One-Stop Production Services Offer More than Efficiency;
Collaboration, Creativity and Flexibility Seen As Key Attributes
An increasing number of companies are offering agencies and clients the option of what they consider the best of both worlds: the ability to go to one production resource for everything from production to post. The trend goes by many names – "concept to completion," "start to finish," "soup to nuts" – all of which seem like misleadingly simple ways of describing what's rapidly becoming a new way of producing content.
We prefer the term integrated production. In this context, it describes going to one partner company that can provide live action shooting on set or location, creative editorial, visual effects, design, graphics, audio post and finishing – pretty much everything but music – along with all the bells and whistles that come along with this, such as file management, transcoding, distribution, etc.
All of this, of course, comes on top of the creative work that typically precedes it – a director's vision, articulating a strategy for execution, pre-production collaboration with DPs, effects artists, editors, etc., developing and presenting a kick-ass treatment – the list goes on.
It's an interesting mix, the integrated method, since it can range from high-end multi-spot campaigns for major brands - festooned with lavish effects and backed by big media spends - all the way down to bare-bones, doc-style spots shot on handheld digital SLRs and edited on Final Cut Pro.
To get a better sense of this exploding marketplace, we turned to a hardy bunch of sponsor companies that have all made their bones in the integrated arena. This list includes Humble, the New York-based hybrid production and post house founded by EP Eric Berkowitz that's working in everything from live action to editorial, design, effects, animation and digital; ShootersNYC, the New York boutique offshoot of Philadelphia-based production company ShootersINC (which works in commercials, TV programming and feature effects) that's led by Managing Director and EP Jeff Beckerman; and King & Country, the L.A.-based, design-driven studio founded by Directors Rick Gledhill and Efrain Montanez and EP Jerry Torgerson that works in a range of visual effects and graphics techniques combined with production and post.
Also sponsoring this One-Stop Special Feature are Ntropic, the San Francisco, L.A. and New York visual effects, design and production studio founded by Nate Robinson and headed up by EP Jim Riche; Moo Studios, the L.A.-based company founded by David Lyons that offers everything from live action production, animation and effects to print and still work; Drive Thru, the Minneapolis-based production company founded by President and Head of Production Mark Setterholm that's provided full production and post services to agencies across the country; Big Machine, the L.A.-based design and production studio led by Co-Founders/Creative Directors Ken Carlson and Steve Petersen that's made a name for itself in spots and promos; and Pictures in a Row (also known as PicRow), the Hollywood based studio founded by Director/DP Peter Lang and EP Electra Lang has offered production through post since it opened in 1995, and which is fronted by Executive Producer Roger Hunt.
While the advantages to working with an "under one roof" partner might seem obvious to agencies and clients, there are a myriad of other issues facing executives at companies such as this. While they're often better able to juggle the available dollars an agency has for a project, since there's no longer that tug of war between production and post, they also have to make sure they're not being evaluated solely on price.
Different paths, same destination.
The companies we spoke to have taken a variety of routes to offering integrated production solutions. Some were born that way, others grew into it as a result of client requests and the needs of their individual marketplaces.
At humble, Berkowitz says it was that way from the get-go. "The artists who helped start the company mainly came from two places, agency creative and post production," he explains. "So our ability to see a project from conception to delivery was baked into the DNA of the people who helped get us off the ground."
King & Country was another one-stop shop from day one, thanks largely to the diverse backgrounds of its partners. "We've always directed and produced live action as a design and animation company," explains Gledhill. "As our company grew, our capabilities grew (i.e., 3D, a bigger pipeline, VFX capabilities, etc.)."
"Ditto Picrow, which was founded originally as a production house with editors on staff and has expanded since then to offer a wider range of production and post services," says Electra Lang, former producer at New York post house Charlex and graphics and branding company Pittard Sullivan. "This form of integration has been a central and natural part of out process from the very beginning," Lang points out.
Ntropic and Big Machine both started more in the visual effects and design space, and expanded outwards from there. Ntropic started small, opening in San Francisco in '97 as a Flame boutique founded by Nate Robinson. It soon became apparent the company needed an office in L.A., and recently opened in New York. The evolution to handling full production grew out of its original model as a CG and design studio, says Riche.
Big Machine opened in '03 as primarily a motion design company. "We've since evolved into a full-service studio offering live-action production, visual effects, editorial and content creation," says Carlson. "It was a natural evolution since the principals of the company had both production and post experience."
Moo Studios is an interesting anomaly, having started as a production company that quickly morphed into a studio that could handle both film and print. "Our goal was always to take on jobs from conception to final picture," says Lyons. "That we have the facility to build sets, shoot on our own stage with our own gear and complete any level of visual effects through final picture with our own talent is the result of our targeted approach from the start."
