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Issue: March 1, 2004

POST MORTEM?

By: By Michael Scott Sheerin

By Michael Scott Sheerin

Is the full-service post production house a dinosaur? With many shops closing up in the last few years, this is a question that must be addressed. In order to survive, some shops have diversified into more vertically integrated studios, hoping that this shake-up will help business. Others blame the economy for their demise, but it's a new dynamic, specifically the spread of technological convergence, that is the real culprit. What technological convergence has brought to the industry is an economic leveling of the playing field, described by Knight, Steemers and Weedon as that which "forms the basis for the sort of digitized capitalism, which is now changing the nature of communication, consumption, work and leisure." So, with a nod to the difficulties faced due to the post 9/11 economy, the competition from smaller boutiques, those with little overhead and the ability to adapt and change quickly, is the main reason that many of the larger, full-service houses are in trouble.

Jack Schaeffer, in an article written by Jim Hanas, talks about how these aforementioned factors have caused a paradigm shift during the last ten years in the way post production work is done. The role of the post house is still similar to its role a decade ago, namely telecine, online and offline editing, design and audio mixing, but the different platforms used to execute the work have completely changed. "The traditional word ‘post' has changed," says Schaeffer. "We're not just editing tape anymore. We're manipulating data." In fact, the word "post" (as well as the word "facility") may have become a dirty word, according to Hanas. The new designation for those who manipulate data for the purposes of producing commercial spots, corporate videos, promo packages or movies are creative services companies, creative editorial companies, design studios or finishing boutiques.

However, the biggest cause of this paradigm shift is not due to nomenclature, but the low prices of the new platforms used to manipulate data. Experienced editors are leaving staff positions at the larger post-production houses and investing (for as little as $25,000 or less) in a "garage" facility, offering low-cost solutions that many clients are looking for. This signals a turn in the industry from an economic and equipment driven club, a club whose membership fees used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to join, into a talent driven industry, accessible to many. It gives social recognition to the "knowledge worker", a term coined by Peter F. Drucker in an article examining the differences between labor in the industrial revolution and today's global landscape. The knowledge worker, unlike the skilled worker of yesteryear, is as an equal to an executive, not just a shareholding subordinate.

Drucker points out that we are in a knowledge revolution, not an information revolution. Thus, those with the knowledge and talent will only be satisfied as partners in companies, not just as well-paid employees. Larry Chernoff, president of Ascent Media Creative Services, once said, "Production is not all about technology. It's also about service and expertise." Thus, it is predicted that the industry will be driven in the future by those with the expertise, the knowledge, and not as much by those with the money.

As editors gain respect for their creativity and talent, and stray further away from the old "cut and paste" mentality, the post production motto has also changed. Instead of the old reliable phrase "fix it in post," the new mantra is "create it in post," according to Leon Silverman, president of Hollywood Post Alliance. The whole workflow of post production is undergoing radical changes. Because post production is no longer just "post," vertical integration through the whole production process has become very important, as technology has blurred the line between what is viewed as production versus post production.

And the technology hasn't really hit the facility world full force yet. According to a 2003 TrendWatch survey, 89 percent of all clients supply facilities with analog content as opposed to digital, and 76 percent of the facilities send analog content back to the clients. In fact, 57 percent of all facilities still work internally in an analog format.

Chernoff, addressing the audience at the 2002 Hollywood Post Alliance panel discussion, noted how important it is for "post house management to regularly explore and revise business models, which can become obsolete quickly in an ever-changing technological, creative and economic environment." Doesn't this sound like something a smaller boutique could do much more efficiently than could a large post house?

So, to get back to the original question, is the full-service post production house a dinosaur? After interviewing many industry leaders, the common thought is no, the full-service post production house will survive, but not in the numbers we saw during the boom years. And, if these houses are to thrive in their individual markets, they must meet a few "best practice" criteria.

First and foremost, they must find and retain the best creative talent. And because geographical-based markets matter less and less in our wired world, this talent needs to be creatively competitive in a global sense. Runaway production will continue to be a factor, and as the death of distance theory increasing becomes reality, this factor will only grow in relevance. Retaining this creative talent is just as important as finding it. Companies that do not share revenue with their in-house talent (remember the knowledge worker) may find themselves sharing a portion of the industry's post production dollars when their top talent leave and set up shop for themselves.

All of the industry leaders I talked to agree that talent is their best asset. Yet, it is interesting to note that most rate cards are set-up based on hardware/software. Rates are given based on the "room" and not the talent that will be working on the project. In a large facility, there are usually many editors, artists, colorists, etc., and not all are equal. Servicing the client in this regard may be something that needs to be considered.

The second point is that the post houses must remain fluid and be ready to adapt quickly to changes in the marketplace, the forte of the smaller boutique. They must retain a neoteric edge in order to compete. New hardware acquisitions must be well thought out and the facility must be able to offer diverse services, so as to shield themselves in these volatile technological times. New technology may not offer a "deus ex machina" and proper investing in HD technology will be a critical factor in the next few years, as will a well-conceived, flexible, data transfer and archiving solution.

A third point that needs to be considered is how convergence has allowed for a more vertical integration of project workflow. The successful post house must get involved in a project in its early, pre-production stages. The number of services that a facility can offer differentiate it from a boutique, and this factor can be used to help a client solve problems in the big production picture, something a boutique may not be able to do. Getting in front of a project may offer more opportunities at the end.

The last point deals with on-the-job training within a post house. In tough economic times, many perks are pulled, with education being one of them. It would benefit all companies, post facilities, boutiques and freelancers alike, to continue to be taught or take refresher courses as new platforms and digital formats are released into the industry. Even the most creative talent can benefit with additional training, making them more efficient and giving them a broader array of skills. And that will benefit any company trying to maintain an edge in this very, very competitive industry.

(This article is based on a research project called "Post Mortem? A look at the full-service post-production house in the age of technological convergence." For the full text, please email the author at sheerinm@fiu.edu.)