Sunday, April 18, 2021

Q&A With Incoming Entertainment Design Corporation CEO Alex Calle

ABOVE: EDC’s Hall of Treasures at Resorts World Sentosa

Los Angeles, CA, USA (courtesy Entertainment Design Corporation) — As Alex Calle takes the reins of Entertainment Design Corporation as the new Chief Executive Officer, the EDC staff (Jeremy Railton, Chairman; Richard Wechsler, Director of Projects; Alison Picard, Production Manager; Francesca Nicolas, Production Designer; Kurt Gefke, Art Director) sat down with him and asked the following questions:

Jeremy: What were the circumstances that brought you to EDC?

The year was 2009, and I was out of work. I mean ramen noodles out of work! Whilst wondering what to do next I happened into a second hand bookstore. As I was mulling around, I found an out of date Local 800 Art Director’s Directory from 1998 and recognized an opportunity. I went straight home, wrote out a pitch and started making calls. The book was about an inch thick and some 150 pages—roughly 8 people per page—but I was determined, so beginning at “A”, day by day I made my way through the list. By the 50th call, I had my pitch down to about 20 seconds… ha, just enough to get my future employer to say yes.

I was 24, and had ambitions beyond being a draftsman. I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer all day and knew I could Art Direct. Unfortunately, not many people shared my conviction.

The A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s didn’t prove fruitful. “You need more experience… You’re really young to think you’re an Art Director… The town is dead right now… We’re in the middle of a financial fallout… Get in the union and we’ll talk.” These were some of the recurring themes I heard.

Roughly two months after I started cold calling designers, I reached the R’s and landed upon Railton, Jeremy. After doing my typical bit of research, I called, gave my well-rehearsed pitch and waited. Without skipping a beat, Jeremy, in his always heart melting tone, said, “What are you doing tomorrow?” I went in for the interview, started the next day, and was on a plane the following week to Art Direct a project in Singapore.

By the way, it wasn’t until several years later that I found out what got me the job that day. It wasn’t my pitch or portfolio—EDC was just in desperate need of an Art Director that would travel, and travel immediately. So, in the end, it was being at the right place at the right time; that’s the circumstance that brought me to EDC.

Jeremy: What were the major influences and events that shaped your career and empowered you to rise from an Art Director to a principal designer and CEO in seven years?

I discovered my love of theater when I was seven. Growing up in a single parent household is challenging in many respects and my mom worked incredibly hard as a waitress to make ends meet. One of the best things she did for me as a young kid was to find the cheapest day care providers around—the local Community Theater. It meant she didn’t have to take me to her shift and sit me down in the booth closest to the kitchen.

From the first day she dropped me off to help with the Lake Worth Playhouse’s newest production, I was hooked. Little did she know it would be my life’s calling and passion. Up until that point, all I had been aware of was day time soap operas, and here I learned that theater had everything the soaps had and more. Straight after school I would head to the theater and stay until my mom got off her dinner shift. There was always something going on at the theater, whether a strike, a new set build or a rehearsal and I was absorbing it all. Sometimes they needed a kid to be in the show; sometimes they needed a kid to paint the set. I was there. It became my life and never let me go.

Growing up in Community Theater, I discovered that telling stories is what brings theater artists together in a variety of mediums—acting, costume design, scenic design, lighting design, directing, producing—and with little or no money. So inevitably, ‘I can do that’ became my motto. No matter the medium, I’d figure it out and then do it.

Plainly, theater teaches, if nothing else, courage and conviction.

It’s that courage and conviction that made me step onto the stage and audition when they needed a kid in the scene. That theater is where I learned determination, and that’s what made me venture from Florida to the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. Finally it was courage, conviction, determination, and ambition that made me cold-call so many people to finally land at EDC.  So my entire life’s calling began with my mom introducing me to Community Theatre at the Lake Worth Playhouse.

Jeremy: Under your guidance, the recent work that EDC completed for Dubai Parks & Resorts—Concept through Schematic Design for two E-Ticket attractions– just from the sheer volume and time pressure, has expanded the capacity of our company for a new exciting potential. What are your personal ambitions for EDC and what do you dream about?

