Saving Hollywood's Heroes
Once proud Hollywood visual effects company Digital Domain 3.0 fell on hard times in 2012, and it was left to 31-year-old Taiwan native Daniel Seah to bring it back to life. How has he done so far?
Saving Hollywood's HeroesBy Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 570 )
As the premiere of Fast and Furious 7 came to an end and the lights in the theater came on, the audience gave the movie a rapturous ovation. Many viewers were visibly moved by the final scene, when Paul Walker, who was killed in a car crash while the movie was still being filmed, delivers a last line as Brian O'Conner before being eulogized by Vin Diesel's character Dominic.
Digital Domain Holdings Chairman and CEO Daniel Seah (also Seah Ang, 謝安) started to get up, ready to head to the post-screening bash. For Hollywood's second-biggest visual effects company, which handled the special effects for Fast and Furious 7, the film was a triumph.) started to get up, ready to head to the post-screening bash. For Hollywood's second-biggest visual effects company, which handled the special effects for Fast and Furious 7, the film was a triumph.
Digital Domain's vice president of features, Joanna Capitano, held Seah back, urging him to stick around for the credits. As they rolled down, Seah was surprised to see that the name at the top of the list of special effects supervisors and other technicians was his.
Convention suggests that names of administrators like Seah should not appear on the big screen. But the 50-year-old Capitano told her 31-year-old boss that the Digital Domain team wanted to give him the surprise for turning around the company, an honor that Seah admits moved him to tears.
"I was really moved. This was a very important credit for me," Seah says during a trip back to his native Taiwan, still feeling the emotions of the moment. Nobody knew better than him how hard that recognition had been to come by.
Digital Domain is a trendsetting Hollywood special effects company, earning multiple Academy Awards since its founding in 1993, with such hits as the Transformers trilogy, Day After Tomorrow and Titanic among its credits.
But it has spent some of those 20 years in financial turmoil, plagued by shareholder infighting in the mid-2000s and problems with a hedge fund (Tenor Capital) that pressured the company to repay its debts in 2012, problems that eventually led the company – then known as the Digital Domain Media Group – to file for bankruptcy in September 2012.
Seah first got involved in the management of Digital Domain in late 2012, and was appointed CEO in July 2013 when Sun Innovation Holdings Ltd., a Hong Kong-listed company, acquired the visual effects arm of the group, known as Digital Domain 3.0. Though it may be hard to imagine because of his age, Seah turned around the troubled outfit, returning it to profitability and helping it regain some of its past glory.
In his more than two years at Digital Domain's helm, Seah has expanded the company's commercial reach beyond its core specialty of traditional visual effects. His new emphasis on developing "virtual humans" and virtual reality technology has helped Digital Domain evolve from being a traditional effects factory into a high-tech firm.
"We have created a world audiences picture in their minds," Seah says confidently.
One of Hollywood's movers and shakers, Universal Pictures President Jimmy Horowitz, is a big fan. "In a constantly evolving business, [Seah] has a talent for finding creative solutions and new opportunities," he says.
Seah has a far broader background than most young executives his age. He was raised in Taiwan and then moved overseas after graduating from high school. He studied law at Peking University, getting both a bachelor's and master's degree there, before working for an investment bank in Hong Kong.
Apparently set on a career in finance, life threw him a curve ball in 2012.
Soon after the Digital Domain Media Group (DDMG) declared bankruptcy, the Beijing Galloping Horse Group and Reliance MediaWorks of India stepped in to buy Digital Domain 3.0.
But according to a report in Variety in July 2013, another investor was involved to help finance the deal and asked Seah, who was working with Simsen International Finance Group at the time, to help straighten out Digital Domain. Sun Innovation would step in a few months later.
Seah was handpicked by the investor because he was familiar with the company after having discussed buying a stake in DDMG on behalf of a group that included Simsen earlier in the year, the report said.
The young Seah was sent to Los Angeles, and while the California sun often projects comforting warmth, all he felt when he arrived at Digital Domain 3.0 was a cold chill.
A receptionist took stock of the boyish-looking Seah with a skeptical eye, thinking he was an intern reporting for duty.
"They knew I was the representative of the major shareholder, but they still kept me waiting at reception for 40 minutes," Seah says, recalling an unpleasant experience he will never forget.
Digital Domain's reaction was not hard to fathom. The company was founded by some of the most influential people in the movie world, including Titanic director James Cameron and Stan Winston, a special make-up effects creator known for his work in Jurassic Park.
At the very least, the Digital Domain employees expected a retired Disney or Warner Bros. executive to save the financially troubled company.
"It's hard to believe that the person who came was a Taiwanese who was only 27 years old. What a joke!" Seah says, fully aware what the older American workers were thinking.
Seah came on the scene at a time when several large American special effects companies were facing bankruptcy or suffering from financial woes. In addition to Digital Domain, there was also Rhythm & Hues Studios, which won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for Life of Pi.
