By SARA FISHER
Glenn Entis' life changed in 1995 when he got a call at his Northern California home from a Microsoft executive. She asked if he would be interested in heading up a new joint venture between Microsoft and a new studio called DreamWorks SKG.
He was interested.
Today Entis, 43, is head of DreamWorks Interactive, which develops games under the enthusiastic watch of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Bill Gates. Entis' position is technically that of chief executive, but Entis is usually identified as "head" because DreamWorks eschews traditional corporate titles.
Entis takes an active role in developing the company's games, as well as overseeing the financial, marketing and growth strategies and managing 100 employees.
After its inception in 1995, DreamWorks Interactive faced a rocky start, drawing harsh criticism from both the entertainment and game industries.
But Entis and DreamWorks Interactive have held their own. Among its games are titles based on the Goosebumps stories for kids and on the "Lost World" movie.
Entis is a recognized pioneer in the computer animation field. In 1982, he co-founded Palo Alto-based Pacific Data Images, one of the early computer graphics and animation companies that became a pacesetter for the industry.
Question: You're heading a joint venture of two of the biggest names in corporate America, DreamWorks and Microsoft, so expectations are sky high. Are you feeling pressured by those expectations?
Answer: It is a lot of pressure, but it's pressure to do well in an area I care about. Steve (Spielberg), Bill Gates, and Jeffrey (Katzenberg) all want to be proud of their venture, and they're watching the company's progress closely. Everyone working here wants to be proud of the venture. But these men are where they are today partly because they work in an environment in which they give time for people's visions to blossom.
Q: The entertainment community has been less patient. After your first year, some people were quick to label DreamWorks Interactive a failure. What happened?
A: The first year was rough. We came into the game industry at a time when it was beginning to go through a shakeout and also at a time when the conventional wisdom was that studios simply could not compete in the game market.
What I noticed is that most of the negative publicity we received that year was not about DreamWorks Interactive directly, but rather about DreamWorks SKG. Critics would look at our game and say "Wow, DreamWorks was supposed to be doing all this great stuff. Here's a game, but where are all the films?"
This attitude was irrelevant for us, but a lot of people looked for the cracks in our business with a magnifying glass. Like any start-up company, we had issues to iron out, such as internal management and business plans. Fortunately, the negative press has died down and our parent companies have been patient as we make headway on our goal: to make top-notch games.
Q: Now that you're moving beyond your shaky start, what's your vision for the company?
A: What I'd like us to do is consistently produce great games in small quantities.
Like many start-ups, we began with way too broad a business plan. When I came, there were already 10 producers hired by the operating officers at the time and eight projects under way. My mantra has been: focus, focus, focus. First and foremost, we are a creative company, not a mid-level game publisher. To keep that focus, we've had Electronic Arts publish a couple of our titles. They handle marketing, distribution and inventory lists while we keep full creative control and intellectual property rights.
The real creative lifeblood of this company is the producers, designers and executors of the games. My job is to foster an environment in which they can be as creative as they want to be and to build steadily toward our company objectives.
Q: What's it been like working with such famous parent companies?
A: Microsoft has been particularly supportive with their resources. Especially in our first year, we really needed their help in marketing, distribution, testing and software development. They would just drop resources down here on our doorstep. It was amazing. But as we become more self-sufficient, we need less from them on these kinds of day-to-day issues.
Q: What has DreamWorks brought to the table?
A: From an operating point of view, we really feel more like a division of DreamWorks with a second parent (Microsoft) looking over us.
DreamWorks has fueled our creative side. Steven (Spielberg) is by far the strongest voice when it comes to creative issues for us. It's not entirely accidental that we're in Bel Air we're close to Steven's house. He is such an avid gamer that he drops by frequently when he's not working on a movie to see how our work is going and to play. He even brings his kids with him when he can. We let the kids whale away on the games, they throw out a few suggestions, and we have direct feedback from our target audience. It's great.
Also, Jeffrey (Katzenberg) is always there when we need him. He has a great track record in character design and marketing.
Q: Have people ever accused you of having too much fun as a game creator for this to be a real job?
A: Yes, I get that reaction a lot. Whenever executives from other companies or even from other parts of DreamWorks visit, they look around and say, "Can I work here?"
Of course, it may look like fun and games, but we're in a competitive market and we all put in long hours here. But I remind myself that our job is to create fun. It may be hard, it may be frustrating, but at the end of the day, it's got to be fun.
Q: Your background is primarily in computer animation rather than games, which makes you a bit left-of-center choice to head up the company. How did you get this job?
A: I got a cold call for this job in September 1995.
Patty Stonesifer at Microsoft (former senior vice president of interactive media development) was instrumental in pulling DreamWorks Interactive together. She wanted to go 10 degrees outside of the hard-core game industry for the CEO position of this company, so she visited a couple high-profile computer animation companies with the idea that they had the environment that she envisioned for this place. That's how my name came up.
When I got the call, I was completely surprised but thought, "Gee, Microsoft and DreamWorks just called. Sure, I'll have this conversation."
I met with a bunch of executives, everyone hit it off, and within weeks we were shaking hands on the deal. It was one of the fastest episodes in my life.
Q: What were you doing before joining DreamWorks?
A: I had started my own computer game company in Menlo Park in 1994 called Fab Lab. The company was about one year old and had just hit a critical juncture when I got the call from Patty. My partners were totally supportive and told me to go for it.
I had started Fab Lab after announcing my resignation from PDI (Pacific Design Images) the day before my 40th birthday. Just like a lot of people at that time of their lives, I looked carefully at what I was doing with my life. I love computer animation, but after 12 years, I felt that I was ready to work in another area of the industry. So I took the plunge.
Q: How did you get involved in computer graphics in the late '70s when the field barely existed?
A: I didn't know if I would be an arts or physics major, which were my two strong interests, when I started college. I went to my first college math class and looked around and saw mostly guys who looked like they didn't get out much. Then I had an art class and looked around. Decision made.
Q: Do you play games recreationally as well as professionally?
A: Yes, but I'm not a hard-core gamer. I always played some games, but I'm more of a hard-core animation buff. It fascinates me that computer animation is all about creating life on the screen. Between this job and the fact that my two daughters love playing games with me, I'm certainly getting more exposure.
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