I dream about a company that strives to stay creative, to do new and interesting work, and isn’t afraid to be bold and flexible. I used to think that a bigger company meant a better company, but in a world that is more and more in the cloud, not settled into a brick and mortar structure, and changing at a faster and faster rate, it may be better to be small, agile, and quick. This gives EDC the power to focus on a select group of projects with a small team that inspires other artists to work in the same manner and aesthetic that EDC is known for.

Alison: As CEO you have to oversee contracts, proposals and negotiations as well as manage a creative team.  How do you balance these right and left brain functions on a daily basis?

I truly love both aspects of the business equally. Without creative there wouldn’t be an opportunity for business and without business there wouldn’t be the opportunity for creative. It’s a respect that was initially born out of growing up in Community Theater where there was a lot of creative energy, but no money to do what we really wanted.

EDC days can quickly turn into 14- to 16-hour days when we’re involved in a heavy project. Bouncing back and forth between negotiating a 24-month warranty period with a vendor and then heading into a creative meeting where we’re discussing subtle color changes and nuanced lighting is what keeps me going. I love it and I wouldn’t ask for anything different. I really think that working both sides is what keeps me balanced. I never get bored and I’m always on my toes. I’m in Billy Flynn’s three-ring circus from Chicago and it makes me really happy… it’s my zone.

Kurt: What is it that makes you get up and go to work every day? Is there a driving element that keeps you swinging for the outfield?

Yes, definitely. It’s the conviction that we are making people happy by entertaining them. We are in a service business, the business of entertainment and even though there are crazy things going on in the world that seem more important, entertainment raises the quality of life for rich and poor.

Alex Calle
Alex Calle

There are so many incredible ideas floating around and in the ether. All we have to do as a company is to reach up, grab them, and focus all of our attention on making them become real.

People were shocked when we proposed two hundred-foot industrial cranes that danced and fell in love, but we built them and The Crane Dance at Resorts World on Sentosa Island in Singapore entertains guests to this day. People looked confused when we suggested a 22-foot diameter diamond that would magically appear and float above a fountain, but we built it and The Fortune Diamond at The Galaxy Macau is still considered one of the top ten things to see in Macau.

We swing for the outfield because we must. The talent EDC has within its walls is incredible. My conviction is simply that there is no reason why we shouldn’t try and why we can’t get a home run every time.

I have always been fascinated by the power of a story. I can remember the movie theater where I saw Titanic for the first time; strangely. I can vividly remember flying over London in ‘Peter Pan’s Flight’ for the first time, and I can draw you a picture of what the stage looked like when the massive helicopter took the stage during Kim’s Nightmare in Miss Saigon. Those images and memories are due to great story telling. The impact of stories such as these inspires me to tell new ones and that is the reason why I strive to do what I do. I want to tell as many stories as possible and to as many people as we can entice to participate in a world that takes them out of their everyday lives. That is the key to the type of work EDC does. Every paint chip, every movement, every word, every decision is made to help tell the story, and that is what keeps me enraptured on a daily basis.

Kurt: Was there a singular mentor or a “village” that taught you what you know today. Before you took off on your own pursuit of knowledge, who showed you the way?

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a huge village of mentors throughout my life. Every artist I watched rehearse, perform, direct, produce, design, paint, sew, light, and build when I was a young child sitting in the audience of the local community theater taught me the craft of theatre and every artist I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with has shown me what incredible work a team can create with a bit of gumption, grit, passion, professionalism and talent, but there have been a few ‘life mentors’ that have had a profound impact. Joe Vumbaco, a child of the great depression and one of my best friends growing up, taught me how to be a gentleman. My uncle, Milton Hutto, a commercial real estate developer, showed (and continues to show me) that business can be conducted with honor and integrity—that ‘business’ isn’t just a word but a way of life. And Jeremy, our Chairman, teaches me what being an incredible artist truly means—how sharing your heart with as many people as you can every day, brightens the world. But most of all, my mother has, and continues to be my biggest mentor. She constantly reminds me what can be achieved in life, and how far you can go if only you believe you can. She has always been my biggest fan, my harshest critic, and a shining beacon in the storm. She is the reason I am who I am today, and who I will be tomorrow.

Alison: What type of new project would you like to see EDC take on in the next three years?