Drive Thru similarly grew into a one-stop model from its roots as a production company. "We formally added post production services in 2000," says Setterholm, who points out that while the services are available under one roof, the production and post sides of Drive Thru operate as two separate companies. "It's the only way to keep track and make sure that each side is profitable and growing," he points out. "No passive income allowed."
What's driving the trend?
There's been a steady increase in the number of companies offering integrated capabilities. In addition to shops that started as one stop outfits, there are now post houses with production arms and production companies adding post and editorial capabilities. What's driving this trend?
"It's lots of things," says humble Executive Producer Persis Koch. "Cost pressure, democratization of technology, more media being created with a wider variety of budgets, distribution platforms, and expectations – they all play a role. At the same time, agencies are more integrated, creatively and strategically. In some ways, hybrid and integrated shops are a response to this collapsing of barriers across the entire industry."
Setterholm is of the mind that budgets are one of the biggest drivers. "They are what they are these days," he says. "We hear all the time from agency producers, 'I have this much for everything.' It doesn't matter whether it's for a broadcast spot or for web content, there always seems to be a budget that needs some 'love,' and that's what we give them."
"The logistics of running projects around various companies don't always serve the client or the project in terms of scheduling or budget," observes PicRow's Roger Hunt. "Many of our clients need to shoot multiple spots over the course of the year, and our capacity for production and post production makes that possible.
"As a style of workflow, it has always seemed like a very natural way to make things work," Hunt continues. "It's much like the old Hollywood studio system, which encompassed the entire filmmaking process," Hunt continues. "Having this capability gives us an amazing resource for all of our directors to develop projects, provides extra support during production and allows the same creative team to see projects through to delivery – with everyone having a vested interest in the best outcome, never being able to feel that a problem is someone else's."
"Cost is always going to be the driving force," adds Moo Studios' Lyons. "It's Economics 101. But there are other factors behind this. For example, in an integrated approach, the director's vision can also be finely controlled, partly because at any point we can go back in the process, at no extra cost. We have the option of re-shooting an effect at a moment's notice just to get things right."
ShootersNYC's Beckerman looks at it from a more holistic point of view. "It's related to maximizing creativity with value. One of our great advantages is that we enter each project via an approach that's similar to what happens with feature films. In the digital world, you have to integrate the production pipeline creatively, technically and in the way the job is produced – otherwise you won't be able to deliver the quality needed at a price the client is expecting."
The shift in the kind of work clients are asking for is just as big a factor as budget, according to some sources. "In our case, it's been web-driven content and environmental installations," says Ntropic's Riche. "The cost of going through the traditional live-action production companies for this kind of content, and then hiring a separate post/VFX house, is just too great."
"We've found there's a need for a single company that can work with agencies and clients, going from design through production and CG," he continues. "That's what's driving this part of our business. This work also often finds its way into a traditional commercial format, such as being repurposed into a TV spot, thus saving the client even more."
"From a client's perspective, it's just easier for them to deal with one shop that's responsible for the entire production process," observes Big Machine's Petersen. "From a studio perspective, it can save money and effort by allowing a better level of coordination between all parts of the production."
Supply and demand.
So if the integrated model is catching on, is there enough work to go around? And where are the most tantalizing areas of growth?
"There are lots of opportunities for this kind of work these days," says K&C's Torgerson. "Agencies are learning that they don't have to go the traditional route on all of their jobs. When it makes sense to go to a one-stop shop, more of them are pulling the trigger. When they work with a company like ours, they get this whole support network behind the director – design, editorial, animation, effects, etc. – all working as one team from the start. It cuts down on the potential for a disconnect between the director and the post facility."
"We believe that over time, the integrated approach will become the norm, not the exception," says ShootersNYC's Beckerman. "We think clients are going to demand it. Budgets will remain tighter than they have in the past. If you're well-integrated creatively and technically, you'll be able to do more with the same amount of money."
Ntropic's Riche sees certain categories as being more receptive to this approach than others. It holds particular appeal in the automotive space, for example. "The fact that the brands need content for their web sites often before the actual models they're promoting have been built has created a need for companies that can do everything from shoot background plates to design CG cars in post," he notes. "You're also seeing a need for content for everything from trade shows to point of sale installations." This kind of experiential work is growing at a fast clip, he adds, and is not typically supported by the kinds of budgets normally found with traditional TV spots.
And then, it always comes down to creative quality. "There's always business for companies that produce great work and treat their clients right," Big Machine's Carlson says. "For example, we see a lot of potential growth with traditional design clients who weren't aware of our live-action expertise."
Running an integrated operation differs significantly from running a standalone production company, editorial shop or finishing studio. You need more and different talent, more gear, the ability to slice and dice budgets with a sharper knife and the savvy to manage a workflow process that's normally divided between two or more companies. So what's the biggest challenge? And how do you keep the scales even?
