An American entrepreneur opens China's first high-end mixed reality showroom.
Rick Garson is a unique figure in entertainment. A colorful, controversial executive and entrepreneur, Rick's range of experience includes promoting Michael Jackson's "Bad" tour as well as creating and producing the Billboard Music Awards. He career has also been defined by innovation such as his development and promotion of the Rolling Stones' "Steel Wheels" pay-per-view music special, the first of its kind.
Rick first hit China's radar in 2008, when he produced the Beijing Olympics' "Divas in Beijing" concert TV series. Since then, he's had his hands dirtied and his nose bloodied in the rough-and-tumble world of Chinese events and entertainment. Rather than turn tail and go home, Rick doubled-down and moved to China in 2013.
He's now breaking new ground in mixed reality with his latest venture, VX Entertainment. VX Entertainment provides world-class content for the immersive media era, and features what may be the first high-end mixed reality showroom (at least the first of its kind in China) combining projection technology, virtual reality and holography.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Rick in his Beijing studio, experience VX Entertainment's mixed reality showroom for myself (one word review: awesome) and ask some questions about where he is and where he's going.
KEVIN: So Rick, why China?
RICK: In 2008, I was invited to China by CCTV (China Central Television) to get involved in the Olympics. China was never on my radar, and I had no plans to go to China. I was focused on my work creating shows in America.
KEVIN: Your record as an executive and producer is impressive.
RICK: Thanks, that's what got me invited to China. I created and produced a concert series called "Divas in Beijing" for the Beijing Olympics. The show was named a "premiere cultural event" in China, and because of its success suddenly all these opportunities opened up to me here. So, for the next four years I was going back and forth between America and China. I was like a kid in a candy store, but I also got quite the education.
KEVIN: What was the most educational aspect?
RICK: The cultural differences, doing deals. The deals are just... it's better now, but still... you know, I think of it this way: the West has historically abused China, but now China's doing a lot better than we are in many ways. These days, China's like that rich kid on the basketball court. If he doesn't like the way the game is going, he'll just take his ball and say, "Game over," and walk away. The relationship between China and America follows what I call the "window up, window down" syndrome. You know how when you're driving with the window up, and someone cuts you off you're like, "Hey you motherf_cker, you son of a...," but when your window comes down at the stop light you're like, "Hey man, sorry about that." That's the relationship between China and America. They really do need each other. My first four years here were very challenging. Every night I'd return to the hotel where I was living and stab my pillow going, "What the hell am I doing here?"
KEVIN: [laughing] What did you stab it with?
RICK: Chopsticks, man!
KEVIN: I had my own "dark night of the soul" in China back in 2009. I felt like everyone was trying to squeeze me for all I had, and that I wasn't really accomplishing anything. I confided my frustrations to a Chinese producer friend, who said, "Kevin, the thing you need to understand about Chinese people is that for decades, for centuries, China has been exploited and abused by foreigners. Not by you, but by those who came before you. And what feels to you as being taken advantage of, the Chinese consider as their chance to level the playing field. There's nothing personal or vengeful about it. Chinese people don't think there's anything they can do to really hurt you - that as a foreigner you have privilege and resources and came here voluntarily, so everything's fair game. If you don't like how things are going in China, you can simply return to your comfortable American life." He concluded, "If you can understand that and acknowledge that and roll with that, you can do very well here." It was great advice, and things indeed improved after I changed my outlook.
RICK: Something similar happened to me. I was living with a woman in America while traveling back and forth between the USA and China. She hated it, but she didn't want to move here. And I'm thinking, "What am I doing? All these personal sacrifices I'm making, and for what?"
KEVIN: So, you were still maintaining a residence in the U.S.?
RICK: Yeah, I was. And after a few years of that, I was just fed up - I couldn't take it anymore. I was drowning my sorrows in a hotel bar in Beijing when this six-foot-seven, Canadian-born Chinese man came over and started talking to me. He asked my name, and I told him who I was. He said, "OK Rick, meet me here two days later," and he left.
KEVIN: [laughing] And that was it?
RICK: Yeah, that was it. So two days later, I came back.
KEVIN: You came back?
RICK: I don't know what made me come back, but I came back. And he said to me, "Rick, I checked you out. You've done a lot and you've been through a lot. You've made millions and you've lost millions. You have your supporters and you have your haters. But that's OK because you're in the game, while most people just watch from the sidelines. So forget about your troubles and your detractors: you're doing it. And China needs people like you, because China thinks like this, and they need people who think like that. They need that entrepreneurial spirit."
