Business lessons from unlikely places

Our US correspondent Michael Heiss asks: What are the secret powers of Barbemheimer and the WGA/SAG-AFTRA labour actions and what do they mean to us?

Main photo: Adryan Samuel Hutagalung/

If I asked you what “Barbenheimer” or “Oppenbarb” meant at the beginning of this past summer you would have probably given me a strange look. You’d wonder if the multiple summer days when the temperatures here in Los Angeles were at or above 38°C made me even more loopy than I’ve sometimes been accused of.

For those who haven’t heard those contracted descriptions before, they refer to the summer’s two biggest hit films: Barbie and Oppenheimer. Much to many people’s surprise Barbie is a funny and interesting 105 minutes where you forget the state of the real world more than one would have thought. 

Oppenheimer, on the other hand, is an epic, quite serious, three-hour film telling the story of the creation of the atomic bomb through a focus on Robert J. Oppenheimer, often called “the father of the A-Bomb”. Yes, it is long, but it is a must see. Indeed, many people agree with that for as this is written in early November its worldwide theatrical gross is just shy of a billion USD. Barbie’s take has exceeded that grossing over $1.3 billion USD in worldwide theatrical gross. Who would have figured that two very diverse movies would bring in a combined total of over two BILLION dollars?

To some, the nature of the two films, albeit almost diametrically opposite, is a tribute to their creators knowing what the audience wants and taking somewhat of a risk by not being yet another summer sequel retread of a formulaic franchise.  

At the same time as cinema goers, and now streaming viewers are going ga-ga over the films, there is another entertainment related bit of news everyone is looking at, particularly here in Los Angeles but also across the US and over the pond to the UK and other media and content production sites across the globe. 

What I am referring to with that are the dual strikes by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) the union representing screen and television writers and SAG-AFTRA, the separate union representing actors and other performers ranging from hand models to voice over artists. As this is being written the WGA strike has been settled and there is hope that SAG-AFTRA will soon reach an agreement with the producers by the time this issue goes to press.


But what do Barbenheimer and the labour actions unrelated to our industry mean to you as a home technology professional? Why should you care?

With apologies for the lengthy introduction, let’s take a step back and look at the nexus of all of this. It’s not about whether there may not be new movies or TV and streaming shows this year and into 2024 or that content already finished and in the virtual “can” will have their premieres delayed or in some cases even cancelled. It’s much more than that and the lessons for us are many. 

Anyone who has been in our profession for any length of time knows that one of the key marketing differences you can use to combat both DIY installations and how you are judged against competitive bidders on a job is quality. It goes without saying but some of us might occasionally have to push quality back in favour of price. When you do that is it worth it?

There is one aspect of Barbenheimer that should remind all of us that quality is not only important, it sells! Ask Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer’s director. He insisted not only that it be shot on film, but in a “large format” combination of 65mm and IMAX 65. Despite film having largely been supplanted by video for movie production, Nolan’s commitment to quality even led him to have Kodak create their first-ever 65mm black and white film stock. The large format capture greatly increased the quality. The 65mm print’s transfer, even without going to 4K made the conventional projection look better, even for those of us who saw the picture in a more traditional cinema with digital projection.

Here’s the point: The expense and effort were clearly appreciated and financially worth it. So much so that the IMAX version was over 20% of the opening box office and the film is even scheduled for an IMAX re-release in December to satisfy demand. Moral of this story: Do people recognise, and are they willing to pay for quality, particularly for video? You bet.

One might ask if there was a demand for quality why, was “Oppie” not mixed with Dolby Atmos or a similar immersive audio format. The answer is similar to the first use case here: Christopher Nolan has enough star power and creative authority that he made the decision to do it that way. The film was released in multichannel, but not immersive, 7.1 Dolby and DTS formats. That said, the last thing I would suggest is that, unless there are room-specific or budgetary considerations, that you spec all high-end systems for immersive capability. Remember, most current high-profile films do take advantage of immersive sound. Ignoring that fact would be wrong.

However, the sound on Oppie brings us to another lesson to be learned. Across the internet and blogosphere there have been many questions and comments along the lines of “Why was the sound on Oppenheimer, particularly for the centre/dialogue channel, so bad?” That’s a good question. I noticed that myself when I saw the film in the TV Academy’s Wolf Theater in North Hollywood. It was designed and installed by Dolby for full Dolby Cinema and is widely regarded as one of the best private screening rooms in the world for audio and video. Yet I wasn’t the only one who thought something was strange. Even the hallway buzz among the industry professionals as they exited the screening surfaced that same question.

The answer is interesting and it, too, has a moral for us. It was not a “bad mix”. Here, too, the director’s creative power and intent dictated that it was intentionally recorded that way. As Nolan mentioned in an interview in Variety, a long-standing entertainment industry publication, he doesn’t do ADR, which would give his mixer the opportunity to get a better centre. “I like to use the performance that was given in the moment rather than re-voice it later.”, he said. Nice to have that kind of power on the job!

