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August 2014
Issue: February 1, 2004

THE BUSINESS OF BOUTIQUES

By: By Matthew Armstrong

Boutiques today come in all varieties, from new visual effects studios started up by a veteran artists to DVD and audio houses started by those relatively new to the industry. Certainly the proliferation of lower-cost equipment has afforded the opportunity for these small post houses to exist and thrive, even in the current market conditions. But for every success story, there's a boutique closing, so it's not merely just a matter of equipment and underbidding market value. In order to survive, the key for the small business comes down to simple economics of supply and demand, finding a niche market, customer service, a lot of talent and a little luck. With all the various markets and varying business philosophies, boutiques all share the common initial challenge of getting their small company known and established while keeping a healthy bottom line.


Brandname Flame artist Colin Stackpole (inset) and designer Pat Lavin were called on by BBD0 to post Marathon, a :30 spot for Snickers.
But while the business plan of the boutique - that is, keeping overhead low and relying heavily on key talent - has proven to be sound, the desire to open and operate a small boutique is not necessarily derived from financial aspirations. Not all boutique owners may express it as bluntly, but the essence of the boutique mentality is perhaps best expressed by Gary Leib, founder of NYC animation shop Twinkle: "For me, it's not about keeping the company going. It sounds strange but I'm not really interested in that. I'm interested in the work. A small company allows you to keep your priorities straight."

NAME THAT BRAND

Visual effects veteran Colin Stackpole started Brandname (www.brandnamenyc.com) in New York last September after years as an Inferno/ Flame artist at Manhattan's Quiet Man.

"Working at Quiet Man was a great job but it was getting to be the same old thing," says Stackpole. "I wanted to go to the next level and this seemed like the logical step. I figured I didn't have a lot to lose except for a financial hit right at the beginning."

Brandname now has four artists, including Stackpole, and keeps the Flame running day and night. Managing the limited time and resources is a struggle. "The challenge is basically scheduling," he says. "We have a lot of projects and only one box at this point. You can't really spread the work around, so it becomes a matter of booking time so you don't have to turn work away. If there's a technical difficulty there's no where else to turn, so you just have to deal with it. So making sure everything is up and running smoothly and having the technical staff to take care of any problems.

While having limited resources presents some difficulties, the intimate setting is what sets boutiques apart from the larger facilities. "The advantages are you get to create a close relationship with directors and the agencies," says Stackpole. "And we're not spreading the work around to a bunch of different artists, In larger post house you may have five different artists working on the same project, so it's a matter of bringing everyone together to have the same vision, and that doesn't always happen. One guy would do something and then the next guy would find out that it didn't work and you'd have to start from scratch, so there's a lot of wasted hours that way. This way, I have my one assistant, the night Flame artist and a Mac designer, and we're always on the same page.

In addition to these reasons, Stackpole also set out on his own in order to diversify the type of projects he works on. At his last job he worked solely on spots. "Commercials will still be my bread and butter but I've been looking into music videos and some other stuff. I just wanted to spread my wings and get out of just doing agency work and grow creatively with different formats and trying new things."

Making rain for less

Executive producer Kristin O'Connor and composer/engineer Bill Grishaw opened audio post house Rainmaker Studios (www.rainmakerstudios.com) in Richmond, VA, in 1997 with no other employees. At just 23 years old, O'Connor was new to the Richmond post business having formerly worked at MTV New York. Grishaw had built a good reputation as a composer, but at 29 years old he was hardly a veteran in the business. In addition, it was unclear whether Richmond would be big enough for another audio post house.

"A lot of people thought we were crazy," O'Connor recalls. "When we started there was another audio facility in Richmond that had been doing it for a long time and seemed to have a lock on the market. But we had nothing to lose at the time and said, 'Let's go get in debt.' We started out as two kids just trying to figure it out, and it took us a few years to get the attention of the agencies in the area."


Clound Nineteen's Scott Boutte (top) says the studio recently authored this Scorched DVD in their DVD Creator/Scenarist suite.
The debt, however, was not what it used to be for new audio companies thanks to tools like Digidesign Pro Tools, so they were afforded the time to slowly build their reel and get known in the area. "We started out lean and mean, and then in '99 we wanted to do it right," O'Connor notes.

They reassessed and retooled their business model. "We started as a music and sound design house," O'Connor explains. "In a few years we found that the clients we worked with wanted specialists. They wanted a sound design house and a separate music house."

