The serious side of entertainment

By Tequia Burt
ASU W.P. Carey magazine

We’re living in a golden age of entertainment. No matter how you spend your off-hours — in a sports stadium suite, sitting in front of the silver screen, or even just scrolling through your smartphone — there’s no shortage of captivating options available to help you fill every moment.

And behind the magical storytelling, highlight-reel-worthy athletic accomplishments, and can’t-miss viral moments, you might just find a W. P. Carey grad. From crunching numbers to calling the shots from the C-suite, these alumni are helping make the entertainment we love more accessible and irresistible.

Here, they share some of their favorite stories and a few tricks of the trade.

Capturing consumers’ attention with cutting-edge technology

Matt Michalowski (BS Finance ’09), the founder and president of digital marketing agency PXL, admits that there is a glut of imperfect advertising online.

“As a consumer, I don’t love being bombarded with bad ads. If you make advertising that is creative and fun, you will engage consumers,” he says. “When you’re working in entertainment and you’re making ads for products that bring enjoyment and escape to people’s lives, it’s a lot of fun.”

PXL, which is based in Los Angeles and works with television networks and movie studios to market their upcoming theatrical, home entertainment, and television series online, was recently awarded a prestigious Silver Clio for its work on Paramount’s 2018 home entertainment release Sherlock Gnomes.

The campaign featured a Facebook Live Q&A with the animated Sherlock character from the movie. The agency used real-time face-mapping technology to translate an improv actor’s performance into a digital character who interacted with movie fans.

“It basically looked like the animated Sherlock character was talking, gesturing, and making facial expressions; it felt authentic,” Michalowski says. “When have you ever seen a character animated in real time like that? Nobody had ever seen an animated character talking and answering questions in a live stream before. It’s a new technology, and it got people to stop when they were scrolling through their feeds.”

Beyond garnering a big award for PXL, the campaign resonated with consumers. It reached more than 10,000 fans and managed to get them to interact with Sherlock.

“My favorite part of the job is bringing new ideas to our clients and their customers and solving problems in creative ways,” Michalowski says. “It’s fun when you come up with a new idea, can run with it, and it’s effective.”

Trick of the trade

“The best advertising doesn’t feel like advertising to the person on the other end,” he says. “Content that people want to watch, share, and engage with because it’s authentically interesting, funny, or inspiring goes so much further toward building excitement in the product you are selling.”

Reaching the right customers at the right time

Joel McFadden (MBA ’06) has been on the team at Fan Interactive Marketing in LA since it was founded 10 years ago.

“We focus on one-to-one marketing in the sports and entertainment world,” says McFadden, who is currently the chief operations officer. “We provide services to clients, whether it’s venues like the Barclays Center in Brooklyn or sports teams like the Memphis Grizzlies or Kansas City Chiefs. We essentially help them better optimize their data to target customers or prospects. Ultimately, the end goal is to sell more tickets or increase sponsorship values.”

McFadden originally became interested in sports marketing while working as an accountant. He chose the W. P. Carey School to help him transition into a career he could be passionate about. “I didn’t necessarily love the industry I was in, and I didn’t necessarily love some of the work that I was doing,” he says. “Then I looked around and said, ‘Hey, I’ve always loved sports. Since I’m not going to be competing in professional sports anytime soon, if I build my career around the business of sports, something that I love, I’d be much happier.’”

McFadden says the sports marketing agency’s main goal is to provide multichannel marketing campaigns to clients — via email marketing, digital advertising, and data analysis — to give them a better understanding of their own customers, which in turn helps them create stronger relationships.

Trick of the trade

“We try to leverage their data to figure out things like, for example, who’s buying season tickets, memberships, or suites, whatever it may be,” he says. “Then we create strategies and campaigns to help our clients target the right individuals at the right time with the right offer.”

Thinking outside the box drives success for Lionsgate

It’s a turbulent time in the movie business, according to Michael Burns (BS Political Science ’80), the vice chairman of Lionsgate, a global media and entertainment company. “Right now, you have disruptors like Netflix that have taken the world by storm,” he says. “And then you have more traditional companies like Disney, which has made some terrific acquisitions including Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar. It’s a new world.”

To distinguish itself and make its studio more competitive, Burns says that Lionsgate emphasizes underserved markets, and its approach to unconventional movie making has yielded great success for the studio.

“You have to be able to zig when everybody else is zagging; that’s what we’re doing on the movie front,” he says. “There are these giant multinationals that are putting out giant superhero movies, so we’ll do movies that we think are fresh, like “Wonder” or “La La Land.” We’ve invented franchises out of thin air, like “John Wick.” Those are all different genres, but with targeted audiences. And, in many ways, underserved markets.”

Burns says Lionsgate’s strategy for success in such a competitive landscape is to continue to evolve as a company and push boundaries. “The speed with which this industry is changing means you have to be nimble,” Burns says. “When we did a musical with ‘La La Land,’ people thought we were crazy. But it worked out pretty well!” The movie won six Oscars and topped $400 million at the box office.

Trick of the trade

“The best business schools expose their students to new disciplines and fresh ideas, helping them to become agile, nimble, and a little more innovative in their thinking. And by bringing them together with a diverse and multicultural group of students and faculty, they’re able to see the world through others’ eyes, enabling them to identify emerging and underserved markets and other opportunities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.”

Data is at the heart of Hulu’s business

Working as an engineer on Hulu’s data team enables Irfan Khanmohamed(MS Information Management ’14) to blend both art and science to help develop compelling content for viewers.

“Data is at the center of everything Hulu does,” he says. “We’re in such a competitive space. We’re trying to grow our subscriber base, figure out what content people like, and figure out how we can keep our subscribers happy. You can’t do any of that without going through the data.”

Khanmohamed’s job is to help the business side of the streaming video company assess its data using various tools. “My day-to-day is either solving problems for our analysts looking to access our data, or working on and maintaining the tools they use to access this data,” he says.

His work at Hulu represents a major shift from his previous role. “I was looking to change — I was working in programmatic advertising,” he says. “I loved working in tech, but I was tired of the advertising industry. I wanted to work for a company that created something people enjoyed. I submitted my resume online to their portal, they called me, and I got lucky.”

Working at Hulu means that Khanmohamed gets to work in what he calls a “big data playground.” “We have millions of subscribers and just a ton of content. We get to use any data analytics tool to examine the enormous amount of data we have. That’s exciting,” he says.

Trick of the trade

“We spend a lot of time looking at what content is being watched the most, and some of the top shows that people watch definitely surprised me when I first joined. The piece of information that I found most interesting was the top three shows sports fans were watching when they weren’t watching sports: ‘Big Bang Theory,’ ‘Family Guy,’ and ‘Fixer Upper.’”

Read More

Originally published on March 13, 2019, in Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey Business School magazine