KEVIN: The fact that you've made money but also lost money shows that you're a player, that you take risks.
RICK: [laughing] Yeah, I'm a serial entrepreneur. I am unemployable. So then the guy says, "The smartest people in the world have no idea what's going on in China. The people that come here four or five times a year and think they're going to make it are never going to make it. If you want to make it in China you've got to live here at least seven years. And if you can plant a foundation and build on that, you'll succeed." And then that guy went away, never saw him again. He was like a muse.
KEVIN: Wow. But it's true and I've advocated this myself: boots on the ground is the only way to get it done here.
RICK: Indeed, and now here we are opening China's first mixed reality studio showroom. It's been a dream of my partners and mine for the past two years - a product of our passion and our vision. I'm a techno idiot, but I think I'm a...
KEVIN: A visionary.
RICK: I try to stay ahead of the curve.
KEVIN: You're the guy who can set the vision, set the plan, and then marshal the forces to make it happen.
RICK: Right. And here we are: opening. It's amazing.
KEVIN: And what keeps you here? I'm guessing this venture, for one thing.
RICK: That, and the changing dynamics of the American entertainment industry. In America, budgets for shows have been dropping while traditional distribution revenues have also been dropping. Distribution just isn't what it used to be - the game is changing. But American content is still king. For my entire career, I've preached that content is king, and I practice what I preach. I don't care about anything else but making world-class content. And I love the business opportunities here in China. China needs our help with content. They want international-quality productions. And as long as you can deliver on that, you can go a long way together. Look, the Chinese know that they can't keep doing things the same way if they want to succeed on a global level. And they also know that they're not going to compete with a Disney or a Universal any time soon. Those companies have their own formulas and success models down pat. Chinese companies want something different.
KEVIN: Yes, to emulate Western business models would be a disaster. That's the old world - not only from a different time, but also a different context and culture.
RICK: Right. So what our team is going after is represented by this immersive, interactive mixed reality showroom model that nobody else is doing. We're all about creating the "wow" factor. Installing a few VR headsets in a cafe or shopping mall is not the same thing.
KEVIN: And often big companies that are heavily involved in VR, such as Disney, are so constrained by their internal processes and distribution preconceptions that the innovations taking place in their labs are compromised in the final result. Meanwhile, there are people who have been in it for less time, but are more fleet of foot and more daring. They'll take the risks. They don't debate things in meetings forever.
RICK: All those big companies are stuck in their formulas.
KEVIN: And now they're coming to you.
RICK: More importantly, the others also are coming to us, the ones who want to upgrade, the ones who want to be different. They know they have to be hipper and cooler, and they see that we can help.
KEVIN: So, this is an exciting time for you then. You've been here for a while, but it seems like the most exciting time in a way.
RICK: This is the most exciting time. You know, I've been going back and forth for years, and I moved here three years ago, and now this is home. I'm boots on the ground, as you put it. If the CEO of a Chinese company wants to meet me and check out our stuff, we're right here. But we're also global, as China is becoming.
KEVIN: VX Entertainment was invited to CES by Omnicom. How was CES for you?
RICK: It was great. We were there with the big boys, Google and others, and we were one of the few showing content. That's the other thing I've learned, is that many people really have no idea what's going on. I have executives of Fortune 500 companies coming to me because they aren't getting what they want, and usually don't even know what they want.
KEVIN: It's similar to twenty years ago, when the buzzword was the internet. You had executives who didn't even know what "the internet" was, but they knew they had to be into it. They were afraid of missing out on something that they didn't understand, but also afraid of getting into something that they didn't understand. It was fear across the board, which I suppose is business as usual in Hollywood. And now we're seeing the same thing with immersive media: VR, AR and MR. What's your take on this?
RICK: Everyone's jumping on the VR bandwagon. VR is great for gamers, but the average consumer still isn't buying it. Interactive, mixed reality is where it's at, and that's what we're focused on. People want to do things. They want to be able to touch, taste, smell, experience. VR currently doesn't cut it. The world is wide open, so the technology needs to be wide open.
KEVIN: I couldn't agree more. On that note, I want to say that the demo I experienced in your studio showroom blew me away. It was an incredible immersive experience, and I didn't need an HMD. I wasn't sitting there with a face-hugger undermining the immersion. The projections, the holograms, the quality of the animation - all first rate.
