Resurrection, for Fun and Profit: Eyellusion's Jeff Pezzuti on Starting a Hologram Company and Bringing Back Dio

Courtesy of Eyellusion
A hologram of Ronnie James Dio for the 2016 Wacken Open Air Festival.

Ronnie James Dio, the diminutive and legendary frontman of Black Sabbath and Dio, took the stage at Germany's Wacken Festival. It's been six years since Dio died, on May 16, 2010 at the age of 67.

The digital age means we no longer have to say good-bye -- whether to friends from high school who haunt our various social feeds, to pictures that (hard drive willing) shuffle from one folder to another over the years, or to legends of art like that revivified Dio, or Tupac Shakur from Coachella four years ago, or Michael Jackson from the Billboard Music Awards in 2014, or the many, many other stars said to be receiving the same, ethically byzantine treatment. However, the rise of the live hologram gig has been slow, given the excitement that Shakur's "appearance" at Coachella four years ago generated. Hologram USA, the company behind that performance, claims to have locked up a practical Walk of Fame of clients and says a Whitney Houston hologram tour is imminent, though no new projects have debuted since Shakur. (Billie Holiday was announced last year as a regular performer at New York's Apollo, but that project has yet to materialize.) Pulse, the team behind Michael Jackson's hologram, still touts his "appearance" on its website.

Holograms share some DNA with both virtual and augmented reality tech -- all are digital creations that take up space in the real world, or trick us into acting like they do. Virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift have received some criticism over the computing power needed to make them sing, limiting their audience. Augmented reality, such as the uber-secretive Magic Leap (which promises something akin to this scene from Her), will bring an entirely different participatory experience to semi-dynamic holograms (and may help hasten the obsolescence of these pre-fab performers).

But holograms are here now, and offer a communal experience that, depending on how "real" you generally regard the people performing on-stage, can be just as affecting as corporeality.

Jeff Pezzuti and Eyellusion, the team behind that Dio hologram, are hoping to make this a real business -- and quickly. There are plans for Dio to hit the road, alongside members of his original band, over the next year. (The emotional toll on those band members should perhaps be monitored.) As well, Pezzuti, a proof-of-concept now neatly tucked under his arm, is expanding his company's client list rapidly, he says.

Billboard spoke to the executive about how he formed his company, and the business of bringing back the dead... or just the alive and busy.
 

Billboard: So, what led you to be the CEO of a hologram company?

Jeff Pezzuti: What happened was, like with anyone, I saw the Tupac [hologram] in 2012 and was totally taken aback. It was incredible. And then I happened to see Michael Jackson a couple years later, and I thought someone would continue the trend, but nothing seemed to happen after that. And then shortly after Michael, I started putting the plans together to figure out how we could get it into, initially, the rock world, but then all genres. That's kind of how the plan started. Planting the seeds of the business plan.

The Tupac hologram was not really scalable, from what I understand. It took them, I think, a year and change to make, and was pretty limited.

It's interesting because I think that I assembled a team that's really strong both on the music industry side and on the visual effects side. Whether it's Scott Ross, who's a film exec and one of my consultants, or Chad Finnerty, who runs my entire visual effects department. We've built a scalable model where we can take this on the road and generate revenue, which is different than Tupac or Michael.

As far as tech development, how did those initial meetings go? Because hitting the road was, I assume, a part of the conversation immediately. 

First of all, you have to figure out how much your total production costs are, and then putting together what you think you're going to get from a venue standpoint and a price standpoint. All those discussions. But that's why we have all these music industry execs involved as a direct part of the team. Like Wendy Dio and Todd Singermann. And artists as well, like Kenny Aronoff, John Fogerty's drummer. It helped me plan together from that aspect and then working directly with my visual effects partners to actually see what's doable. And I think we've cracked the code for putting together a tourable, scalable hologram show that's going to really blow people away. 

How long did development take?

All together, it took about six months to do the whole two songs. And it's not based song-by-song. It's an interesting dynamic and we already have -- because this is our first one -- we know what to do for future projects and I think that's what is going to make it exciting and make it go along even better. 

