For Hamilton, the transition from a large post house, working on independent feature films, to a commercial boutique has meant greater profits and less time managing the volume of projects and a large staff. This has allowed him to achieve his ultimate goal in setting up the boutique: having time to work on different projects, like his film work with director Hal Hartley (Hamilton co-produced, edited and did the sound design on Hartley's new film The Girl from Monday), and on art projects from video installations to sculpture.
"As Spin Cycle grew it never got more efficient or profitable and it wasn't giving me the time that I wanted to pursue my own projects," explains Hamilton. "Moving into the commercial world, I decided I would separate the two things. I'd do commercials to make money and allow that to feed an art career and the ability to support really low-budget features. And that's been very successful because those projects feed me creatively, because I'm not just grinding out spot after spot after spot."
But as Mad Mad Judy has become more successful, Hamilton notes that maintaining the boutique model requires effort.
"It's much harder to decisively remain small and effective. It seems the business has to grow a little, so to maintain a sustained limited growth is much more difficult than to just grow," says Hamilton. He adds that limiting growth may be best achieved by creating an environment that can't easily grow.
"When I got my first place, I wanted it as small as it was so that I couldn't grow, that I could only improve," says Hamilton. "So it just became more of a quality environment with better equipment. The new space, while the footprint is much larger, I've designed it in a way that it can't really grow beyond what it is now. I doubt that we'd ever get to three editors."
The commercial boutique, continues Hamilton, will be better suited to adjust to changes in advertising he sees happening in the not-so-distant future.
"One of the things that is happening is people are panicking, wondering if the :30 will be around significantly in five years," he says. "There's a movement towards making these short films that are more cinematic, more entertainment projects that are being put out on the Web or other outlets. Make it entertaining but branded with product throughout. I think smaller shops like ours, that are not so dependent on the traditional model of cranking out :30 spots with huge budgets, are going to be poised to take advantage of this."
Another successful strategy in the boutique model is opening in a smaller market, further reducing the overhead of city rental costs and also allowing for post pros to operate as a big fish in a small pond.
Last year, Chris Cardinal opened up Harbor Post (www.harbor-post.com/) in Stamford, CT, an HD boutique where he is the only staff member. A former editor at Broadway Video, Unitel and National Video, among others, Cardinal says that the exorbitant NYC rents and dog-eat-dog mentality of Manhattan post, along with long commute hours from his suburban home, led him to open up a high-end shop in Stamford.
"A lot of people are leaving New York for a host of reasons: it's getting really expensive and they are realizing that a happier employee is one that works closer to home. And since so many now live in the suburbs, why not get a nice building in Stamford," notes Cardinal.
While Stamford at first does not seem to be a great place from which to draw clients, the location has been key in Harbor's success. Virtually all his work comes from clients based in Connecticut, primarily Time Warner, which is minutes away, as is its agency of record. Key in the success of this marriage is Harbor's HD capabilities.
"I've done a ton of work for Time Warner," says Cardinal. "They are making a huge push in their HD campaign, so I've been doing a ton of that work."
Harbor is an HD editorial/design house, all Mac-based, running Final Cut, Adobe tools and LightWave, along with 2 TB of storage from Huge Systems, allowing him to post in 100 percent uncompressed HD.
"I don't think I'm offering anything less or limited by the technology at all," says Cardinal. "If you went to a place with a Smoke, the only difference is $400 more an hour."
Cardinal is the one full time staff member at Harbor, but like most boutiques, he has a stable of reliable freelancers.
"If need be, I'll bring in some freelance people and that works best," explains Cardinal. "If you have a staff guy sitting around doing nothing it causes a lot of pressure and forces you to make bad decisions. It's pressure you don't need. These days it seems like most talented people want to be freelance anyway. They don't want to be tied down."
BELOW THE RADAR
Long-time post pros, visual effects artist Ricardo Torres and producer Dick Voss started Santa Monica's Below the Radar (www.btrstudio.com/) in March 2004 with the idea of filling the gap in the post business landscape.
"We knew that there were a lot of boutiques around and we were trying to see how we could be different," notes Torres. "The only companies that are really doing well right now are the small companies or the very large ones, it's hard to be a mid-sized facility. The problem with the mid-sized facility is that the job is either too small for them to make money or they take on a big job but it becomes too big for them to handle. So we initially decided to become a company to help these mid-sized companies handle these larger projects - kind of like a subcontractor."
But as often happens, the best-laid plans do not come to fruition.
"That's how we started it, but when clients came they felt very comfortable working with us," says Torres. "So a lot of the clients were coming back and the idea of helping out these mid-sized facilities was not going on because we were so busy with our own commercial clients. And that's what has been happening since. We're still getting some work from other visual effects houses, but that's not the main part of our business. We have a lot of repeat clients and because we're so small, we don't need that much work - one job, one client at a time is fine with us."
When Torres first approached Voss about opening a new company, the one promise Voss demanded was that the company would not grow into a facility, which had happened at other places Voss worked at in the past. This forced him into the role of business manager instead of producer. With Torres as the only staff editor, Below the Radar has to rely heavily on freelancers, especially to fulfill projects' 3D needs. Torres estimates that 70 percent of their jobs require CG work. While the use of freelancers has worked well so far, they are now looking to add a full time 3D artist. In keeping with their original agreement of remaining small, however, the new addition will not be a mere staff member.
"We are not looking to hire someone per se," says Torres. "Whoever we bring in, we will look to make a partner. At the same time, because not all the jobs we do require CG, we may do something where Below the Radar is a partner to this new person's CG company so they can have their own clients too and we can help each other out."
Below the Radar is powered by Discreet Flame and Smoke, Apple Shake, and the Adobe collection of design tools. The company is looking to add another station when Discreet releases Flame on Linux.
Below the Radar also diverged from the typical business operations in that it does not bill by the hour, but instead firm-bids its projects.
"Budgets are set these days," Torres notes. "It's not like the '80s or '90s where there was free money out there. These days producers come in with how much they have for visual effects and we can tell them what they can expect for that money. And [we] stick to that so there are no surprises."