Executive Spotlight: A Talk with Lance Podell of Iron Mountain Entertainment Services

For the latest installment in ETC’s Executive Spotlight series, we had a fascinating conversation with Lance Podell, senior vice president and general manager of Iron Mountain Entertainment Services (IMES), a leader in media archiving for the entertainment industry. IMES steers its film, music, broadcast and sports clients in media preservation, restoration and distribution. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Podell’s group has focused on safety and remote productivity while developing innovative methods for protecting assets and serving as an extension of its clients’ businesses. Iron Mountain has also created a “digital studio in a box” so that projects can stay on track during this challenging time.

Erik Weaver: How has the COVID crisis affected your organization?

Lance Podell: As you’d imagine it has impacted us in a number of ways. Overall, the hard work to protect our employees and our clients’ assets has led to strong improvement and innovation in how to connect with our team safely and become the business continuity plan for our customers.

On the employee front, we’ve had to work very hard to ensure our team members’ safety. Some of our people work in a huge warehouse. And in cases where there are three people in such a large space, they can absolutely social distance. But we have a group of people that work in our digital studios and they’re in small rooms working on a specific type of equipment for audio or video digitization or remediation that is firmly planted in its position, so we’ve started by ensuring everybody has all the PPE (personal protective equipment) they need.

Second, we’ve had to rethink how we are physically positioned within the office: moving desks and equipment apart, creating ways to keep people separated and safe.

We have been adding shifts to ensure fewer people in the office at a time and also to accommodate some immunocompromised people to whom we’ve said, “Look, you stay home. We don’t want to risk it. Be safe and we’ll figure out how to bring the work to you.” People want to keep working, so we’ve had a couple of people say, “How about I do an overnight shift when it’s just me in the studio?” How great is that? The team’s commitment to their work and their clients’ businesses has been remarkable.

We’ve been able to create a digital studio in a box that we’ve been able to send to people’s homes to ensure key projects stay on track. Clients count on us to do our work so they can do their work. This has kept more than a few projects alive and on track and employees fully employed safely working at home. Interestingly enough, focusing on the safety of our team also encouraged us to be creative for our clients as well. We keep saying this but, “necessity is the mother of all invention,” and this is one of those times that proves why that adage exists.

Business has been strong as we support people through this transition, but we are of course experiencing clients that have had to put things on hold because they’re on shaky ground as they can’t continue to produce content and generate revenue, whether it be music, film, sporting events or broadcast to drive their businesses.

In other cases clients that need to continue their work with us can’t get access to their assets in their own vaults as they are closed. For clients that store with us we’ve been able to access their assets, and in a way unique to IMES provide both chain of custody security solutions and an all under one roof offering that can pull physical items from the archive, digitize them and distribute them to YouTube, a streaming service, a local station or to the client at home and then return the asset right back to the archive. We’ve also seen clients put things on hold because the team had to be furloughed.

What’s interesting to see develop is that we have been able to, in many ways, either address many challenges the clients are facing right now and demonstrate our real value in case there is a second wave or this becomes the “new normal.” We can be here as our clients’ business continuity plan should this continue for longer than anyone expects.

The record labels, for example, want more and more of their catalog on YouTube right now because people are spending much more time online and casting a wider net of content that interests them. The film studios spend a lot of time thinking about how to increase what’s on their digital streaming services. So where we’ve had our clients’ material in our buildings, we’re able to move it right to our digital studio, digitize it, and send it out.

Clients that don’t have that option right now have realized, this is why they shouldn’t have their digitization separate from their storage, and now they’re realizing where they’re stuck. They’ve already started to call us and say, “Hey, you know what? When this is over, we really need to consolidate everything with you. We’re going to take our storage from where it is and bring it to you, so that we could be very much more prepared if, God forbid, there’s another slow down as a result of this.” Which there could be.

And similarly, this planning supports other natural disasters. In New Jersey, we have hurricanes. In L.A., we have earthquakes and forest fires. In essence, COVID-19 isn’t the only event like this but it has been a forcing function for the industry to get more creative and be more thoughtful about the impact of the choices made about where to store archives for access at all times.

In cases where we do have all of our clients’ assets, we’ve been able to keep projects moving for them if it makes business sense for them to do it. Overall, the net impact of this pandemic is that we’ve been able to confirm for our clients that we truly act as an extension of their business.

EW: That almost sounds like you’re a cloud-enabling solution. Are you doing anything along that line?

LP: It’s not that we’re not working with a lot of clients in a cloud-based environment, but actually one of our big concerns about the cloud, and one of the things we hear from a lot of media companies, is the cloud is not secure enough, particularly for work in-progress or unpublished programming. We have a product called the Digital Content Repository, or DCR, a private cloud, which has never been hacked, and that has allowed us not only to transfer material, but to store it in a much safer environment, with extremely high levels of security.

