Before he donned the thick glasses, dress shirt, and media credentials to become the mild-mannered journalist Clark Kent, he was the Man of Steel. But just as much as the world needs Superman, the Daily Planet needs Clark Kent. Among other traits, he’s smart, adaptable, and innovative, whether in the field or behind the keyboard. What Clark Kent is to the Daily Planet, Brian Kursar is to data and analytics at Warner Bros. (WB).
WB is home to some of the most beloved brands in the entertainment industry, including DC Entertainment. The organization can also lay claim to creating the modern superhero blockbuster film genre with 1978’s Superman (starring Christopher Reeve), creating successive new generations of comic book fans including Kursar himself.
“As a kid growing up, that was a movie that changed my life and made me want to become a better person,” Kursar says. “To be able to work for the company that made that film and other films, like Blade Runner or The Matrix, that inspired me creatively throughout my life . . . being able to marry my skills in big data and machine learning to Warner Bros.’ creative content was like a match made in heaven.”
During work hours, Kursar’s title at WB is VP, principal data strategist, and architect. In that role, he is responsible for data strategy and architecture across all of the studio’s enterprise data warehouses. However, his “inner geek” alter ego is one of the driving forces behind his passion for the company. “The first day on the job, they take you on a brilliant tour of the lot, where you get to see every Batmobile ever made. I got to see the original cape worn by Christopher Reeve in the 1978 Superman. Up until that point in my life, I had never taken a selfie—I couldn’t help myself,” he recalls.
Prior to coming on board with WB in 2015, Kursar was the director of data science research and development at Toyota Motor Sales USA. Soon after Toyota announced its relocation from Southern California to Plano, Texas, Kursar was offered an amazing opportunity to take on a leadership role at WB.
“At Toyota, I had been successful in delivering big data technologies to production as the chief architect and delivery manager for their Customer 360 project,” he says. “Warner Bros. was looking to do a similar project to support its direct-to-consumer data strategy. They hired me to lead the next-generation data architecture and build a platform that would connect all of their data warehouses together across the studio at scale. One year later, and we are doing it.”
Similar to many other companies, WB originally operated with several siloed systems. In many instances, data for each of these various business units—including theatrical, home entertainment, digital, video games, and studio tours—was stored independently. Now, Kursar and his team are helping the company gain a more holistic view of consumers across the entire studio. “It allows our business capabilities to better operate and collaborate as one company, such as franchise views, or being able to leverage statistical models at scale. It’s all very exciting,” he says.
“Our data engineering group is responsible for designing and implementing platforms that allow different parts of the company to glean competitive insights and look across franchises to understand what events have the highest impact against sales and subscriptions or how the availability of different choices in the market can impact our revenue streams,” Kursar continues.
But before analyzing the data, the first obstacle is normalizing and classifying it. A few years ago, Kursar and his team were building social media classification models and algorithms in order to better connect with customers, a feat that Kursar has taken pride in throughout his career and one that has earned him four patents (pending).
One such case occurred when gathering data about Creed, a 2015 spin-off of the Rocky franchise. The first run came back with an enormous amount of data. When analyzing keyword searches, the word “Creed” was not only the name of the movie, but also the name of a rock band, as well as part of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise. Although the task was tedious, the team was able to integrate a classification algorithm to solve this problem.
But that’s just a single title. “Multiply that by a thousand titles every month. You’re now up against a tough problem to solve,” Kursar says. “Not only are you trying to understand consumer opinions of your own products, but you also need to understand how to accurately classify your competitors’ products to be able to quantify where your products land when it comes to measuring share of voice. Being able to identify the products you’re competing with becomes as important as identifying your own.”
Beyond data research, Kursar recalls knowing from the first day he stepped onto the studio lot that it was the perfect fit, as he quickly discovered the tangible culture that existed at WB. “Being on the lot, within walking distance, you are immersed in every facet of the company. One minute you are whiteboarding a new algorithm for a recommendation engine, and the next you are having a lunchtime screening of the 1989 Batman movie,” Kursar says.
WB culture is somewhat unique if not unexpected for a company viewed as a traditional entertainment studio. “Our Technology Solutions organization has strong senior leadership that encourages engagement at multiple levels. The teams often get together for early movie screenings and impromptu studio tours. They are constantly given opportunities to familiarize themselves with current shows and programs being filmed,” he says. “It’s all about celebrating WB culture and content. Working at WB, there is this feeling that you are part of something special that has been around for so long . . . the DC Universe, Harry Potter, or the LEGO franchises. It’s very invigorating to be here and know that the innovation in data and the solutions my team is delivering allow me to do my part to help support the studio in its next phase.”
One of the next exciting opportunities for WB data and analytics involves its direct-to-consumer applications. “We are doing real-time analytics for some of our business groups. However, having the opportunity to do it at scale is a big data geek’s dream come true,” Kursar explains. He is also quick to note the importance of maintaining consumer trust by incorporating “privacy by design” into all the work his team is doing.
Technology is another facet of Kursar’s job that continues to drive his passion. He notes that even ten years ago he couldn’t imagine all of the connected devices that would be around today.
“Technology these days enables capabilities that you could not even dream about back then. It’s my belief that all media companies must be technology companies, and I am proud to be part of a team that is taking Warner Bros. there,” Kursar says. “We have been engaging with business champions across the studio who are already doing great work in data and analytics here at Warner Bros. It’s fantastic that my team has the opportunity to partner with them and help shape the data and analytics capabilities of the studio as a whole.”
Kursar says that, at the end of the day, it comes down to people who are passionate about movies, TV, comic books, and data. “WB has the best content in the world,” he says. “To match that, we’re building the best data science and engineering team in the world.”