Along with the incredible work we’ve done, and continue to do in the themed entertainment arena, I would love for EDC, after this long stint of attractions and theme park work, to revive its design work in the concert and theater arenas. To that end we have recently done Nicki Minaj’s Pinkprint Tour and a new Princess Cruises show which has just opened on three of their vessels. We’ve always prided ourselves on a varied portfolio of work, and it’s that diversity that keeps us fresh in every discipline we practice. Theatre is where most of our artists have their roots, and I speak for us all when I say we’re all hungry for our next theatre fix.

Francesca:  What are the most important tasks that you face daily as a leader in your organization?

Ha. “Don’t sweat the big tasks, just divide and conquer the little ones”, besides, while you worry about that big task, it’ll be the small one that ends up biting you in the ass.” The devil really is in the details.

One of my biggest tasks as a leader is to enable, interest, and focus our creative team. This demands a set of clear tasks previously laid out. I try to work toward that every day.

I’d say trying to stay ahead of that group of talented, ambitious, and obsessed people and molding them into a cohesive team is the most important of my tasks.

Francesca:  What are you doing daily to ensure your growth and development continues as a leader?

I try to be open to those around me. I try to learn from the employees at EDC. They’re the reason EDC is successful and they are one of the biggest measures of how I am succeeding at my job.

So plainly, I ask them what I can do better and hopefully I have empowered them enough to give me honest and meaningful comments.  I never want to be the smartest person in the room or the person with the best idea; I want to be the best listener who recognizes the best idea.

Francesca:  EDC is a very multi-cultural company, comprised of talented technical/creative individuals. Aside from the professional experience required for any specific project, how do you pick the best candidates for a project?

With many of our projects, deadlines are tight and we find ourselves spending 70 plus hours a week with co-workers. While talent will get you in the door, I want to work with someone I like, someone that is as obsessed with the project as I am and that I can have a beer with after work.

Richard: How do you see EDC, under your guidance, differentiating itself from its competitors such as The Hettema Group, BRC, and Thinkwell?

Well, it’s wonderful that EDC can be named in that list, but I don’t believe we are competitors. Upon reflection, we’re all quite different from each other. The type of product offered at Thinkwell is very different from the type of product BRC offers—not better or worse, just different. Monet, Renoir, and Degas were all around the same age, self-proclaimed impressionists, and lived in Paris at the same time. And though they might have thought it at the time, it would be hard today to label them ‘competitors’.

EDC has a very unique creative/service model: we think of ourselves as the modern day commissioned artist. We are not a large company and pride ourselves on that asset. Yes, we are a corporation legally, but we operate on a very personal basis even with our large clients. We often say that we are co-creators with our clients; we can dream of wonderful things and amazing experiences but unless the client has a sense of ownership we know there will not be the concentration on maintenance and dedication that is needed to keep the attractions running 24/7.  So instead of differentiating ourselves from our other design firms, it’s more about positioning ourselves.

EDC has built a niche business of creating: Branded Icon Attractions (The Crane Dance at Resorts World Singapore; The Fortune Diamond at Galaxy Macau), Experiential Retail (Panasonic Pavilion at Universal Studios Hollywood; The Freemont Street Experience, Las Vegas; The Place, Beijing) and Live Shows (Nicki Minaj’s Pinkprint Tour and the 2002 Winter Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies). That is the kind of work we like and that is the kind of work we want to pursue.

Richard: Up until now, Jeremy has been the EDC brand, that is, clients seem to come to EDC because they either know Jeremy or know of Jeremy. Since I have been working at EDC, Jeremy’s personal relationship with clients has been the tent pole of EDC business.  Do you see this ‘personal relationship’ model sustaining or morphing under your leadership?

That’s true. The EDC brand has been the ‘Jeremy brand’ for the last two decades. However, we’re now in a process of shifting the brand to more of an EDC product. It’s the same company; Jeremy is still here and more engaged than ever but we are more focused on the company as a brand going forward whilst still keeping the personal experience we have built so far.

We want clients to recognize that Jeremy’s initial thoughts on design and production have permeated the design world as a whole. It’s that infusion that has affected our collective EDC design ethos and is now what EDC strives to do every day. The ‘personal relationship’ model will continue to thrive. I have taken the mantle of CEO, however, I am hoping clients recognize the quality of projects EDC has built under Jeremy’s leadership these last twenty years will be the same product EDC continues to build for the next twenty years.

 

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