A chat with post production veteran Leon Silverman

This industry mainstay will be receiving the HPA Lifetime Achievement Award this month.

By Randi Altman

Leon Silverman is an industry icon. He’s GM of the Digital Studio at Walt Disney Studios and president of the Hollywood Post Alliance (HPA), the organization that is presenting him with its Lifetime Achievement Award on November 12.

I’ve known Leon for a very long time, meeting him for the first time when he was a senior executive of LaserPacific. He was then, and still remains, a genuinely good guy who has done a lot to help create a feeling of community within an industry filled with competitive businesses. He has also been a big supporter of me personally, for which I will always be grateful.

Anyway, not long before the late October SMPTE Conference in Hollywood, Leon was kind enough to talk to me about the Lifetime Achievement Award, the SMPTE and HPA growing partnership and the industry in general.

Leon will be accepting the HPA Lifetime Achievement Award on November 12.

Leon will be accepting the HPA Lifetime Achievement Award on November 12.

When I asked him how it felt to be chosen for this honor, he was humble, saying, “It’s flattering, embarrassing, and it means a lot to me. It reminds me of those who have helped, mentored me and taught me in my life and career — those who helped me along the path. What it’s really about is how the industry has made transitions, and how the recognition of me is really the recognition of a lot of people who contributed to transformative change in our industry.”

Leon’s passion for the media and entertainment business started early — he says ever since he could remember. In school he was the projectionist and worked at the high school radio station. He was also known to hop the train into downtown Chicago and stare into the window at the WLS radio station and watch them broadcast. He thought it was “the most interesting thing in the world.” So imagine how he felt after taking a tour of CBS Television with his friend’s dad. He was hooked.

Next was a degree in telecommunications and a ticket to Hollywood. “I moved from Chicago to LA with $1,000 in my pocket, thinking I was rich, to work at Compact Video, although they didn’t know it.”

Yup, he moved across country for the possibility of getting a job at Compact Video. Leon had seen the company’s brochure, with pictures of “cool” production vehicles and a helicopter and a Lear jet, all adorned with the Compact logo. “I really wanted to work there, so I wrote a letter to founder Robert Seidenglanz. That led to an interview with Newt Bellis, but there was not a job available at that time, so I ended up getting a number of temporary and weird jobs while I was waiting for Compact Video.

After four months of knocking on Compact’s door, he was allowed in… working in their shipping and receiving department, and doing whatever was asked of him. It was there he stayed until, one day, an ad for a sales trainee at Compact Video appeared in the trades.

“That was my job,” he says, explaining that he knocked on the door of the VP of marketing & sales office until he gave him a chance. Within four and a half years, Leon was head of marketing and sales at Compact. His dream was coming true. It was during that time he met mentors who played a big role in his life, such as Emory Cohen and Steve Schifrin.

Listen up kids: determination and a dream really can play a role in your dream job.

The award for Best in Show at the recent SMPTE HPA Film Festival. Leon Silverman congratulates the winners along with Bob Seidel, SMPTE.

The award for Best in Show at the recent SMPTE HPA Film Festival. Leon Silverman congratulates the winners along with Bob Seidel, president of SMPTE.

Ok, now let’s turn to the Hollywood Post Alliance (HPA), which Leon helped found and is now a part of SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture Engineers).

It seems you have always been interested in encouraging a spirit of community within the industry. Can you talk about the genesis of the HPA, and how you’ve seen it grow?
HPA wasn’t a beginning, it was a continuation of a long effort of many people in this community who were in trade associations that focused on post — this goes back to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. The HPA has its roots in the Southern California chapter of the ITS (International Teleproduction Society), which had a very active board of directors.

One of the great accomplishments was the ITS technology retreat, which HPA inherited (the yearly HPA Tech Retreat takes place in Palm Springs, California). They also got involved in California politics, which resulted in the changing of the tax laws to eliminate the state sales tax on post equipment. This is still in effect to today, as well as the reassessing of how property tax was assessed on post equipment.

When the headquarters of ITS disbanded in the early 2000s, the Southern California chapter felt there was more to do. That was the birth of HPA. There are differences — the ITS was only for those working in the video facility business and the HPA has a broader tent. As a tool manufacturer, you could sponsor the ITS, but you couldn’t sit at the table. The HPA was about a larger community of, not just competitors in the facility business, but collaborators across the entire content creation ecosystem.

Leon Silverman and Barbara Lange.

Leon Silverman and Barbara Lange.

What about your relationship with SMPTE?
As SMPTE and HPA get together, HPA becomes the forum for the discussion of issues that impact the industry, and SMPTE becomes the forum for taking some of those ideas and making them into standards… more importantly broadening our perspective from the local Hollywood base to one that is internationally focused as well.

Barbara Lange (executive director of SMPTE) likes to talk about SMPTE as the 100-year-old startup. So as we start this really new chapter, in which SMPTE celebrates 100 years, and as HPA finds its way within SMPTE. We have a huge opportunity to create a broader view of the content creation ecosystem and how to impact both the discussions and the issues that are really challenging in this digital age — and the real task of how we begin the integration of digital technology in more standardized approaches and, in fact, within industry standards.

There is currently much talk of HDR within the industry. What does the future hold?
The industry has always gravitated towards ways to present our stories in a higher quality and in more compelling ways. Developments like immersive audio and higher brightness projectors that can display contrast greater than film — or colors that we haven’t seen before — allow for a creative pallet that filmmakers are excited about using. Those who create and distribute content are excited about bringing a superior consumer experience to people who enjoy our content.

HDR and immersive audio are new content creation tools that we will really learn the impact of as the creative community puts their own hands and creative minds around how this technology could be deployed in service of a story. Personally, I’m very excited in the things that I’ve seen in films like Tomorrowland and Inside Out. Seeing Inside Out in Dolby Cinema’s EDR was a revelation. I think the industry will work together, as it always has, to understand the impact of how we increasingly create higher-quality products and how best to ensure that this quality flows into our archives.

The HPA Awards, happening in early November in LA, turn 10 years old this year. Congratulations.
The HPA, and the generation that I represent, helped to create this transition from a world of filmed cinema to this digital world, hopefully creating a future that’s worthy of its past. That’s what we’re really celebrating. Over the last 20 or 30 years, we have moved our industry to a place where it’s not really just about the tools or new distribution entities, it’s about a community that now routinely understands how to work together to take advantage of transformative change and how to take this industry into the future.

Part of what our generation did, part of what we did at Pacific Video and LaserPacific, and the idea behind Emory Cohen’s vision of the Electronic Laboratory, was to show how to take the film model and bring that into the electronic and digital age. We’re now done using the past as a future model, because I don’t think there’s a blueprint for the industry today, and I think that’s very exciting, but over the process of the last 30 years we’ve created an industry that understands how to talk to each other, work together. It’s competitors and colleagues — from all aspects of the industry — working together to create this industry’s future.

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Leon Silverman will accept his HPA Lifetime Achievement Award on November 12 during the HPA Awards at the Skirball Cultural Center.

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