In its 20-year history in show business, Lionsgate Entertainment has grown from a fledgling independent film studio in Vancouver to a $2 billion global entertainment corporation producing award-winning feature films and television from La La Land to Mad Men. The expansion has largely been driven through acquisitions, a strategy that extends from the boardroom to an IT office overseen by CIO Theresa Miller.
“We pride ourselves on being very agile but also thrifty,” Miller explained at BoxWorks in San Francisco. “We really focus on enabling the business. We don’t try to develop every single application ourselves. We like to leverage partnerships and buy technology.”
One of the key factors in Miller’s acquisition strategy is changing user expectations.
Her employees have become accustomed to user-friendly consumer technology with attractive interfaces and now want similar qualities from the digital tools they use at work, so Miller likes to check the look and feel of any new apps she wants to introduce while ensuring that they can maintain the previous functionality.
Miller seeks their input to ensure that the tools fulfill their needs. When she was looking for a new file sharing product, Miller brought together the primary users of the system and other staff who could most benefit from the tech to evaluate the different options on the market and identify their various strengths and weaknesses. Box stood out for its combination of consumer-level usability and an API that could connect the system to their existing set of SAP applications.
“That’s really helped us at Lionsgate because it’s a big undertaking to replace an enterprise system and we don’t want to lose all that functionality, because there’s a lot of industry-specific functionality that exists there,” she said.
“For us it’s trying to create a work environment that really enables our business and lets the people that want to stay in legacy or stay in email to still work in those environments.”
Roll-out and adoption
Lionsgate went public in 1998 and the expanded quickly, initially by buying small facilities and distributors before progressing to acquiring larger film companies.
In 2016, the studio bought premium cable channel Starz for around $4.4 billion in cash and stock, gaining a 16,000-title library of shows including Spatacus and Power and a TV network serving nearly 25 million subscribers.
Miller’s team had to act fast to merge her IT systems with the new acquisition.
“It used to be that when we acquired a company, the business would give us a couple of months to figure out all the IT staff. For this acquisition we got one day,” remembered Miller. “The expectation was that on day one we would be collaborating with Starz, that we’d be sharing files, that we’d be connected via email and everything else.”
She relied on collaboration tools including Box to connect the Starz files to Lionsgate and quickly established a secure system of collaboration.
“It’s really trying to extend your organisation in a secure manner but also enabling all these teams to be very agile and very proficient, because it’s very expensive,” she explained.
To accelerate the adoption of new IT systems, Miller trains up her internal team and relies on ambassadors to share the knowledge with other members of the team.
Even detailed preparations can’t ensure a new tool is being used as planned, so Miller monitors usage over time through measurements such as user numbers or data transferred to see how how the uptake is growing.
Moving to the cloud
Miller was appointed Lionsgate Senior Vice President of Information Technology in 2005 after a three-year spell as Vice President of Systems Development at rival film studio MGM.
In 2012, she was promoted to the role of CIO and Executive Vice President of IT, taking responsibility for all the technology projects and personnel. She went on to introduce new supply chain initiatives, business intelligence systems, and an array of cloud-based products, from apps to infrastructure.
The growth of Lionsgate had increased the IT infrastructure costs and application workloads, while tightening to-market requirements. This led Lionsgate to enlist Amazon Web Services (AWS) to support the workloads, speed up its infrastructure deployment, test its range of applications, cut costs and increase flexibility.
It also helped the studio boost its disaster recovery and backup methods, which have become essential to an industry that is now a favourite target for cyber attackers.
Protecting films from hackers
The transient nature of the industry makes this a unique challenge for Miller’s team. Actors, directors, crews and studio staff briefly come together to create a film and then go their separate ways to work on their next projects.
“It’s really like a mini company that comes together, produces some content and then they all disperse,” said Miller. “I think that has always been a challenge for us in terms of how do you quickly bring together a team and enable that team with technology. We deal with really really large files. Film assets are huge. We have a lot of very stringent requirements around security, so content protection is huge for us as well.
“That’s been a legacy-type of requirement for our industry, and then as time has gone by with streaming and some of the other innovations, we’ve had to keep up with all of that technology as well. And it’s not something that you can always control within your four walls. You’re always partnering, maybe it’s with other studios, maybe it’s talents.”
Lionsgate had to learn about these risks the hard way. In 2014, a digital file of the studio’s The Expendables 3 was stolen and uploaded to the internet in advance of its theatrical debut, costing the film group more than $10 million in box office revenue, according to the company’s vice chairman Michael Burns.
While Lionsgate was still calculating the losses Sony was hit with a cyber attack that shook the industry. A group calling itself The Guardians of Peace hacked into the studio’s network and leaked a cache of insider information, email correspondence between film stars and executives and unreleased films, allegedly in response to the forthcoming release of The Interview, a Seth Rogen film about assassinating Kim Jong-Un.
Sony had to delay reporting of its financial reports for the following quarter as it had been unable to close its financial books in time, but provided a forecast of its results that revealed the hack had cost $15 million in investigative and remediation costs, but the final pricetag will be far more. Steps to prevent a repeat could push the damages over $100 million.
The attacks served as a wake-up call for the industry. Studios introduced offensive cyber security policies to find threats before they could attack, encrypted their files and data and monitored access to their valuable information.
Benefits of better file sharing
Miller trusts Box to keep her data secure and has also found it protects the studio’s content from accidental damage. She learned this when her international sales team was taking show reels on the road to promote Lionsgate productions at film markets.
“Historically what we did is we loaded up little Mac servers and we took them with us to the filmmakers,” she said. “What happened is that somebody lost the servers, so they didn’t make it there. So we get this call that the film markets in six hours – what are we going to do?
“We put it on Box for them. Then they all jumped in and started using Box, and from that point on, all of our international sales people started using Box because they realised how easy it was.
“Now if I had gone to them and said we’ve got this great new tool, there would have been this whole thing where they don’t have time anymore, or it’s not what everyone’s used to. So I think really good use cases and all of those stories that go viral through your organisation and having some champions for certain technologies has been really successful for us.”
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