Charles C. Lee, CEO of Taiwan special effects company TWR Entertainment Inc., explains that the global special effects sector suffers from a fundamental structural problem.
"We rely on making high quality proposals to go after projects, but low bids to get the work. During periods of inactivity, personnel costs are high. It's really hard," Lee says.
When the three major American networks reported the news that Seah would head Digital Domain 3.0 after Sun Innovation became the biggest shareholder, they used a still from Titanic as background images.
Sarcastic comments prompted by the reports, such as, "It's not surprising they used a picture of a sinking ship," hurt Seah's pride.
But in reality, rescuing the sinking ship that was Digital Domain was truly a challenge.
The company was burning through US$9 million a month, and its high personnel costs forced Seah to lay off workers and cut salaries. He had his top advisers draw up a list of the people to be let go and then met with each of them personally.
When movie studios visited Digital Domain to discuss potential projects, they sent their financial teams to tour the premises and "interview" Seah, not trusting him and worried that his company would go bust in the middle of a production.
"I was very sad, but I couldn't show my softer side. The moment you show weakness, people will have a hard time trusting you," says Seah, who now also serves as chairman of the company, which was merged with Sun Innovation and is listed in Hong Kong under the name Digital Domain Holdings Ltd.
A colleague of Seah's from his Simsen International days, Digital Domain Holdings Vice President Samuel Li, says Seah received several threatening letters as he tried to stop the bleeding.
"A young man in an unfamiliar environment, undertaking such a big restructuring facing those kinds of obstacles, not everybody could have handled it; at least I wouldn't have been able to. But he seemed unmoved," Li recalls.
Signing on Teresa Teng
For the company to survive, however, more was needed than simply downsizing the staff and reducing pay levels. It had to expand the business.
Over the past year, Seah has formed a "virtual human" division, and he signed a contract last year with talent agency William Morris Endeavor (WME) Entertainment, LLC. to set up a "virtual person" agency. It has contracted to do 3-D performance holograms of famous celebrities in the United States and Chinese-speaking world, including signing a 10-year agreement to acquire the rights to recreate images of Taiwanese diva Teresa Teng, who died in 1995.
"Using hologram technology, we can 'resurrect' Teresa Teng and have her sing or perform in movies. We don't have to find a substitute for her," says Seah, seeing an opportunity to fulfill the dreams of fans from other generations. In the second half of 2013, Teng appeared in concert with Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou, who idolized the late superstar and dreamed of performing with her.
The young executive made other strategic investments to position the company for the future, including setting up a joint venture with Stan Lee, who founded Marvel and its iconic Spider-Man, Iron Man and Captain America characters, to develop Marvel's intellectual property.
At the beginning of April, Domain Digital set up another joint venture with Immersive Media to take advantage of its new partner's 360 degree viewing and virtual reality technology.
Seah plans to apply it to the sports, tourism, education and news sectors. "In the future when people watch the news, this technology will put them on the spot to experience slums, earthquakes and tsunamis, immersing them in the situation," he explains, fully believing this new technology will change people's lives.
He is not alone in that belief. Facebook invested US$2 billion in February to buy virtual reality startup Oculus VR, which is developing a head-mounted display for immersive virtual reality, highlighting the trend.
Asked if plunging into so many new businesses so quickly was simply a recipe for more headaches, Seah says with urgency, "Bankruptcy is an opportunity. I have to be bold and decisive to get people to see we are really changing."
Perhaps Seah is driven by not wanting to be looked down upon, but he seems even more motivated by not wanting to let the company's employees down.
In the more than two years under Seah's leadership, Digital Domain has become profitable, and it won two Academy Awards this year. But the company's new investments have yet to contribute to the company's profits.
The father of the superhero, 93-year-old Stan Lee, praises Seah for the selfless way he approaches work.
"In the time I've known Daniel I can say he is dedicated and tirelessly creative. With this new role and his leadership I see a bright, innovative and exciting future," Lee said.
Only Seah's special assistant Bryan Larason is truly aware how much work the slim Seah has taken on.
"I often tell him to get some rest," Larason says of his boss, who often works a full day at the company's offices in Los Angeles and then continues to work with the Hong Kong office by video conference during its business day.
Still, Seah occasionally reveals a lighter side normally seen in people his age. When he first took over as chairman of Digital Domain Holdings, "some people called me 'Chairman Seah.' It sounded like I was North Korean leader Kim Jong-un," expressing his discomfort with the way he was addressed.
Seah admits to being a movie lover, but he never imagined setting foot professionally into the industry. Having his name included in the credits at the end of Fast and Furious 7 indicated that he has not only won over the company's employees but also proved himself.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier
Education: Peking University
Bachelor of Arts, Master's Degree in Law
Current Position: CEO and Chairman, Digital Domain Holdings Ltd.
Experience: CEO, Digital Domain 3.0
Senior Executive, Simsen Financial International Group
Analyst, Barclays Bank in Hong Kong