"Balancing the resources is what we're set up to do," says humble Head of Production Andrea Papazoglou. "It's really only a challenge if there's no money for either side. That's when we have to get a little creative. I think the biggest challenge is convincing people who haven't worked with us yet that we can provide a product under one roof every bit as good as going to multiple shops for each stage of the process. It's only really a challenge that first time, though."
"Convincing agencies that an integrated shop is a better solution is our number one challenge," admits Montanez of King & Country. "Our balance of production and post comes natural to us, because it emanates from our original core partnership. It's easy to manage because it isn't some trend we're just now adopting – we've been doing this from the start."
"If there's a challenge, it's in explaining the process, even though it seems so natural to us," adds PicRow's Hunt. Like his counterparts at other shops, he says that clients who've experienced the approach are transformed.
"Once they've done it, they see the value in being under one roof," he comments. "Each person at Pictures in a Row knows how to do more than one thing, and their skills don't divide neatly across post and production lines. Resources can be attributed where they're needed, with one goal in mind - making the best thing that we can. We all participate to see a single process through to the end."
How does the integrated model go over with agency producers? What appeals to them about it? Where are they most resistant?
"Most of them have been very accepting, and not just because it made sense economically," says humble's Koch. "I think the level of service has consistently exceeded expectations. They feel like they have a partner for the entire project. It's not just riding on the agency producer to pull all of the disparate people and companies together to get the project delivered."
"We realize that most producers have their favorite vendors," says Drive Thru's Setterholm. "We make it clear to our clients that they can buy our services 'a la carte' if they'd like, which is the way most of them do it when they come here for the first time."
The headache factor – or rather the reduction in the headache factor – is a big draw. "Producers love it," says K&C's Torgerson. "They don't have to do calls with three different EP's to discuss and manage the bid, schedule, or project, because one EP is doing it all. When changes occur – and they always do – it doesn't ripple out to three different companies, just one."
The integrated approach works particularly well when handling client-direct work, says Ntropic's Riche. "We've found that they often prefer dealing with just one source for production, post and effects," he says. "Same with the experiential and environmental work; clients in these categories have always been open to the integrated model."
"When you're doing your best to solve a problem for a client, there's never resistance," observes PicRow's Hunt. "We don't view the full service model as the only solution that we have to offer. If it makes sense, then it's a smart way to go. But if we need to outsource any part of the job, then we do it. Many agency producers are reassured by having the entire creative team together (if necessary, in the same room) watching over the outcome of a project."
What's the outlook for integrated shops? More competition? And what does this trend signify for the production industry as a whole?
"I think what's most important is that the model works; it's well-proven," says humble's Berkowitz. "If it wasn't, everybody wouldn't be trying to jump on the bandwagon. We're different because we were built, from day one, to do business this way. We're not trying to tack on a new limb. To be honest, our margins have been a bit smaller, we've had to work a little harder and a little smarter to make this model succeed. But we care about the work. The money's going back into the projects."
Berkowitz takes pains to articulate just what it is about the integrated approach that's worth remembering: "It's not just a service model, it's a template for how you execute the creative," he says. "That includes how you build and facilitate the team and how you collaborate with the agency."
Some producers expect the field to get more crowded as the benefits of integrated dawn on more and more clients. "We're anticipating more growth in the space, and we're prepared for the competition," says Big Machine's Petersen. "In fact, we embrace it. It's a good way to constantly reinvent yourself and say innovative."
Ntropic's Riche is expecting it, too. "I'm not sure whether it'll be mostly from live-action companies or design shops, but they will come," he says. "It's been a growing trend, especially seeing the design shops branch into live action.
"I don't think this shift signifies anything about the production industry," he continues, "but says more about how advertising is being made. The needs of the end clients are changing, and agencies and production houses need to change to meet those needs. There's a greater reliance on non-traditional and transmedia work than before. And with that, the budgets are smaller and tighter, and the needs much more varied."
Some producers are already figuring out ways to take the one-stop model and expand on it, in a fashion. "We're developing a strategy in which Moo Studios can be embedded into companies that don't offer a one-stop solution," explains Lyons, "so that they'll be able to do so in conjunction with us. Watch this space!"
"This is the perfect model to deal with the digital age," PicRow's Hunt concludes. "Once film became a dying medium, it was natural that filmmakers would make use of the full digital capabilities that have become available to all. The difference is that with that capability, there needs to be a corresponding shift in attitude.
"Our goal has been to cultivate a kind of studio capability and flexibility," he continues. "We see it as historically rooted in the original studio concept, where a group of talented people are gathered under one roof, ready to take on whatever comes their way. In the older, production company model, the mentality is not always about commitment to the process or the product. When you're able to conceive, test, shoot, and edit under one roof, the process becomes more complete, more efficient, and more satisfying for everyone."
One Stop Production
by Anthony Vagnoni
One-Stop Production Services Offer More than Efficiency;