So imagine you’re working on a film project, and certain people are able to look at the dailies and others don’t have that access. We can add levels of security and access for different people on the same crew or across organizations. We do work flexibly with clients as well. We will send things back to our client’s MAM or their DAM if that’s the way they want it, but we’ve started to work more and more with clients in the DCR.

EW: I’ve always actually thought that you guys had a unique position there.

LP: One of the challenges has been getting the industry to see the value in something that’s much more secure. Often they don’t realize the cloud isn’t as secure as they think. They find out when they have a breach and then it can be too late. And in times like these, I think the value is very clear. It’s good news when there are wins out of this crappy time we’re all living through because the more business opportunity we can create for everybody, the better.

EW: I’ve got a great cartoon that shows a board, saying, “well, we’re not quite ready for digital transformation.” And there’s a huge wrecking ball coming towards them that has COVID-19 on it.

LP: There’s always some truth in a joke. Now, we are working with clients even more closely using many tools we’ve developed or partnered with AWS, Google and others to send really large digital media-rich files to you now that you’re at home. We’ve made it very easy for our clients to transition to working at home even if they deal with large media files all day long. Whether we’re sending it to their cloud or sending it to their home, we’re able to move things very quickly. And that’s critical, whether they use our DCR or not.

EW: You mentioned something that I’m very interested in, and that is your mobile studio solution. Tell us a little bit more.

LP: In two particular IMES cities we’ve had very controlled lockdowns — L.A. and Boyers, Pennsylvania. You may or may not know that Pennsylvania has not considered IMES as an essential business, so we had to shutter the doors at our Boyers studio facility in Pennsylvania. We were fortunate that California ultimately deemed entertainment essential, so our California operations are up and running.

There was about a 48-hour window there where they did not, and we had quite a heart attack. I think the entire industry had a heart attack, which is why it was changed. But in Pennsylvania, we’ve been technically closed and yet we had all of these employees at home who said, “I have work to do. I have projects I’m working on. How can we make this happen?”

Given the genuine interest of the team, we started to think: what equipment could we put together “to go,” as if you were walking into a video production or a location shoot. We put all of the equipment you might use for audio or video digitization in containers on a rolling cart that we delivered to our team members’ homes. We worked with them to get set up with the broadband they needed and all of the other tools and software they might need at home to just pick up as if they hadn’t left the office.

This allowed us to reach out to clients and ask, “Are you willing for us to keep working on your project, if we take our setup from the office to somebody’s home?” And frankly, because of our real one-on-one relationships with our clients, they were more than happy to have our people take the project home and keep it moving. This had a material positive impact on our business and our clients’ ability to keep working.

EW: So it doesn’t sound like your communication lines or your productivity have really been too severely hampered.

LP: No, we’ve had to go to very unusual means — it’s not my choice to have somebody come in and work in the overnight — but I believe, given the times right now, people would much rather work in the overnight than be furloughed. This is a really tough time to feel unproductive.

As I’ve said, our employees have personal relationships with our clients, which makes everyone committed and open to creative solutions so that we don’t ever let our clients down. They care that the work gets done that they’ve promised, and I believe we feel a real responsibility that we can keep these companies moving forward. We keep saying we’ve become a part of their business continuity plan, and we’ve been able to do that through weekends and evenings or working at home.

EW: So I’m looking at your resume and you worked for Google, YouTube Space.

LP: Yes.

EW: That sounds like such an awesome job. So what attracted you to Iron Mountain? It feels like you’re kind of bringing a burst of excitement and energy into this area.

LP: The truth is my whole career has been in media and entertainment. I have always been at the intersection of content and some model, whether it’s advertising subscription, or other types of revenue. And I’ve always been on the front end of the business, creating content or in the world of content creation.

When the Iron Mountain opportunity came my way, at first, I thought: I don’t know anything about storage, cubic square feet or physical operations — that really isn’t my background. My background is on the content development side, the creative side, if you will, and in online platform development.

Talking to the folks at Iron Mountain, they pushed back and said, “No, please come talk to us. What you don’t understand is that the fact that you aren’t from physical storage is precisely what we need. You’ve built studios and studio services globally and you share our clients’ passion for the content product — our clients want somebody that understands the irreplaceable nature of their life’s work, somebody that shares this sensibility, somebody that’s going to really be able to build our business because they share a background with our clients. And over time I actually came to believe that.

In talking to many people in the industry, their reaction was, “Oh, we’d be so happy to know somebody like you is responsible for the things we care so much about because you appreciate it. You understand the creative process. You understand these once in a lifetime creations.” I knew I was hooked when I toured one of our facilities in New Jersey, I walked into the studio and I saw the names of these artists — these creators that we all know and love — sitting on people’s desks.

I think one of the first things I actually walked in on was a studio session originally recorded in Detroit, in Motown in the 1960s, and I was singing the songs in my head and thought, “Wow, this is the original of this song from this huge iconic artist, and I was listening to it in its original format.” Right then it became very clear to me just how important this job really was and how much I wanted to join the IMES team. To be responsible for these priceless or otherwise, one-of-a-kind assets that we hold is a true privilege.