Partnering with David Lowry of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven fame, they split the business out, creating affiliate music company 804 Music. "Now we have a sound design/audio post facility and a music company that scratch each other's backs."

Along with this relationship, Rainmaker has happened to benefit from a series of informal relationships with other companies in the business, ranging from entertainment lawyers to all facets of production and post. Since being the first media-related business to move into the Superior Production Exchange Building, 21 other production/advertising related business have moved in and a community has developed, allowing this boutique to present itself as part of a larger entity when necessary.

As with any company in this industry, success depends on relationships. For a boutique, the importance of relationships is crucial because one large and loyal client can be enough to allow it the flexibility to seek out new clients. For Rainmaker this client has been The Martin Agency, which brings it a steady diet of national campaigns.

"We've been fortunate in our relationships with clients who have helped us be successful," says O'Connor. "You have to be careful when making financial decisions. You can't build it and [hope] they will come."


Twinkle Animation worked on the critically acclaimed indie film, American Splendor.
TWINKLE, TWINKLE
Gary Leib came to New York as a cartoonist in 1993 not knowing anything about animation. Presently he has a long list of movie credits under his belt, including an enormous amount of work on American Splendor and the upcoming John Waters film A Dirty Shame. "A producer at MTV liked my comics and suggested I do an ID, and I got hooked," says Leib. "I learned all about After Effects, got a Mac and a Media 100 that allowed me to do everything out of my house."

When the Internet boom came in the late '90s, Leib moved into a studio and hired six employees. The dot.com craze proved to be fruitful financially, for a time, but it began to distance Leib from his creative passion.

"I never thought I'd clean up on the Internet, I just thought it was a great way to get our original stuff out there, but in truth the real storytellers were still making movies. I realized that in order to maintain the studio I'd have to do a lot of corporate work that I have a hard time doing [creatively]. To get back to movies and broadcast was a relief."

In 2000, Leib let his staff go and moved Twinkle (www.twinkleland.com) back into his Soho loft apartment with a fellow animator John Kuramoto. This has allowed him to concentrate solely on his creative work. "It's a personal thing," he explains. "Even with six people, I discovered, there's a tremendous amount of communication needed to keep things flowing, and as fickle as computers can be, you never know what's going to be going on with a person. Now it's just me and John, and we know what needs to get done. I'd rather just work harder than have this big infrastructure where things get exponentially more complicated."

While Twinkle is thriving financially and creatively with film and broadcast work, it's mostly absent from the commercial world that dominates the New York market, in part Leib contends, because of its boutique atmosphere, but this doesn't bother Leib. "The best and worst part of Twinkle is I pick up the phone," says Leib. "I'm not presenting a front office to anyone, and I feel commercial clients want that. On the other hand, we have producers from ABC who think it's cool to come down to an artist's loft to work."

IN La, AND ON CLOUD NINETEEN

In 2000, Scott Boutte started Dallas-based Digital Media Solutions, a digital video compression company for streaming video on the Internet, and soon after purchased a Sonic Solutions DVD Creator system in hopes of tapping into the growing pool of DVD work. That investment paid off big time.

Blockbuster Video, also headquartered in Dallas, began to plunge into the DVD with its video acquisition/ distribution arm DEJ Productions. Authoring one title led to another and the business grew quickly. In 2001, the company moved to Los Angeles and has authored nearly 80 titles a year for DEJ, along with titles for Paramount, Lions Gate and Sony.

With a major client in hand, the company sought to expand. Now, in addition to its authoring service, the studio offers DVD consulting, graphic design, editing, sound design, replication, music composition and 5.1 mixing, as well as an ISO booth for voiceover work. To reflect this change in philosophy from a compression service to a creative service company, it changed its name last year

to Cloud Nineteen (www. cloud19.com). Today, it's a six-person shop powered by Sonic DVD Creator and Scenarist, Final Cut Pro, After Effects and Discreet Combustion.

"The idea was to provide more services to the DVD client," says Boutte. "There were times when we needed to reformat a logo from widescreen to 4:3 and we couldn't do it. So it's all about being diverse and being a one-stop-shop."

While the term one-stop-shop sounds like the philosophy of a large facility, Boutte is against growing beyond boutique status. "Customer service is what makes boutiques special and keeps clients coming back. They can always get you on the phone and you can offer special pricing, below market value, because a client can send you a lot of work."