Fade to Black

The Baltimore Sun

At Renegade Productions Inc. in Hunt Valley, 6,000 square feet of space contains hair and makeup stations, a "green" standby room (that happens to be purple), a casting room and a cavernous studio complete with professional lighting and thick black and green curtains that sweep around its perimeter.

That soundproof studio can be transformed into nearly anything. For several Comcast commercials it was turned into what was supposed to be Cal Ripken's living room. For a Time Warner Cable training video, it became a baseball stadium, an amusement park and the Serengeti region of Africa. It is also the studio at one of the few remaining large-scale production companies in the Baltimore area.

As software-based editing products and digital technology increasingly put professional editing tools into the hands of freelancers and small businesses, many of the larger local production houses closed up shop. What was once a studio outfitted with of tens of thousands of dollars worth of software and hardware has been reduced to an affordable package that workers can carry from job to job, allowing many to open up their own businesses and edit from home or a small studio.

It's a trend that has played out around the country. And while some large production houses remain, few are independently owned, said Randi Altman, editor in chief for Post Magazine, which covers the post-production and digital entertainment industries.

"All these big companies, they can't afford to stay open anymore," Altman said.

Don Barto Sr. has seen the transformation firsthand. A local sound engineer who has been in the industry for more than three decades and in 1998 founded Soundriven Inc., Barto used to work out of large, traditional studios "using the kind of stuff you would see in a recording studio for making records."

"And now that's all migrated to a computer, and I sit here on my sofa and mix TV shows," he said.

When he worked at those studios, Barto used equipment that cost upward of a half-million dollars, he said. Four years ago, he bought a new system for his Timonium home-based business that cost $6,500 per workstation. The gear - which Barto says is so small that he can work from anywhere - paid for itself in a month, he said.

A half-dozen or so years ago, the Baltimore area had four or five big production houses, local industry workers said. But most have closed.

"Some of it is mismanagement," said Rip Lambert, president of Producers Video, one of the few surviving large production firms. "Some of it is you have corporate headquarters moving out of Baltimore, which affected the advertising agencies' ability to be doing work for those clients. You have the old technology revolution, where smaller individuals could get into the business at a lower price point. ... It's a little bit of everything."

When Flite 3 Studios, one of the best-known Baltimore studios, shut down in 2003 after 44 years in business, it was amid declining profits, in part because of competition from smaller shops. Flite 3's production work included such movies as Die Hard: With a Vengeance, My Best Friend's Wedding and Runaway Bride.

"The digital technology has come down in price and to the masses so that everyone thinks they can get in our business," the company's president, Rita A. O'Brennan told The Sun at the time. "One guy, one computer, out of his home, is competing with what I do."

Like Jeff Atkinson. He worked as a camera operator, assistant editor and director of photography for two of the big production houses in town, then left in 1999 to start his small firm, Freedom Digital Media. Now he runs his business with a crew of independent contractors, and his projects range from corporate image pieces to commercials, infomercials, training videos and documentaries.

"Everything's come down in price, and I think a large part of it is this business tends to breed free-thinking people who want to act independently of each other," Atkinson said.

The new business model, where most in the industry are freelancers, allows workers to pick and choose their jobs. Plus, it allows companies to select the right person for each job on the set, rather than having to use one company's staff, Atkinson said.

Using a freelancer for a job can have pluses and minuses, said Gabriel Biehal, who used to work in advertising and is now an associate professor of marketing at the University of Maryland, College Park's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Freelancers are less restrained by situations, creatively and in terms of hours, and often have specialized skills, he said.

On the flip side, though, they might be less stable than hiring a large production company, Biehal said. "People get very sensitive to what these freelancers can offer," he said.

Lambert, the president of Producers Video, said larger firms like his bring a team of expertise to each project that independents can't match.

Producers Video has a staff of 24, and two-thirds of its work is commercial. The rest is corporate, Lambert said. Most of the company's work is handled by the staff, though the firm hires freelancers for shoots both in its studio and on location.

Producers Video's clients include Toyota, Dick's Sporting Goods, Under Armour and DeWalt, according to the company's Web site.

And just as changes in software and hardware have shifted the makeup of the industry, advances in technology have also created new opportunities in areas such as the Internet. Lambert attributes his company's success in part to its ability to adapt quickly to industry shifts, such as doing more projects for the Web.

"We were able to kind of adapt to that, and we just broadened our business plan ... to try to deliver a broader array of services," Lambert said during an interview on his cell phone from a location he declined to divulge because his firm was shooting an Under Armour commercial there.

Renegade has done the same thing. Beyond its studio facility, Renegade creates ads for the cable industry - including print and outdoor billboard ads. With 45 employees and growing, the company has written, directed and produced a short film and expanded its work to include Web-based services, such as interactive components for advertising campaigns. The company's success comes from helping clients figure out how to gain more market share, said Timothy J. Watkins, Renegade's president and owner.

They produce hundreds of ads a year for the cable industry, including dozens of Comcast commercials such as those featuring Cal Ripken. Renegade also rents out its studio to others in the production industry, including advertising and production agencies and others from New York, Virginia and Washington.

"There's enough business out there for everyone to succeed," Watkins said.

But Watkins said that a one-man shop working from a laptop cannot reproduce the work done at a full-service studio.

"A dangerous assumption is being made that someone on their couch can do what we can do," he said.

Tim Kahoe, a former principal at one of the large production houses in town who now works from home as an independent contractor, voiced a similar concern. While everyone might be able to afford the equipment, not all of those who buy it are qualified, he said. And without an office full of colleagues, few have mentors.

When Kahoe got into the business in the 1980s, he spent years learning from experienced professionals before he started using the production equipment. "Now it's like, if you can buy the camera, you can go out and shoot stuff," he said.

Kahoe said his former company, Big Shot Productions, closed after moving the business to Washington and struggling there. Also, with his firm spending millions on equipment, it couldn't compete with others doing the work for a fraction of the overhead costs, he said.

"Because the technology in the industry has changed and now you have independent producers who can work off of a computer in their homes, all the large houses said 'We can't compete with that,'" said Eli Eisenberg, founder of VPC Inc., a small production, technology and consulting firm.

VPC, which has three edit suites and a staff of nine at its Reisterstown office, hires as many has 80 freelancers a week. It handles commencements, awards ceremonies, galas, corporate annual meetings and sporting events - producing videos for the events, choreographing music and lighting stages, among other tasks.

Beyond production, though, VPC also installs sound and video systems in hotels and senior citizen communities, designs and manages the installation of stadium technology, such as scoreboards and sound systems, and consults in the arena business. The company was an adviser when new scoreboards and video and sound systems were put into M&T; Bank Stadium, Eisenberg said. And VPC has been hired to consult on technology being installed in the new Yankee Stadium in New York, he said.

Fifteen-year old VPC has been profitable since its first year, and revenue is about $2.5 million, Eisenberg said.

Kitay Productions also is in the sports arena, although it also takes in a chunk of corporate video work. After working for a year at NFL Films and seven years as an in-house film producer for the Ravens, Joel Kitay began producing highlight videos for University of Maryland sporting events - a freelance job that eventually turned into a full-time business.

Today, his four-person Owings Mills company produces video of more than 50 live events a year, from college sports highlight videos to shows on video scoreboards during games. Its clients include Boston University, the United States Military Academy at West Point and the University of Maryland, Kitay said. Much of the work is done with a small team of freelance workers, a pool of local talent that Kitay attributes largely to Baltimore's larger production houses closing down.

"These places closed," Kitay said. "But all these people who worked there and are talented have their own little shops."


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