Scott Ross didn’t always want to be a Hollywood executive, though he’s found himself in some pretty big movie industry roles. After starting out as a sound engineer and touring with rockers in the 1970s, he landed a job in the effects division of George Lucas’ movie empire. With that on the resume, he was able to co-found Venice visual effects company Digital Domain in the early ’90s with famed director James Cameron and the late effects pioneer Stan Winston. Though the company earned critical acclaim for its work and won an Academy Award for “Titanic,” Ross’ relationship with co-founder James Cameron sunk. After a public falling out, Cameron left the firm and Ross continued as chief executive for the better part of a decade until the company was sold to a group of Florida investors in 2006. Since then, Ross has been trying his hand as an independent producer, blogging about the special-effects industry and is on a mission to stem the outflow of effects work to cheaper locations overseas. He recently sat down with the Business Journal to talk about his relationship with Cameron, why George Lucas didn’t remember his name and why tax subsidies to effects companies ultimately will hurt the industry.
Question: What have you been doing since Digital Domain?
Answer: Like every other working-class stiff in this town, I’m trying to get a movie made. I’m writing a book. I’m also spending time trying to figure out a way to help an industry I helped birth. The industry is in tough shape now.
Are your screenplays effects driven or something totally different?
I learned this late in life; being an independent producer is not a good thing. So it’s really a numbers game. You have to have enough hooks in the pond to be able to catch a fish. There are a number of hooks in the pond now and they range from a small indie film of about $3 million to $5 million that has no effects whatsoever to a $150 million movie that is a big, epic dramatic extravaganza.
What are they about?
There’s an epic love story set during the dropping of an atomic bomb, another is about a missing period of Jesus’ life and a third is a romantic comedy about divorce.
The atomic bomb? A missing period of Jesus’ life? Can you tell me more?
No. That’s a difficult thing. None are financed. All of the scripts are in various stages of development. I wouldn’t want my ideas to be in the papers.
So what are your favorite types of movies?
I’m a sucker for big, epic, wonderful, historic movies. They have to take me to a place I’ve never been or move me to a place where I’m moved emotionally with joy or look at the world in a different way. My favorite movie is “Lawrence of Arabia.”
So what about the books?
I got great response from the blog. So I thought I could change the blog into a book and make it about managing creative people and creative organizations and use it for speaking engagements.
What’s so important about managing
One of the most elusive things in business is managing creative people, particularly in the age where digital media is so important and many employees are involved in that kind of work. It would be helpful having the perspective of somebody who has managed those kinds of companies. Given my experience in that business, I’d like to be able to transfer my knowledge to other companies.
How far along is it?
I’ve got about 15 chapters. I don’t have a working title. I’d probably self-publish.
You’ve had some clashes with creative people yourself over the years, right?
I was never very good with authority, if you go back to college days. Then I moved to Lucasfilm, where once again I had an issue with authority, and then I go and start Digital Domain and once again have an issue with authority.
Yes, you had a notorious clash with James Cameron when you partnered with him to start Digital Domain.
Jim and I – I think he’s a brilliant filmmaker. He’s one of the most successful of all time. He’s a very, very smart dude. But in the early days, Jim’s involvement was limited. The only time he started to get a bit involved was when we were working on one of his films. The producer wants it better, faster and cheaper. The effects company wants it better, more expensive and longer. It was inevitable that there would be some kind of conflict.
What did you specifically take offense to? The overtime worked to make “Titanic”?
A visual effects company is sort of like a bakery. We have the flour, the oven is heated up, we have the water, but you got the eggs (the footage). Until you deliver the eggs, I’m just trying to keep my people busy. But it’s a lot of ovens. You have a staff of 300 or 400 people. The original delivery date was July 2. We weren’t going to be able to make it, not because we didn’t have the skills to do it, but because we didn’t have the eggs.
And it almost drove the company close to bankruptcy?
Yeah, it was pretty tough times.
Did things smooth over from there?
It put the company in a tenuous position. We delivered the work. Interestingly enough, “Titanic” was delivered in October or November, and the movie was released in November. In retrospect, I think one of the reasons it did as well as it did was that it wasn’t released in the summertime. It really owned that Thanksgiving, Christmas and the first quarter of the next year without any real competition. Had it opened on the date that everyone wanted it to open, who knows what the result would’ve been.
What was your proudest career
Building Digital Domain as a founder and CEO, and four years later winning the Academy Award for “Titanic.” I was the queen of the world.
Leonardo DiCaprio took the title of king?
Jim took the title of king.
Any good George Lucas stories?
(Earlier in my career) I was running a video post house called One Pass. Within a couple of years I was president of the company and I did that for a number of years, until I was headhunted by Lucasfilm. In the bay area at the time, LucasFilm was the Holy Grail. It wasn’t like being in L.A., where you can move from one studio to another studio. It was really George and that was it. There was no Pixar. The interesting thing about George was that by the time I got there, he had removed himself from the day-to-day operations of the company, so much so that in the years that I ran that company I think I only met him three or four times
So you didn’t know him well?
He didn’t know who I was. I had been there for a number of years and ran into him at a Mexican restaurant after I was let go. I walked over to thank him and he had no idea who I was, after three years of running the place.