Where did the initial capital come? 

We did a seed round, and we're ready to do another round in the very near future.

The technology is impressive, but it's also pretty straightforward. The other part of this business that is not so straightforward is the life rights and dealing with estates, right?

Right.

How did you choose Dio as your debut? 

I was a huge Dio fan growing up. An enormous Dio fan -- he was the first artist I ever wanted to work with, so I reached out to Wendy Dio and pitched to her in Los Angeles about the overall concept. She was really intrigued by the idea, and the more we spoke the more we realized that not only is it Ronnie that's going to be where the business is going, but all these future projects that her and I were talking about. [So] I brought Wendy on.

That's the easiest instance of dealing with an estate I've ever heard. 

Yeah, I guess it is. But, she's a visionary in the music industry. She managed Ronnie's career very very closely and she was very careful how the legacy was maintained. She understood how this could really benefit both the fans and all the people who are interested in Ronnie's music. Now we can actually get him back out there. 

Looking ahead, have you had people reaching out? How does client development continue from here? 

I'm actually taking pitches. I had done all the pitching over the last year with a lot of different management and artists, and everyone was really intrigued. But they were waiting to see what the results were for our first project. Pulling off what we did in Germany, successfully, completing a project with a live band... now they realize what can be done. Whether it's a prerecorded touring scenario, whether it's a live stream event for artists where they can get into markets that -- they have 40 shows, maybe we can double it up to 80 shows. I think it's exciting globally in that it's not just the U.S.

Hologram USA has been humming right along -- I don't have an accounting of every company in the space, but I imagine the competition is fierce. 

Well, it's interesting. We're the only ones focusing on live music and that's really what's going to set us apart. So, we have basically narrowed our focus down. We're going to do live music, period. I think that's separating us. 

Live music meaning…

The concert industry, all genres. We've kind of lasered our focus instead of just doing a hologram, we're bringing what I call the live music experience. Live bands or concert sound, lights, production, pyro where we can do it. Basically allowing the fans to walk into whatever venue we use and feel like they just walked out of a concert, not a movie. 

Are there any artists or estates you're working with?

We are in serious discussions with a lot of top artists that we're hoping to announce in the very near future. 

Without getting into dollar amounts, what do the economics of this look like from the back room? These life rights are not cheap. 

We just launched on Aug. 7 and started the next [funding round] a day later. We'll get all the investments needed, but we're confident that these artists are going to want to work with us for multiple reasons and not just the life rights. Because the long-term viable option from a revenue aspect in a very short-term related to.... For a short term investment it's a long-term payoff. 

You mean, once the content is developed it can be used indefinitely. 

Correct.

Was there any equity involved in the Dio deal? Like with the estate? 

Well, from an equity standpoint, Wendy's a member. She's a member of the business. 

I was kind of thinking proof of concept, a little cut of the pie. I'm wondering if that's going to be a common discussion going forward. 

In the beginning it was something that I was considering and we'll see where it goes. I don't think we have to go down that route. We have a lot of other alternatives for other artists that I think are very attractive. I think it's a lot of options for every different artist. 

Are these artists both living and dead? 

Correct. Both living and deceased. It makes it so we have a lot of different opportunities and options. Each one would be different. There's no direct approach, there's no same approach for each artist. Each one is looked at. We actually partner with each individual artist and basically create what we think is going to be the ultimate fan experience. 

And how many, roughly, are there in either full production or close to it? 

I would say we are at less than five more than two range. Somewhere in there. This is a way we can preserve all those incredible legacies and allow those legacies to be passed on to all the next generation. 

Did you ever think when you were younger that you would one day put a deceased metal head on tour? 

[Laughs] Well, it's funny, if I sent you my seventh grade class picture, it was me in my Dio shirt. Me at 12 and 13 years old would feel like they were living the dream.

The only problem is the next one is going to cost about 30 percent more because of Dio's height differential. 

[Laughs]