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Irish built Hollywood

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Sceala Irish Craic Forum Discussion:     Irish built Hollywood

The Irish built America and modern Irish technology built Hollywood
How Irish technology built Hollywood
By John Kennedy
When many of us think of Ireland’s contribution to Hollywood, starlets such as Maureen O’Hara and actors of Irish extraction such as Judy Garland, James Cagney or Bing Crosby come to mind, not to mention more recent Tinseltown incumbents like Gabriel Byrne, Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell.
But, as we wait with bated breath to see if 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan gets her gong at this year’s Oscars, it will come as a surprise to many that one of the most profound Irish contributions to the global movie industry was not that of a thespian but that of a technologist.
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The technologist, Tipperary man John Ryan, is one to whom Hollywood and indeed the global entertainment industry owes their commercial life’s blood.
In 1983 Ryan invented a technology that has become the worldwide standard for copy protection of video programmes and this technology features in nearly every DVD player and set-top box around the world.
Ryan’s Silicon Valley-based company Macrovision, of which he was CEO until 2001 and has since been chairman, is behind the secure distribution technologies for electronically delivered creative works including film, music, text, images, software and video games.

Its customers include most major movie studios, record labels, software firms and the majority of Fortune 500 companies. In December, Macrovision agreed to buy Gemstar-TV Guide in a cash-and-stock deal worth about $2.8bn.
Ryan, who graduated from NUI Galway with degrees in physics and maths, always had an interest in electronics and went to work as a technician with RTÉ and Yorkshire Television before being poached as director of research by Ampex Corporation in Silicon Valley.
“I had a bit of a reputation as an inventor,” Ryan says, quietly pointing out that he has almost 70 patents to his name. “I was approached by a local businessman in California, Victor Farrow, who wished to fund me if I wanted to start a company. We had no real idea what I’d create but I decided to try to come up with something.”
This was in the early Eighties as two standards in a new medium called video cassette recording (VCR) Sony Betamax and VHS were battling it out for domination.
“VCRs were getting very popular. The studios were up in arms and Disney and Universal got together to sue Sony claiming manufacturers of VCRs were undermining their business because it created opportunities for piracy.
“The Supreme Court found in favour of Sony and denied the Hollywood studios any form of legislation that would prevent the proliferation of VCRs. The studios were keen to find a technical solution to prevent illegal copying, the first form of digital rights management.”
Ryan’s solution to the problem was to embed an electronic signal in films that made illegally recorded versions unwatchable on TVs. The first film to feature the Macrovision technology was The Cotton Club, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
“No one has since come up with a better solution. At the time I patented the technology very thoroughly and because it was such a strong patent I was able to charge 15 cents per tape manufactured by the studios.”
In fact, Ryan’s patents are so strong that if you look on the back of any VCR or DVD player you’ll see strings of eight-digit codes which denote the patents.
“We were profitable within three years of starting the business and we’ve been profitable ever since,” says Ryan of Macrovision, which in its recent quarter recorded $300m in revenue.
“It was a strong ploy and a huge coup for the company,” explains Ryan. “Every consumer electronics manufacturer from Sony to Panasonic were told that unless they agreed to incorporate the technology in every DVD player we wouldn’t support them. The VCR business was running out of steam and the manufacturers readily agreed.”
Ryan floated Macrovision on the Nasdaq in 1997. “Our valuation on that day was $18m. Within a few weeks it was $1.5bn. At the peak of the tech boom the valuation reached up to $4bn.
Macrovision’s acquisition of Gemstar, a company twice its size, hasn’t been favourably received by the markets and the company’s stock has fallen 35pc. Ryan is nonchalant. “The analysts took one look at it and said: are those guys crazy? But we’ll get there.”
Ryan vacated the CEO position in 2001 but has remained on as chairman of the board. “I decided I wanted to do more with life. I’ve been taking it easy but I’m still very interested in technology.”
He’s still a regular visitor to Ireland, at least four times a year, and owns a home in Kerry. He is also committed to philanthropic pursuits in Ireland, sponsoring an arts centre in Tipperary town as well as sponsoring scholarships in three local secondary schools. He has also donated to the €1.7m Tipperary Technology Park.
“I was the beneficiary of a good and free Irish education system. It was payback time. I figure it is the right thing to do,” he says.
Ryan’s example of providing technologies that enabled an entire generation of digital entertainment is one being emulated by at least a dozen companies in Ireland, including firms like Shenick, which provides security for set-top boxes, and Emuse Technologies, which enables digital distribution of content.
“Exports of Irish digital media technologies and services grew from €70m in 2006 to €80m in 2007,” explains Ray Walsh, a senior development advisor at Enterprise Ireland.
“When Irish people think Hollywood, they think actors and movies. But there’s an exciting group of companies like Cork-based Digisoft, Dublin-based Wildwave and Jam Media and Inflight Entertainment making future content distribution and services possible.”

Stephen McCormack of Wildwave says Irish technology firms are becoming regular fixtures at events like Sundance and the Oscars. “The Irish Film Board does a trade mission to the Oscars every year and the diversity of local companies that provide digital media technology, not just content, is impressive.”
Ryan admits being impressed by the calibre of young Irish executives he encounters in California. “The young Irish people I meet over here are as gung-ho and as driven as the typical Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
“I’ve been very impressed with the quality of their determination,” he concludes.
Irish firm goes to Hollywood, wreaks Havok at the Emmys
There is a famous scene in the cult classic movie The Matrix Reloaded where the protagonist, Neo, engages in hand-to-hand combat with a vicious Agent Smith who has managed to clone 100 copies of himself.

That scene – known in the movie industry as the Burly Brawl – is not only a technological masterpiece, but one made possible by technology created here in Ireland by Havok, a local firm acquired last year by Intel for $110 million.
Anyone who knows of Havok, a company founded over a decade ago by a group of computer scientists at Trinity College, Dublin, is fully aware that their physics technology sits on every top-selling video game in the market today, creating a realistic and compelling experience.
But few realise that Hollywood has now got hold of Havok and popular movies such as Poseidan, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Troy and Kingdom of Heaven use its technology to create realistic special FX.
Last month, Havok received an award from the US National Academy of Television, Arts and Sciences, otherwise called an Emmy, for its work on real-time physics and animation that advanced playability and special effects in computer games, as well as Hollywood movies.
“It’s only in the last few years that we developed our business model to the point that Sony and other big movie studios were prepared to buy from Havok,” explains Havok chief executive, David O’Meara.
“But now artists and designers are buying the technology too. That scene in The Matrix Reloaded was entirely animated and simulated by Havok.
“The X-Men movies also use our technology in a similar fashion. We are also seeing other potential applications for Havok technology such as in the medical world to predict the likely outcome of an operation.
“In the past, movie studios used to have to locate cameras and pyrotechnics to simulate an explosion. Nowadays, they just do the explosion using Havok physics software and animation technology,” O’Meara explained.

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