Ouch. Did you always want to work on movies, going back to college?
The first thing I did was start to major in music, but the problem was that I had no musical training whatsoever. Everyone else had been taking lessons since they were five or six years old. I quickly fell behind.
You felt disadvantaged?
My family was really poor. The most that my dad ever made in a year was $11,000. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens. My sister and I shared a bedroom and my parents slept in the living room until I was 17, 16. There was no money for lessons, let alone instruments. I didn’t have the wherewithal to study music. So in the music I played I was always the lead singer or harmonica player.
What kind of music?
It was blues. I was playing Rolling Stones, Howlin’ Wolf, Yardbirds. I considered myself a little McJaggerstein. One of the toughest decisions I ever had was to give up my dream of being a musician. I wasn’t able to take advanced music, but I became the concert chairman at my school and brought a whole bunch of great artists to Hofstra. After college I moved to the West Coast because I had toured with the Miles Davis band as a sound engineer.
Miles Davis was a famously prickly
character. Can you pick out a notable tour moment?
I think the wackiest tour moment was when Miles Davis played at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in D.C. It was a bunch of old ladies on the board and they wanted to meet this Miles Davis. And when he walked in they were shocked. He was wearing yellow canary leather pants and purple sunglasses, full 1971 regalia. And these ladies were blown away and they made some racist remarks – like “Hey, boy.” Miles was as black power oriented as anyone can be short of a Black Panther, and so there were some not nice words. Miles hit the lady with a trumpet. He took a trumpet and swatted at her. We’re talking about a lady who was 70; she seemed to me to be 100. He stormed out of the room. He was upset.
Let’s go back to something you said earlier, that the visual effects industry is in tough shape. What’s going on?
The men and women who are doing the work are doing OK; they’re making good money. But there are things that are not happening for them. They’re not getting affordable benefits; they’re being worked overtime at times and not being paid for it. It’s not because the owners of the companies are fat cats. On the contrary, they’re skinny cats and they’re trying to keep their businesses alive. Because the clients are putting the squeeze on the effects companies, it’s coming down to the workers as well.
What are you doing to change that?
I’m a little trepidatious about a union. I can understand why that could be seen as really being helpful to the worker, but I’m concerned about what the backlash might be. Visual effects has become a global industry. It’s no longer centered in California and one of the reasons it’s moving all over the world is because of lower costs. If it’s moving to lower-cost places. It would be good to form a trade association to address those kinds of issues.
What would that look like?
My hope is that companies will come together and fund the trade association; it would have an executive director and business development. It would work closely with the companies to foster and develop business goals, deal with international tax subsidies, and lobby in states and countries. It’s an industry well in excess of $100 billion that supplies the sizzle to the motion picture industry, but there is no common voice for the effects industry.
So what is your stance on subsidies?
The cost of labor in the U.S. is going to be significantly higher; $80 in the U.S. would be $40 in China. There’s nothing that can be done about that. It’s the cost of living. But if there’s a company that has lower costs and the reason is because their government is subsidizing them, they shouldn’t be allowed to play. I believe in a free market, but I don’t believe in a government-subsidized free market.
Have you found support internationally for the idea?
I have not. It’s an interesting problem I face. I’ve been trying to drum up interest among these companies and say, “Listen, we need to pull together to protect our industry.” My fear is that what’s happening in California today will be happening in London tomorrow and New Zealand in a week. Governments don’t have the spare money to be able to throw around to say, “Let’s finance ‘Avatar.’” Maybe you do that once, but every citizen in New Zealand paid $10 for Jim Cameron to shoot the movie there. Then they had to go buy a ticket – they didn’t even get a free ticket. But at some point the government is going to pull the plug.
On a lighter note, you have a reputation as a prankster. What’s your best gag?
Jon Landau, the producer of “Titanic,” is a major prankster. He decided he was going to pull a prank on me – he was going to send me a Tiffany bowl in a Tiffany box – and have it inscribed with something flowery. So his office calls my office and says it’s coming. We get all excited and it comes and it’s shards of glass. He never bought the bowl; he went in to the closet at Lightstorm, took a punch bowl, shattered it, shook it up and sent it to me. But I decide he’s not going to get the last laugh.
So what did you do?
An hour later I tell my assistant to call his assistant and tell him, “We were really, really happy about it. But the craziest thing happened, Scott was so excited he put his hand in the box and slit his wrist. He almost bled out. He got sent to the emergency room at St. John’s hospital.” Of course, none of that happened. But Landau was crazed and he was thinking that because of him I slit my wrist. Rumor had it that he showed up at the hospital – and I wasn’t there.
I understand you’re engaged to be remarried to someone you met at a college reunion?
Yes. When (we both) went to Hofstra, it was very conservative, and the ROTC and the gals from cotillion had the military ball. We said this is bullshit. We said we’re going to have a party and we’re going to call it the Freak Formal. And the Freak Formal took place in the multipurpose room. People showed up in costumes and someone spiked the punch. So, Michelle was part of that group, as was I. Forty years later we decided to have a reunion called the Freak Formal Redux in New York City. .
It pays to go to reunions?
It definitely pays to go to reunions. Stay trim and fit, and work out beforehand.