SIGGRAPH 2013 Business Symposium
Karen Moltenbrey
July 11, 2013

SIGGRAPH 2013 Business Symposium

No question about it, businesses in the digital content realm – visual effects facilities, game studios, and animation companies – are facing tough times. And, tough times call for tough decisions. They also call for innovative thinking.

At the third annual SIGGRAPH Business Symposium - held on Sunday, July 21, starting at 8:30 am at the Anaheim Hilton (adjacent to the Anaheim Convention Center) - executives from businesses large and small will gather for this daylong, co-located SIGGRAPH event geared specifically for this group and will address the unique issues they face.

"The issues leaders deal with pertaining to managing a company that is successful in this space are very different from the issues facing technical directors and artists on the more 'traditional' SIGGRAPH topics, such as the latest in shaders or graphics technology," says Evan Hirsch, managing partner of Engine Co. 4 and chair of this year's Symposium.

The SIGGRAPH Business Symposium was started three years ago under the direction of Jill Smolin at SIGGRAPH 2011. At the time, Smolin had realized that many of the conference attendees were becoming more and more senior in that they were migrating from the production part of the business into management. So, their needs for SIGGRAPH were changing, and Smolin wanted to create an environment where these executives could work with one another and network.

"What better place to do this than at SIGGRAPH?" Hirsch asks. "The greatest thing about SIGGRAPH is that we have people from NASA, the US Army, the Navy, Disney, EA, Microsoft, Google, as well as smaller shops like Rhythm & Hues. No other conference can offer that. So Jill's idea was that we have similar problems in production, so let's find a way to help each other."

The goal in 2011 was to provide an environment where industry leaders and visionaries had the opportunity to network and talk frankly among themselves about issues so they can inspire one another. Now, three years later, Hirsch wants to provide a forum where these same folks can also discuss the disruption that is occurring in the industry and in their businesses, and come up with ways to innovate their own companies as well the industry. And the underlying fabric to this is the networking that will occur throughout the day and, likely, to continue well after the conference.

To that end, the second goal of the Symposium is to create a community where the executives can contact one another and bounce ideas off their colleagues and support one another and continue to discuss issues paramount to their companies. "There is a lot of talk in the press about trade associations, trade unions, and tax credits," Hirsch says. "A couple of things I am noticing is they don't have a regular forum at which these things can occur. And, as much of the talk is either film-centric or game-centric, I not convinced that those [areas] are going to solve our problems. So, I am hoping we can get a community of people together and have a regular venue and maybe follow up via Skype or some other method to keep this community going until the 2014 Symposium."

On Tap this Year

One of the sessions at this year's Symposium is titled "Crash Course: Building the Symposium Community with IntroNetworks." The speaker is Mark Sylvester, a co-founder of Wavefront Technologies and now CEO of IntroNetworks, which produces community-building software used by NASA, TED, and the Clinton Global Initiative, to name a few. Through a partnership, Symposium attendees will have access to this same software, to develop meaningful business connections with other attendees throughout the year. Sylvester will provide a crash course so attendees can use their smartphones to access IntroNetwork's technology until the next Symposium.

"IntroNetworks helps people find those of similar issues and backgrounds who they can talk to throughout the year and collaborate with," says Hirsch.

Another initiative from the Symposium is an executive mentoring program, whereby Symposium attendees can opt to serve as a mentor to SIGGRAPH attendees.

The Symposium will kick off with a keynote from Captain Thomas Chaby, executive officer at the Naval Special Warfare Center, who will discuss disruption in the battlefield and how to plan for it. "He will talk about training personnel so they are prepared when they enter a situation and do not know what they will be dealing with. I thought it was very appropriate because so many of the executives I work with have clients and colleagues who struggle with planning for the unknown. Having someone who deals with this for a living, with the US Navy SEALS, where the cost of failure is much higher than in tech, should be inspiring," Hirsch says.

One area Hirsch believes has gotten smaller at SIGGRAPH is research in production. To this end, he put together a panel that covers games and films, and how research and using research can offer a competitive advantage in business. Moderating the panel is Carl Rosendahl from Carnegie Mellon University, and speakers include Lincoln Wallace, CTO of DreamWorks, Scott Cronce, VP of Technology at Electronic Arts, Joe Alter, principal at Joe Alter, Inc., and Farchad Bidgolirad, R&D supervisor for Ubisoft Motion Pictures.

Another impressive discussion will center on reactive content creation, or specifically, alternative platforms for content. "I am fascinated that people, who make content for a living, aren't doing more with their own content," says Hirsch. Richard Chuang, co-founder of PDI, will talk about how the timeframe of delivering compelling content has been reduced to hours and minutes, not days and months, and even years.

And, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what will be presented and discussed.

"I like that we are coming at this from a number of different approaches," Hirsch says. "This is going to help executives develop better strategies. Even though our leaders are very smart in day-to-day tactics, I hope they can come away from the Symposium with better strategies for not only surviving, but also growing their businesses, and to give them the tools and community in which to do that in."

According to Hirsch, the Symposium will comprise attendees from senior leadership at the facilities and studios: heads of production, senior supervisors, senior producers, CIOs, CTOs, CCOs, general managers, vice presidents, and so forth - in a nutshell, senior leadership of companies that participate at SIGGRAPH. But, that does not mean others shouldn't attend as well, he adds. However, members of the press must receive an invitation to this event in order to maintain the flow of ideas and discussion at the event.

The Symposium is a small event where attendees are invested in changing their business and the industry for the better. Hirsch iterates that this is not the place where attendees will receive technical information, but rather information on how to operate a business. He also points out that the attendees should be participatory in the talks, and hopefully will carry the information forward with colleagues and others afterward.

"We want people inspired to find new solutions for the problems they face," Hirsch says.