Yair Landau could not have timed the start of his Hollywood career any better. After a brief stint in investment banking, the Stanford MBA arrived at what was then Columbia Pictures Entertainment in 1991, soon after the venerable studio had been acquired by Sony.
'I joined as the leading global consumer electronics company was making its foray into entertainment,' Landau says. 'I view the trajectory of my career as building a bridge between a hardware company and an entertainment company. And that bridge is really built on digital technology, both for production and distribution.'
Starting in the studio's finance department, he moved on to corporate development and strategic planning and in 1999 formed a new Sony division designed to bring digital artists, technologists and production software engineers together in the creation of digital entertainment.
Now, as vice-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) and president of its Sony Pictures Digital (SPD) division, he oversees a group of operations that, separately and in unison, are taking the studio further into the digital age (see sidebar).
SPD's effects operation Sony Pictures Imageworks, for example, is best seen as 'a digital production platform,' says Landau. 'It's really a giant engine which, in its infancy, drove 2D visual effects and then began to drive 3D character animation, which is what gave birth to Stuart Little (SPE's 1999 family hit) and, to a large degree, Spider-Man.
'Then that underlying technology applied in a full CGI setting with our own stories and characters is what drives Sony Pictures Animation. And ultimately we're starting to leverage it in the games space with Sony Online Entertainment.'
The synergy with Sony Pictures Animation paid off nicely in the case of that unit's first release, Open Season, which in 2006 grossed around $189m worldwide.
The pay-off was smaller - around $144m worldwide - on last year's Surf's Up, but Landau says the unit's second film still 'represented real growth, in terms of utilising artistic techniques that we'd developed on other films'.
The synergy with SPE's live-action production business is illustrated by the Spider-Man franchise, whose third instalment was last summer's top-grossing film in North America.
'The whole Spider-Man franchise is a story of the integrating of really good CGI with really good storytelling,' Landau asserts. 'That's when visual effects are at their height - when you emotionally connect to what's going on. For me, the most emotional scene in Spider-Man 3 is the birth of the Sandman character, and that is a fully CGI-rendered animated scene.'
Not all of SPD's attempts to link traditional and digital entertainment forms have worked. Movielink, the film download service Sony launched with four other studios in 2001, was sold last year to Blockbuster. Video mixing site Screenblast, meanwhile, was shut down in 2005 and soap-opera portal SoapCity in 2006.
Landau believes those experiments were ahead of their time and suffered because they were only usable by the then small base of consumers with broadband internet access. 'Screenblast pre-dated YouTube by four or five years,' he says, 'and several people in that space acknowledge it was an inspiration for them.'
In fact, he suggests, something like Screenblast - or like Crackle, the streaming entertainment network relaunched last year by another division of SPE - could turn out to play an important role in the future of digital entertainment content.
Landau recently came across a YouTube clip created with imagery from Sony's Surf's Up that was transformed into a music video about one of the film's penguin characters. Though the footage, he points out, was obtained illegally, the time and effort expended to 'remix' it points to consumers - or 'pro-sumers' as Crackle calls its aspiring animators - taking on a significant role in shaping the entertainment content of the future.
And besides being one of the Hollywood executives charged with predicting that future, Landau also sees himself as one of those consumers.
Asked how he keeps up with the ever-evolving worlds in which his SPD units operate, the 44-year-old Sony veteran replies: 'You respond to media, just like the average consumer. The key for me personally is I'm still a fanboy. I appreciate great content in whatever form.'
- Yair Landau is a speaker at The Media Summit 2008, taking place at the British Film Institute, London, on January 16 (www.themediasummit.com).
SONY PICTURES IMAGEWORKS
Visual effects and digital production studio. Awarded an Oscar for its work on Sony's Spider-Man 2 and nominated for films including Spider-Man, Stuart Little and Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. Developed the proprietary Imagemotion motion-capture technology used in films including Sony's Monster House, Warner's The Polar Express and Paramount/Warner's Beowulf.
SONY PICTURES ANIMATION
Established in 2002. Released its first production, Open Season, in 2006 and its second, Surf's Up, in 2007. Currently in production on Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and Hotel Transylvania.
Produces promotional content - most of it linked to Sony movies and TV shows - for online and mobile consumers. Supports localised websites around the world.
SONY ONLINE ENTERTAINMENT
Leading producer of massively multiplayer online games, with a subscriber base of more than 750,000 active accounts worldwide. Titles include EverQuest I and II, Star Wars Galaxies (published by LucasArts), the Champions Of Norrath series for Sony's PlayStation 2, and PlayStation Portable title Untold Legends.