Thanks for noticing the burst of energy. I get excited when I think that there are three types of assets we hold. The first is physical assets that will never be digitized. You can’t ever replace handwritten liner notes by an artist on lyrics first written on a napkin that becomes a song that was immediately on the charts in 1972.

We have costumes from many, many movies you’ve seen and refer to in conversation with friends. We have original album art for some of the iconic albums and when you see it, you realize you can never replace these. Now some of those things, like a costume, you can’t ever digitize, so that’s one track of work we do.

The second track of work we do is to digitize things that are physical. We can digitize a napkin with handwritten notes by a celebrity artist, and we will always want to keep the physical, but now we have a digital backup.

And the third thing is assets that you digitize and then destroy, so you just need the newest, cleanest version. The fact that we might have an album or studio session recorded on a tape that no longer can be transferred, you need to digitize it to preserve it. Another thing that impressed me on my first visit to IMES was when I walked in and there was a wall full of every type of audio equipment I’ve had in my lifetime: original turntables, and original 8-tracks, and original dual cassette players on which I spent many years making mix tapes.

We have nearly every format, because we’re one of the last places some of these older formats can actually be remediated, and then transferred to digital. So we’re really preserving this culture for future generations, and that is what ultimately said to me that this could be a purposeful career move.

EW: What do you think are the positive long-term effects for your organization or your company or even the industry from this?

LP: Well, first of all, we are preserving history for the future. Period, end of story. If you said to me, what’s the one thing that matters, that would be it.

But a very close second is future opportunity for revenue from that history. We always say, if you can find it, you can generate more revenue from it. So, the fact that we keep it and secure it and put it into a format that you might later generate revenue from is super important.

I’ll give you a couple of examples that will make it very clear. We might have all of the original programming from a studio that decides to launch a streaming service and requires all of that programming to be digitized, upleveled to 4K HD. Imagine your favorite karaoke song or what your kids use to jam on “Guitar Hero” and of course, imagine a television commercial that makes you tear up because it evokes a time in your life as you relate to the background song. None of this happens if you don’t have it stored, inventoried and can access it when needed. Without this our clients miss revenue opportunities and we all miss the connection moments.

Over time we’re learning that there are more and more opportunities for revenue attached to these assets. Right now is the perfect example of this, people quarantined at home are becoming very nostalgic during COVID-19 whether it’s because you’re finally cleaning out your family photos in your closet in your attic or because you’re watching reruns of TV shows and have digested all of Netflix.

I’m watching my daughter who’s 20 watch TV shows that reminded her of when she was eight, just because she’s got the time and is now sharing her favorites with her younger sister. Of course, we’ve taken the same opportunity to share with our children what we hope they will share with their children one day. The COVID crisis has made everyone nostalgic and nostalgia gives our clients a chance to draw on their archives and reminds us why we preserve all of these assets in the first place. It’s palpable.

The last point I would make on this is that many broadcasters, sports broadcasters for example, cannot create new content right now so relying on their archive has become not just nice to have, but a critical piece of their broadcasting plan and IMES holds and can access all of that footage.

That we are able to be there for the media and entertainment industry in a time of crisis is a huge part of our business model. It’s not our only raison d’etre, but it is one. It’s an important piece of it. This crisis reminds us of the value of the budget put against storing and preserving these assets in the first place.

I just wanted to comment about why we’re involved with the ETC, too, because I think that’s important. We really believe that we are a significant technology partner to Hollywood, but more than that, we believe it’s our job to be enabling our clients to be thinking about what’s coming next: what the next formats are, how they’ll next use content, and doing the R&D and innovation required to remain a thought leader for our partners.

Being a board member of the ETC is one of the key tenets of that strategy. You hear, “Iron Mountain,” and you think of us as a storage company, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg for IMES. In many other business units at Iron Mountain, people store to remove but keep safe. Our clients in the entertainment industry have very active archives and people with us store to access and retrieve, rather than remove.

So on a very regular basis, they want access to their archives, and that requires us to be really thoughtful about the DCR and how to send something to you, to blast something to you through broadband that’s wide enough, and what’s coming down the pipe with 5G. These are all things we have to be on top of in our business unit. Being a part of the ETC helps us keep in step with the leading edge of technology in this industry, so we ensure we bring the best solutions available to our clients.

EW: Awesome, thanks for the shout out. That’s exactly what we care about: what’s coming around the future.

LP: Yeah, exactly. And so to me it’s a very good match.

Iron Mountain Entertainment Services (IMES) is the leading physical and digital media archiving service for the entertainment industry. We provide expertise and technology in media preservation, restoration and distribution to protect, preserve and maximize the value of our clients’ content — all delivered with local, highly personal service. We partner with our clients in the film, music, broadcast, and sports industries to bring them the global resources and unparalleled safety and security of Iron Mountain. The personal services of a boutique entertainment company and unparalleled expertise in media preservation, digital transformation and asset revenue generation.