Hollywood's Top Innovators: 21 People Shaping the Future of Entertainment

7:00 AM 5/14/2020

by THR staff

From the team that made the cross-network 'One? World:?Together? at? Home' broadcast possible to the director who cut production costs by acquiring a high school, THR spotlights the boundary-pushers? reinventing how content is created, developed and distributed.

The Mandalorian - BTS - Publicity - H -2020
Melinda Sue Gordon/Lucasfilm Ltd
  • Rob Bredow

    As the head of visual effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic, Rob Bredow is usually greeted each day by a welcoming statue of Yoda perched atop a fountain at the studio's headquarters in San Francisco's Presidio. But like everyone at the company, Bredow has been working from home since March 17 after a nail-biting race to set up the VFX studio's staff to work remotely during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

    Bredow, 46, admits that some ILM projects are on hiatus but notes that others are staying in production despite the lockdown. He won't offer specifics, but ILM's slate includes such high-profile titles as Disney's Jungle Cruise, Universal's Jurassic World: Dominion and season two of Jon Favreau's Disney+ series The Mandalorian, which employs cutting-edge virtual production technology to seamlessly meld CG imagery with live-action production techniques.

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  • Annie Chang

    The blue that a cinematographer sees when filming the ocean can look different from the blue that a viewer at home sees when watching those waves crash in a movie. Chang aims to change that. The co-chair of the Motion Picture Academy's Science and Technology Council is leading one of its most vital initiatives, the rollout and continued development of the Academy Color Encoding System, a standardized tool to manage color across production and postproduction.

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  • Paul Debevec

    The latest lighting techniques from Google senior scientist Paul Debevec — also an adjunct professor at USC and a past co-chair of the Motion Picture Academy's Science and Technology Council — uses a 360-degree Google light stage and controllable LED lighting. "This could be used to record actors in 3D," he says of the type of system he initially used at USC for the making of Gravity. "You can put them into any scene, in any lighting, from any angle, even after you've filmed their performance. You just focus on getting the performance right and worry about where the camera goes and how to light it later."

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  • Carla Engelbrecht and Andy Weil

    Even before the 2018 debut of Netflix's first big interactive programming swing, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the architects behind it knew they would need to find a way to top the hit project and thus prove that the format wasn't just a one-off gimmick. "What can we do that's just as impactful, but feels different?" Engelbrecht remembers asking Weil over breakfast at Netflix's 13th-floor cafe a few months before the Charlie Brooker film was released, generating significant buzz and garnering two Emmys. The answer soon became clear: an interactive Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt special, now set to debut May 12.

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  • Jon Favreau

    Before November 2019, there were certain unspoken truths about stories told in the Star Wars universe: They have a Jedi, a galaxy in peril and a sweeping sense of scope. But when Favreau's The Mandalorian premiered on Disney+, the series did something unusual — it told a small story in the vast world George Lucas had created, about a lone bounty hunter who takes a job that leaves him tending to a child with special powers. The first live-action Star Wars series, it became the linchpin of Disney+'s launch, a must-see show that helped drive the service to more than 50 million subscribers.

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  • Jeremy Garelick

    After building a career as a writer-director with credits like The Wedding Ringer, Garelick was weary of the bruising nature of the studio system. "It's a miracle when a movie gets made, and I was tired of waiting for a miracle," he says. Working to produce two R-rated high school comedies at a major studio, Garelick couldn't get traction. But that process did yield an epiphany: "Wherever you go, high schools are all the same. You need a gym, classroom, teacher's lounge and a cafeteria." With research, Garelick discovered that shooting two high school movies back-to-back and employing the same crew could cut below-the-line production costs by one-third. If he did three, he could halve them. So, he googled "high schools for sale."

    That's how he found A.V. Zogg Middle School in Liverpool, New York, a small Syracuse suburb where the tax rebate on below-the-line production costs is 40 percent. Built in 1928, the school closed in the 1980s and was converted into an office space and, later, a church. It didn't take long to find backing: Mickey Liddell and his LD Entertainment wrote a check. Garelick purchased the school for $1 million and opened American High.

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  • Ben Grossmann

    Grossmann wants to marry the physical and the digital, exploring what he describes as a mirror world — a "connection between a physical place and a digital copy of that place, so that it becomes accessible to anyone, anywhere." The VFX vet is one of three Oscar winners who founded L.A.-based Magnopus, which has been innovating in areas like VR, AR and AI. Combining these opens up the potential to create what he calls a "new kind of movie theater" or other immersive environments. 

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  • Joe Inzerillo and Jerrell Jimerson

    Inzerillo and Jimerson were nearing the next phase in their global rollout of Disney+ when the novel coronavirus shut down everyday activities throughout the world.

    The duo, responsible for the technical infrastructure and product experience for the high-priority new streamer, already had brought Disney+ to the U.S. and Canada with a successful (albeit a tad glitchy) November launch, which garnered 10 million sign-ups in one day. But that was just the beginning. By early March, they were working at what Inzerillo calls a "breakneck pace" to launch Disney+ in eight more countries, including the U.K., France and Italy. "We knew we were going to be deploying quickly, faster than anyone had done it before," he says. (It took Netflix several years to launch in those same markets at the dawn of streaming.)

