NASA's Hotwire to Hollywood

Publicist Warren Betts says science truth is stranger (and better) than science fiction.


Arroyoland has kept itself gloriously free of Hollywood hijinks involving papparazzi who swarm the streets for a glimpse of A-list stars and maitre d’s who dole out tables according to the diner’s box office ranking. Yet right here, on Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena, we have one of the world’s most unusual and sought-after Hollywood publicity and marketing firms. It’s headed by Warren Betts, a guy with a physics degree, a passion for science and technology and a client list that includes Sony and TriStar, Warner Bros., Universal, Columbia, United Artists, Walt Disney and Virgin Records, among others.

His firm, Warren Betts Communications (WBC), connects Hollywood’s top studios and high-concept filmmakers with the world’s scientific geniuses and innovators (think Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk), whom Betts recruits to advise on technical issues. Let’s say you’re about to view this month’s potential blockbuster, Passengers, to be released December 21. It’s about a luxury spaceship with 5,000 souls on board, all traveling in suspended animation to eventually arrive and live on a distant planet. They’re still asleep in pods when the ship malfunctions, and two voyagers (Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) awaken to find that they and the rest of the travelers are in dire peril.

Science fiction? Yes — but not totally. In fact, there’s as much science as fiction in the current genre, Betts says, and it’s often the real stuff that’s more fascinating than the imaginary. In the case ofPassengers, Betts called in experts from NASA (and others he can’t name, due to a nondisclosure agreement) to help director Morten Tyldum and the rest of the crew make the ship, the characters and the storyline as realistic as possible. And if the plot doesn’t strike you as realistic, consider this: Elon Musk (founder of Paypal, Tesla and SpaceX) is already testing equipment designed to come and go from Mars, which Musk — age 45 and worth $11.2 billion — hopes to colonize and where he has repeatedly said he plans to be buried.

Betts, 57, lives in Sierra Madre and travels the world to consult with filmmakers before, during and after production (when he helps promote the films), and with experts he recruits to help those filmmakers get details right in the increasingly nonfictional aspects of sci-fi. Betts has relationships with NASA, the CIA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and research institutions such as MIT, Caltech, Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, Switzerland. He calls on these agencies and institutions to find the right advisors for all kinds of films, from animation (Angry Birds) to Imax (A Beautiful Planet) and a wide range of dramas, comedies and sci-fi epics that require expertise otherwise unavailable.

Betts says he has worked with Hawking on a few films, including Star Trek and the theoretical physicist’s biopic, The Theory of Everything. For the National Geographic Channel’s Mars series, which debuted last month, “we brought in experts from NASA. Also featured are [science celebrities] Elon Musk and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson,” director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

For Inferno, Ron Howard’s Da Vinci Code sequel released last month, Betts recruited Caltech bioterrorism and biology Professor Alexei Aravin to advise filmmakers and media on viruses that could actually be released by lunatic despots trying to control the world.

For spy movies, such as the James Bond series, Betts says he has worked with the Department of Defense to recruit KGB defectors as expert advisors in the high-tech worlds of annihilation and espionage. Another project, the Angelina Jolie film Salt, utilized the expertise of Tom Ridge, the nation’s first director of Homeland Security, thanks to Betts. Although most expert advisors are paid for their work, Betts says, “I don’t think Ridge asked for a fee. He only asked for a favor. He wanted to meet Angelina Jolie.”

He adds that highly placed government types and world-famous academics are eager participants in entertainment. “Oh, they love Hollywood,” he says. “And they’re just excited that filmmakers are seeking their technical and scientific expertise.” Money isn’t an issue for most of them, he says, “but of course the Hollywood people don’t like to take their time and expertise without compensating them, so we always want to do that.”

Betts isn’t your typical voluble publicist. He is soft-spoken, charming and understated. In fact, getting him to talk about his connections with the high and mighty in Hollywood, government and academia is like prying the sweet flesh from an extremely unmanageable crab leg. He’s been doing this work for about 30 years, has been involved with many (if not most) of the blockbuster films involving science, has recruited so many dozens of experts world-renowned in their fields and traveled so extensively that he seems at a loss when asked to select high points in his exotic career. After a few moments of thoughtful silence, he says, “Well, I’ve been up on the ‘Vomit Comet.’ We took director James Cameron on it when we were working on the first Avatar film.” What’s the “Vomit Comet”? “It’s that airplane they take the astronauts in to train them for zero gravity. It’s at the Van Nuys airport and a lot of people get sick on it. It was fun, but I was nervous at first. It goes up very high very fast and then does a nose dive. That’s when you lose gravity.”

Some of Betts’ tech contacts do double duty as his publicity and marketing clients, including NASA, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Lockheed Martin and SpaceX. What does he do for them? “Many different things. A good example might be the ‘NASA 101’ conferences we hold, where we bring NASA experts from all over the place and have them interface with filmmakers, writers, producers, even actors. It’s so they can exchange information and learn how NASA might be useful to filmmakers” and vice versa, he says. “For Apple and Microsoft we work on themes that might have to do with technology for computers, or airlines or for prolonging life. We also do product placement for them in films,” he says.

Betts was born in Houston, Texas. His father, a NASA engineer during the Apollo and space-shuttle eras, was transferred to a space-flight center in Alabama, where Betts grew up. He attended two Alabama schools — the University of Alabama and the University of Montevallo, where he received a masters degree in physics, he says. “I never thought I’d work in Hollywood. I wanted to be an astronomer, but it all just happened right out of the blue. An older fraternity brother took a job at 20th Century Fox, and George Lucas asked him if he knew of a young scientific person who’d be good at marketing and publicity. My friend knew what a geek I was and said, ‘Warren Betts. He’ll be graduating soon.’” So right out of college Betts had a summer internship with George Lucas; the filmmaker liked Betts’ work and wanted to inject science into publicity for his films. He hired Betts for a year, and then extended it for two more years. “By that time I was hooked,” Betts says. “And by then George had an office on the Fox lot in Century City because all his movies were produced through Fox. George thought the Fox people should hire me to do all their science movies, which they did. Fox and Lucas decided to hire me indefinitely and share my talents.” Then, Betts says, “I was working on Apollo 13 with Ron Howard, who encouraged me to start my own company. He thought Hollywood filmmakers needed an agency with my expertise.” So in 1993 he took Howard’s advice and started Warren Betts Communications on Lake Avenue. 

Why did you locate your business in Pasadena, since it’s not a Hollywood-oriented town? “Yes, but it’s Hollywood’s brain trust, isn’t it?” Betts says. “You’ve got the California Institute of Technology and you’ve got JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory], you’ve got such a lot of people here working in the business of science and technology. So it’s a great place to be. In fact, it’s the place to be.”

So is science and technology, for a growing number of filmmakers. Betts says the number of films that deal with both has climbed prodigiously through the years. “Back when I worked with Ron Howard onApollo 13, NASA was reluctant to work with any of the studios because they thought all they did was make up the science and it wasn’t anything they could endorse. But I’ve seen not only a growing amount of movies themed to science and technology, I’ve seen filmmakers coming to me with a larger interest in acquiring the scientific knowledge to make the movies more authentic and make the science and technology more believable to the public. Of course, all the scientific institutions we work with have come to really appreciate that,” says Betts. 

And their science expertise can be very entertaining. “The truth is that real science is much more interesting than science fiction,” he adds. “It’s often weirder and stranger than science fiction. And a lot of filmmakers are starting to agree with that philosophy.”