RICK: Thanks, man.
KEVIN: To the extent you're able to divulge publicly at this point, what more can you tell us about this new immersive media venture? What are you doing and where are you going?
RICK: Once we're completely out of the gate - because right now we're still very much in beta mode - I think the sky's the limit. We're only limited by our imaginations in terms of what we can do. And what we can do is good for every industry: entertainment, education, health care, manufacturing, luxury... there's not one business that we can't elevate in some way. So I'm really excited about the future. Even in our current beta state, companies have come through here and said they've never seen anything like it. Other people talk about this stuff, but here's a place where you can actually experience it. There's nothing like it, and I'm really excited about that. As I said before, this has been a dream of ours for the last two years.
KEVIN: You also bootstrapped it pretty fast, although by Chinese standards, you probably bootstrapped it in a normal amount of time. I remember visiting your facility last summer, and it was just an empty space under renovation. Now it's full of all these high-tech toys with chewy content centers. I know it's been a rough road for you and took longer than you thought it would, but it came together ridiculously fast by Western standards.
RICK: It did, and if it were in America or anywhere else in the West, our launch would probably be dragging on for another couple years. China's great, but also I have Western people on my team who are essential to what we're doing. They don't understand China, so...
KEVIN: You're the bridge.
RICK: I'm the bridge. I also see us as the bridge to China for Western companies, because a lot of these big foreign companies - hardware, software, content - they don't have a presence here. Now they can use our showroom as their showroom. They can leverage on our presence, our technology and our ideas.
KEVIN: As you know, there's so much smoke and mirrors in the industry, globally in general but China in particular, that to produce something "tangible" (I say that figuratively because it's virtual content), to produce something that you can experience makes all the difference.
RICK: It makes all the difference, and we see that every day. People will walk in and go, "Oh, wow. This is real." It's not like giving a PowerPoint presentation or showing a video. We're 24/7. Door's open. Come in and experience the "wow" for yourself.
KEVIN: Tell me more about VX Entertainment's "four screens" philosophy.
RICK: Well, before this current wave of VR activity, all the heat was on mobile content and internet TV. So we're expanding on that under the new banner of VX Entertainment, and now it's everything, because who watches traditional TV anymore? Everyone's streaming, everyone's mobile.
KEVIN: First "appointment television" went away, and then television itself kind of went away.
RICK: Network television is more for ego. It really is. What you really need now to be a hit is the internet: streaming, mobile. Traditional TV ratings are dying while internet hits are booming.
KEVIN: Including a lot of user-generated content, some of which is pretty good quality.
RICK: Right. Our immersive business model cuts across all forms of distribution.
KEVIN: So in a way, you could say it's evolving from four screens to no screens?
RICK: No screens, that's right. That's very good.
KEVIN: [laughing] Feel free to use it.
RICK: I will.
KEVIN: Looking ahead, what are your predictions for immersive media and for yourself over the next 2-3 years? You can speak to China, you can speak to the world, whatever you like. Where do you see things going?
RICK: Well, first of all, whatever is new today is old tomorrow. That's a fact. You know, everyone's always so excited about the hot new thing, but I say, "Don't get too excited, because it will be old tomorrow." What we've got to really focus on - once again - is content. We need to make great content that can adapt to any media. I see VX Entertainment being a leader in the next 2-3 years: a little David among the Goliaths. I see us expanding very quickly. We're getting offers already, and I see unlimited growth potential. But I always see our focus as creating the best content possible.
KEVIN: And do you still see yourself here in China?
RICK: [laughing] I love it here! I love the culture and the people, we're in the safest place in the world, and there are great opportunities here. Why be anywhere else? The difference between doing business in America and doing business here in China - there are a lot of differences, actually - but in America contracts are the size of an old phone book and written for failure, while here in China contracts here are the size of a pamphlet and written for success.
KEVIN: Contracts in China are a starting point in the relationship.
RICK: Yes. Now of course, it isn't perfect. There isn't a country that I haven't had a bad business experience in, and China is certainly no exception.
KEVIN: It's rough and tumble, but it's fun.
RICK: China's the "Wild Wild West:" full of opportunities. It's hard, but it's very rewarding.
KEVIN: Awesome. Rick, thanks for your time today, and good luck with everything.
RICK: Thanks, man.
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