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  • Geoff Keighley

    Since its inaugural outing in 2014, The Game Awards has managed to more than double its audience every year at a time when traditional awards shows are posting record lows in viewership. In 2019, the sixth annual show hit a record 45.2 million global live streams.

    Keighley took a risk by eschewing traditional broadcast for digital distribution when launching the December event. He also strayed from the usual awards show format by premiering game trailers, giving the stage to publishers for big announcements in between handing out trophies. The result is a show that draws a dedicated audience of millennial and Gen Z viewers. The former Spike TV host shares his five-point plan for keeping young audiences engaged year after year.

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  • Kim Libreri

    A VFX vet who worked on The Matrix, Libreri knows a thing or two about bringing tech capabilities to filmmaking. The chief technology officer of Epic Games helps Hollywood find applications for its real-time gaming engine, Unreal, used by the likes of Disney and Jon Favreau for The Mandalorian (and to develop the smash hit game Fortnite). As an example, the Oscar nominee (for his VFX work on 2006's Poseidon) cites Unreal's multi-user capability as a tool that can bring disparate departments together to continue producing projects during the current shutdown.

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  • Matthew Peltier and Steven Galanis

    Launched in July, Community connects fans via SMS messaging to public figures like celebrities, politicians, even COVID-19 experts. The thinking is that a text message — even one sent to thousands of people simultaneously — is far more likely to grab someone's attention than a tweet or IG post. "North America is all about text messaging," says Matthew Peltier, Community's 29-year-old founder and CEO. "It's an intimate place where you talk to friends and make plans with family. We knew we needed to play in that sacred space."

    Community isn't the only company using existing tech to rethink the fan experience. Many have by now caught wind of Cameo, an online marketplace where 30,000 celebrities — some, like the Howard Stern "Wack Pack," in only the loosest sense of the term — peddle personalized video messages to fans for special occasions. The videos can run from $20 for a TikTok performer to $75 for a bespoke greeting from Dillon Passage, husband of incarcerated Tiger King Joe Exotic, to $550 for a birthday wish from Charlie Sheen. Choosing the price point is left to the talent. "We don't want them coming to us and saying it isn't worth their time," says Cameo co-founder Steven Galanis, 32.

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  • Jesse Redniss

    While Redniss primarily oversees data strategy and privacy at WarnerMedia, including for the coming streamer HBO Max, he also manages the WarnerMedia Innovation Lab, a 20,000-square-foot Manhattan facility that will serve as an incubator for content and tech. Though its May opening has been delayed, Redniss says his team is already exploring everything from volumetric capture, a type of 3D scan that could increase the realness of digital depictions, to how social distancing will impact experiential activations. "We really want to push the boundaries of how you can bring in the tactile components, hearing, seeing, smelling," he says.

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  • Michael Robin

    Michael Robin was three days into directing the 21st episode of CBS' freshman legal drama series All Rise when the world suddenly stopped. In the days that followed the industry-wide production shutdown amid the novel coronavirus, the industry veteran worked with editors via Zoom in an attempt to salvage what he could, but, with only 18 minutes of useable content for the ultimately scrapped episode, began thinking outside the box. With CBS in need of content to fill newfound programming holes, Robin looped in fellow executive producer Len Goldstein to see if the sense of human connection he was feeling over Zoom editing sessions could be parlayed into a full-length episode of the courtroom series starring Simone Missick.

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  • Eric Shanks and Steve Myers

    On March 13, two days after the NBA announced it would suspend its season amid the coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR followed suit, canceling all future races. That same morning, Fox Sports' Eric Shanks contacted Steve Myers at game company iRacing about replacing real-world races with virtual ones.

    Within 10 days, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series debuted across Fox networks featuring 35 NASCAR drivers — including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson — using iRacing rigs to compete on virtual tracks from their homes. In a world devoid of live sports, the series has become a hit, with races routinely pulling in more than a million viewers.

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  • Doug Vaughan, Michael Cioni and Paul Chapman

    During the COVID-19 crisis, necessity has indeed become the mother of invention as Hollywood trades in meeting rooms for Zoom, sets for living rooms, cameras for smartphones and studios for cloud-based technologies. The last innovation is something that the team behind One World: Together at Home — the global broadcast and digital special that aired April 18 and raised $128 million for the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund — knows well. A centralized cloud-based production environment, provided by collaboration systems company Frame.io, allowed numerous players to work remotely — including a long list of performers from Lady Gaga to the Rolling Stones to Lizzo. Said to be the brainchild of NBC exec Vaughan, the One World production — involving four U.S. broadcast networks and international outlets like the BBC while produced in partnership with Global Citizen and the World Health Organization — evolved from an initial meeting April 1 to broadcast just two weeks later. 

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    A version of this story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.