Christopher Nolan insisted Oppenheimer be shot on film in a “large format” combination of 65mm and IMAX 65|  UK Editorial Photographer/

This relates to us as it would be logical for a client streaming the movie to complain to you about the sound quality. Being customer-centric, your instinct might be reflexive and to immediately send a tech to the home after telling the client you can rectify the issue. Unfortunately, in this case other than perhaps raising the centre channel output you can’t. All that would do would just bring out more noise which would make you look worse than if it were your fault. The moral Barbenheimer brings to us: Look, or in this case investigate, before you leap. As noted, the issue was well reported, but not in places where your clients might look. Here, knowing what the problem is and being able to explain it, even when you can’t fix it, should increase your reputation for knowledge and quality work.

Let’s move on to the labour issues. It’s doubtful that any readers here are members of the impacted unions or guilds. On the other hand, the actions have pointed to some interesting things beyond, as well as because, of the production stoppages. 

One is the fact that these actions showed the immense power of promotion. How’s that? The publicists didn’t go out on strike. The answer is that WGA and SAG/AFTRA strikers were prohibited from promoting struck production or studio. Not being able to have them drum up interest in a new film was deemed important enough that some studios delayed new releases until the promotion could go back into full swing.

WGA members on strike in Los Angeles| Ringo Chiu/

So what?

Think about it. Do you think that studios would delay releases for features budgeted over NINE figures, no matter what the currency, for no reason? It’s the promotion that makes a movie successful often as much as the movie itself. The lesson for our world is that promotion counts for us, as well. Is your company paying enough attention to let the community and your target audience aware of what you do and how your company is different?

I spent some years in the promotion department of a major TV network here in the US. Yes, the show must be good, as does your work, but if your job tree falls in the proverbial forest, no one may hear it. If they don’t hear about it, they won’t hire you. They may well hire someone else, and you lose the job, revenue and profits. Promote and market. 

While you are thinking about promotion, take another hint from Barbenheimer: The power of “new”. Let’s call it “The Power of Knowing What to Keep and for how long, and when to go with something new.” While numerous rehashes, sequels, and yet another film in a “cinema universe” franchise didn’t meet expectations. Two totally new films, the Barbenheimers, took the box office crowns that few anticipated. Are you prepared to not only break new ground in design and technology? As just noted, are you prepared to promote your work? If not, why not?

Disputes over use of AI were one of the triggers of recent strikes in Hollywood. It sparks the question ‘who has the rights to the design and IP surrounding a complex system and installation?| Joe Gomez/

A few more things to take away from the Hollywood work stoppages. 

In a competitive business environment it is often too easy to settle before you get to your goal or win the deal. Yes, there is always a time when you know you’ve pushed things up against the wall but sometimes a bit of perseverance will get you over the finish line for what you want. Case in point: Some were urging the WGA members to take an offer and settle. However, they stood their ground and continued to bargain a bit more. They didn’t get everything they wanted, but perhaps no one does. 

The moral here: perseverance pays off. The Guild stood their ground for over 100 days until some said “enough” but they bargained on for another 48 days and knew when to compromise. That is quite different from quitting. 

Along the same lines, in parallel with perseverance is knowing who to deal with. Sometimes you just need to bargain up to a higher level. Some pundits said that the reason why the talks went nowhere for the first 100 days was because the studio heads weren’t involved. Negotiations continued with some higher up the corporate ladders, but it wasn’t until the last two weeks or so when the CEOs REALLY became involved that things got settled. Just remember that this works two ways. YOU, as the business leader, sometimes need to bargain with the person who holds the purse strings or has control. On the other hand, when your side is the one being negotiated with don’t be so uppity that you won’t deal with someone not 100% on your level.

Last, but not least, is one issue that all of us will have to deal with over the coming months and years: AI. The long-term impact of AI on the content creation, production and distribution aspects of the entertainment industry is yet to be determined, so everyone was looking for answers to problems that weren’t yet quite clear. Scanning or sampling actors or the rights of creators such as writers is going to be complex. Some compromises were reached, but where things will go in the long term is still an open issue.

How about in our world? Some of this goes to the age-old question of who has the rights to the design and IP surrounding a complex system and installation. Is it you? Is it to some part IP from a vendor, manufacturer or consultant? Is it the client to is paying the final bill? If you use an AI method such as Chat GPT that digs into a Large Language Model (LLM) that you then use, is it truly yours or does it belong to someone else whose work was fished out of the ethers deep in the LLM’s scouring and scrubbing?

Yes, I know that all most of you wanted to do is just spend some hours at the cinema or streaming at home without worrying about the outside world. But once you leave the theatre or turn off the screens you have to once again face reality. Think a bit about what those great summer movies birthed and what the trials and travails of those who created them have to deal with. Their world may be closer to ours than you think and there are many lessons to be shared.

Authors note: As we go to press the SAG/AFTRA strike was settled. At this point it is not yet known exactly how the new contract deals with AI and that will be part of an article next year about the place of AI in our industry. That said, the presentations made in this article with regard to negotiating, and business operation stand and perhaps now have greater weight. Thank you for understanding how current evets sometimes thow off everyone's schedule.

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