City National Bank’s reputation grew throughout Hollywood’s golden age, earning the moniker “bank to the stars” by providing wealth management, financing and services to the entertainment industry. Sixty-eight years later, the company is still deeply ingrained in the space and has expanded its impact and offerings through sleek technological advances, specifically suited to support entertainers, studios and business managers.
Thanks to some smart acquisitions over the years, the bank houses the powerful platforms of AgilLink, Exactuals and FilmTrack – software built specifically to solve the complexities of entertainment financials. They decipher elaborate contracts, organize royalty payments, streamline wealth management and more, making the infrastructure behind the industry more efficient.
According to Exactual’s Chief Product Officer Ilie Ardelean, working on this tech means diving into issues that technologists don’t often get to tackle.
“Entertainment is a lucrative and complicated business,” Ardelean said. “When you come to a company like City National, you get to work on products you don’t see anywhere else.”
FilmTrack’s Head of Product Sam Straub echoed his colleague’s sentiment.
“This company isn’t your typical large bank,” Straub said. “Its niche in the entertainment industry introduces novel challenges for the team to solve — like building products that streamline A-listers’ finances and detangle distribution rights — and when paired with the connections and insight the organization has acquired over the years, the opportunities for the team have only grown.”
To better understand the intricate technologies behind the entertainment industry’s go-to bank, Built In connected with leaders of its software affiliates: AgilLink’s Head of Product Asher Adler, Straub and Ardelean. They gave us a behind-the-scenes look into the financial transactions their software handles, and how City National is reimagining how banks and technology intersect.
What is the relationship these products have to one another and to the industry? Why is this ecosystem important?
Straub (FilmTrack): The bank has a long history in entertainment banking. We even have a loan division where studios can finance their movies. Those same clients might need to use FilmTrack or Exactuals, or have clients who are high-net-worth individuals who need AgilLink. You can start to picture this system that City National is building between the three companies we represent: Exactuals handles payments, FilmTrack calculates the payments and AgilLink manages the net worth of the people receiving these payments.
Adler (AgilLink): Another aspect to consider is workflow. It’s not just about the movement of money. It’s about verification. Anytime you start separating controls into multiple systems, it creates holes. Those holes are prime areas for attack. Because we combine all of our workflows and controls onto a platform that’s built in-house, centrally managed and integrated with the bank, it brings much more value and security to our clients.
What is most exciting about working at City National Bank, from a tech perspective?
Adler (AgilLink): City National has expanded into the technology space, which means that we can help our clients grow and solve problems in a much bigger way, even on the treasury management side of the business. Because of that shift, I now have a team of people that I can consult with on challenges we’re having, and our teams are designed to collaborate to solve challenges and highlight what’s working. Banks typically work with a lot of outside vendors. Here, we bring in vendors for work that isn’t core to our strategy and build software from the ground up when it can deliver unique client value. That means we have a very different relationship with our teams, and we have a lot of expertise we can tap into and people to turn to that we really trust.
The unique thing about City National is that we can take some of the concepts we’re building and apply them to the banking sector. I think there’s a lot of efficiency to be gained in the way that people bank, and it’s exciting that we can take what we’ve implemented and move that downstream into the veins of the organization.
Ardelean (Exactuals): Banks are typically rewarded when they keep money safe. They’re not rewarded for the same things software companies are, like taking risks, bringing in new ideas and pushing boundaries. That’s why it’s natural for most banks to work with outside vendors. But we see it the other way around: It’s riskier to bring in vendors when it comes to our core strategy. That’s why we’re seeing all of these great opportunities here to build technology and to create an ecosystem where we fuse tech and banking. In many ways, the bank is leading that path by bringing in a strong focus on software.
Our software companies are better because of the other people in the room who we work with. I’m excited to work with Asher on AgilLink and with Sam on our FilmTrack integration. I really believe that our products and what we do for our clients are better because of my counterparts.
You all work on different products under the City National umbrella. Walk us through what your platform allows clients to accomplish.
Adler (AgilLink): Our clients are primarily accounting firms that serve the entertainment industry. They manage wealth for high-net-worth individuals, like actors, athletes, musicians and painters.
Our AgilLink platform is directly integrated into City National’s banking system, which means our clients are able to do their banking transactions from the platform and record it on the software’s ledger. By doing it all on the same platform, it provides a security component, and also increases efficiency.
Ardelean (Exactuals): The amount of payments in the entertainment space is in the billions, and we have to be able to support that number. We believe payments start and end with data. We also spend time on reconciliation and providing data visualization with insights into what each payment is for and making sure there’s transparency between the payer and payee.
In the entertainment space, you’ve got a unique scenario where there are studios, guilds, business managers and talent who all contribute some information to payments being set up and processed. When putting together this ecosystem where all of these parties collaborate on a digital platform, we’ve been able to reduce costs and processing time by about 80 percent. When you realize that payments now take a fifth of the time they once did, that’s really cool because it allows people to get paid faster.
Straub (FilmTrack): FilmTrack is focused on helping media and entertainment companies manage their complex agreements. Everything you watch on TV or in a theater is part of a library that someone owns, and is leasing that piece of intellectual property to another company to distribute it. So, for example, when a large studio makes a film in-house, the next step would be to distribute that film to make money on their investment.
For example, that studio might contract with theatrical distributors to allow them to show the film in theaters for a certain period of time. It’s the same for putting movies on television or streaming platforms. FilmTrack helps users determine where and when they can sell a particular product. That’s usually complicated because there are generally six or seven dimensions that determine if you can actually sell a film somewhere, based on dates, exclusivity and sometimes even what language it's in. FilmTrack also tracks where a film has been sold and records all of the financial details related to each contract. This enables FilmTrack to use the contractual data to determine things like how much money is owed to the rights holder while automating many parts of the process like billing or royalty calculations. All these things are core parts of the media and entertainment supply chain and become increasingly more difficult to process when considering the sheer scale that our clients operate at.
You work in a relatively niche area of both banking and tech. What are the pain points your tech teams are focused on?
Ardelean (Exactuals): We help our clients get closer to their clients, so they can prove they’re doing a good job. That in turn helps our clients grow their businesses. Much of this relationship-building revolves around the issues we’re solving with quicker payments.
Not every entertainer is a high-net-worth star, and many of them do rely on residuals or royalties for their livelihood, so getting paid faster is a big deal for them. Because we work with many recurring payments, there’s a lot of complex data that goes into describing what someone is getting paid for. Historically, that information has been sent to them on paper, but we’re providing more transparency by sending it digitally and giving them more data and data visualization so they can understand how much they’re being paid for and why.
Large numbers of small payments
How does your work tie into the future of City National?
Adler (AgilLink): City National has hit on something very niche — I don’t see other banks trying to do what we’re doing. I know other banks have been building up additional tech capabilities, but they aren’t delivering software to their clients in the way we are.
We have always been focused on building client relationships in a way that is really different and more personal than other banks. City National looks at software as a model of how banking is going to work in the future. Technology can often create distance between businesses and their clients, and that personal touch is lost. We are using technology to build even stronger relationships.