Previous work includes blockbuster games James Bond, Tomb Raider, The Godfather, Heavy Rain, Contract Killer and the creatures of Harry Potter and Avatar.

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Cathal Furey from 45 Sound picks up the Entertainment award from ITLG president John Hartnett. Photo by Chris Ryan, Views of the World

45 Sound, a new online venture led by Cathal Furey that aims to revolutionise how we listen to concerts and gigs from our favourite bands and artists online, picked up a gong in the Entertainment category.

Spotlight on the future of media and entertainment

The night finished with a spirited debate – “Who’s in Control? The Creators or Consumers?” – which was moderated by BBC Worldwide’s Robert Nashak. Panelists included Irish gaming entrepreneur Dylan Collins, chairman of Fight My Monster and who sold Demonware to Activision for an estimated US$17m; Nanea Reeves, chief operating officer of Machinima; Gerard Johnston of HCL; and Laird Malamed, former chief operating officer of Activision. The panel also included Marcus Beer, NBC4’s games guru, a freelance writer and an opinionist who goes by the handle @AnnoyedGamer on Twitter.

“I am pretty sure this generation of kids growing up going are to be the most disruptive generation we’ve ever seen in entertainment,” Collins told the executives. The reality, he said, is as challenging for games makers like himself as it is for traditional media. “The kids themselves are making their own games. In a few years time we are going to see the first multi-millionaire 14-year-olds.”

Collins cited the examples of Irish kids Jordan Casey and Harry Moran, 12 and 13 years old respectively, who are the youngest iOS and Mac app developers in Europe.

Reeves backed up Collins’ point: “We have kids making hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Machinima videos they create for YouTube. One 18-year-old kid who was working last year in McDonald’s has made enough to buy his first house.”

Collins pointed out that that if anything, “kids are becoming less inclined to be consumers of media – they want to participate in that media.”

The spirited debate proved if anything the challenges faced by Hollywood in a digital, mobile-connected world are dwarfed by the opportunities if executives are astute and ambitious enough to act fast.

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Freelance writer Marcus Beer; Machinima COO Nanea Reeves; Fight My Monster chairman Dylan Collins; Gerard Johnson of HCL; and Robert Nashak, executive vice-president for digital entertainment and games at BBC Worldwide. Photo by Chris Ryan, Views of the World

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years