The Producer

Lots of kids love movies. Not so many keep track of box-office grosses, as Apur Parikh did while growing up in Rochester, New York. Parikh, who graduated from Penn State in May with both an M.B.A. and a masters in telecommunications, also built his own network TV schedules every fall, handicapping hits and predicting cancellations in a show-business version of fantasy baseball. And he kept up with the trades: Variety, People, Entertainment Weekly, the Hollywood Reporter.

man holding popcorn at movie theater
Ken Huth

Apur Parikh has chased his childhood dream of making movies all the way to Hollywood.

"My best friend in ninth grade wanted to be a filmmaker," Parikh remembers. "We would talk about the industry all the time—which director was making what, who was cutting deals…. Another friend saw everything that came out. Between the three of us we were going to movies or talking about movies all the time. I always knew I wanted to be in the industry, but it took me a long time to figure out what I could do."

As an undergraduate at Purdue University, he opted for security, earning a dual degree in mechanical engineering and communications. Returning to Rochester, he tried to settle into a "traditional" engineering job at Eastman Kodak. "I quickly realized it wasn't my true passion," he says. "It wasn't me. But who was going to pay me to estimate box-office grosses?"

One day Parikh saw a job posting for Kodak's motion-picture imaging division. "Even though I was not close to being qualified," he says, "I decided to give it a shot." He was interviewed by Jan Bent, a graduate of Penn State's Smeal College of Business who was then Kodak's director of business research. "Her group studies new trends, researches emerging technologies, does market-share analyses for internal clients," Parikh explains. "Anything anybody wants to know that has to do with movies and the entertainment industry. Why is the use of 35mm print film declining on the Asian sub-continent? Who are the players in digital imaging? Questions like that.

"She asked me what I was interested in," he remembers, "and when I told her, she said, 'We pay people to do that.' She showed me this fantastic library, with all these entertainment-industry resources I had never even heard of. It was awesome. She was awesome."

He didn't get the job. But when he told Bent of his plans to go to graduate school—at Penn State—she offered him a summer internship, and Parikh jumped at the opportunity. "I spent a lot of time in that library," he says. "I just read and read. I wanted to learn everything. Then Jan would give me projects to do."

One of those projects led him to Las Vegas, and an annual show of video dealers. "Blockbuster Video had just instituted a revenue-sharing program with the studios," he says, "and Kodak needed to know how it was going to impact print film. So I went out there and talked to people and had an incredible time. I learned a lot about how the video industry works."

And re-kindled his desire to wind up, somehow, in pictures. But how? "I had taken screenwriting classes, and found out that wasn't me. And I couldn't direct. I knew I liked the deal-making part of the industry—running a studio, getting a production company together. By the end of the summer I realized that what I really wanted to do was produce."

He also knew he wanted to return to school. "I loved learning about telecommunications. And I still wanted to hedge my bets." Parikh enrolled at Penn State in fall 1998, and started working with Richard Taylor, Palmer chair professor of law and telecommunications. Taylor, a former vice president and corporate counsel for Warner Cable Communications, specializes in the impact of emerging information technologies. The new technology that had caught Parikh's eye was digital cinema.

"I had heard about digital at Kodak," Parikh says, "and I wanted to know more about it. So I decided to write a paper on the technical aspects for Dr. Taylor." That meant researching the two competing digital projection technologies: one developed by Texas Instruments and based on a semiconductor chip fitted with thousands of micro-mirrors; the other, built by JVC, and based on liquid crystals. It also meant learning about compression technology. "Movie files are huge," Parikh explains. "How do you make them small enough to transmit, and store? I talked to people at Qualcomm about the compression algorithms they had come up with and patented."

In May of '99, when Parikh returned to Kodak for another summer, it was just about the time that Star Wars fans were lining up for director George Lucas's long-awaited prequel, The Phantom Menace. "Lucas is big on digital," Parikh remembers. "He had stated he would release The Phantom Menace in digital format as a demonstration of the technology." The trial would run for a month, with screenings on both coasts.

Having read his paper on the new technology, Jan Bent sent Parikh to Los Angeles for opening night. "My job was to see how it worked," Parikh says. For several days, "I was running from theater to theater, digital to film, comparing." The verdict? "It was just awesome. It was flawless. No breakdowns, no pixillation, you could discern shadows . . . It looked like a print film looks on the first day of a run. Crystal clear.

"At that point I realized the technology was going to work," Parikh says, and also that the remaining obstacle was cost. The prototype projectors used for the special screening cost $150,000 each, compared to $30,000 for a standard 35mm film projector. "I was hooked. I had to figure out how it could work, the economics."

That fall, back at Penn State, he decided to enroll in the Smeal College of Business and study for an MBA. "I had been thinking of leaving," he says. "I had finished most of my telecomm requirements, and I was eager to get out to Hollywood. I didn't want to be 26 or 27 and just starting out." But his father and Jan Bent convinced him to stay in school. "I took accounting, and finance, and management," he remembers, "and I was doing film stuff on the side—reading scripts, calling industry people, talking with Penn State alums who are in Hollywood. Each semester I took another chunk of the industry I didn't understand." That summer, Parikh went back to Kodak—and Bent sent him back to L.A. "She said, 'I'll send you projects. Do what you can, learn what you can." At night he took classes in entertainment law at UCLA, and networked with more Penn State alums.

"All that time," he says, "I kept thinking about digital cinema, how to get it to work. Cost-benefit structures. It was driving me crazy."

For his master's project, Parikh had intended to produce a film. "But I couldn't get a screenplay I liked," he says. "I decided I wasn't going to make something terrible just to say I had made a film." Instead, with the support of his graduate committee and Penn State finance professor Dennis Sheehan, he created a financial model for "dCinema."

"I looked at the advantages and drawbacks of digital, and at who is likely to implement it—the theater chains, or the studios, or the two together," Parikh explains. He also analyzed the current film-distribution system, and weighed the options for digital distribution. He developed a Monte-Carlo simulation and ran profit-loss scenarios. "I got to tie everything together," Parikh says. "All the finance stuff, all the telecomm stuff I had learned."

His conclusions: "I do think dCinema will happen, but it's hard to say when. There are issues that still need to be worked out." The biggest one is the price tag for digital projectors, which remains at $150,000. "That price will drop with economies of scale—; It has to. Right now, though, the technology is developing so rapidly that every time the price goes down, a new improvement pushes it back up."

Soon after graduating with his dual degree, Parikh moved back west, where he has landed a position starting in April with the accounting giant Pricewaterhouse-Coopers at its office in Century City, California. He has finally made it to Hollywood. "We work with all the major studios," he explains. "Brainstorming. Analyzing assets. Consulting the studio heads on long-term strategy. It's a dream job.

"I still get excited when I think about it," Parikh says about the way things have turned out for him. But not too excited to keep working his plan on the side. "Right now I'm trying to secure rights to a book. I will keep looking for screenplays. When I find one I'll put a business plan together and make a movie."

Apur Parikh received dual graduate degrees, a master's in business administration and a master's in telecommunications, in May 2001. He can be reached at apurparikh@msn.com. His adviser was Richard D. Taylor, J.D., Ed.D., Palmer Chair Professor of Telecommunications Studies in the College of Communications, 208B Carnegie Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-1482; rdt4@psu.edu.

Last Updated May 01, 2002