'Thinking big' in the video business pays off for Laurel entrepreneur Fort McHenry is new project

September 13, 1992|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Contributing Writer

The trumpets blared, the drums rolled, people chanted "USA," and John Muller knew that he was in the right place -- Washington -- at the right time -- June 8, 1991.

Perched in an area he shared with TV camera crews, he aimed his video camera and let it roll during the Desert Shield-Desert Storm victory parade.

"When the Marine Band in its red-and-white uniforms played the 'Marine Hymn,' I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," he said.

Mr. Muller was in town to work on a souvenir documentary video about the Arlington National Cemetery. The owner of All American Video Productions Inc. in Laurel, he had already taped footage of President Bush presiding over a memorial service.

But the victory parade offered an extra opportunity.

The result was a 1-hour, 47-minute parade video that he produced and packaged himself. He placed an ad in USA Today and "became inundated" with orders for the $19.95 tape.

Since its release in June 1991, he has sold 2,300 parade tapes. Last month, when the cemetery tape went on sale, he sold 700. Both tapes are distributed through Quality Books Inc., an Indiana distributor that specializes in educational materials for libraries. The Arlington Cemetery tapes are also sold at the Arlington Visitor's Center.

But it isn't an all-in-a-day's-work philosophy that keeps Mr. Muller's cameras rolling. It's his love of the job.

After 14 years as an independent insurance salesman who was in the top 10 percent of sales in his region, Mr. Muller concluded FTC that "something was missing." When his wife, Susan, a physical education teacher in Montgomery County Catholic schools, experienced "burnout," the twosome decided to merge talents and start a business. After "looking into a zillion" possibilities, the couple chose the video business in 1986.

"I could help her with marketing, she could do the technical end, I sold all of the projects, she did the editing and production," Mr. Muller said. The couple started out with one camera, three VCRs and a computer, doing special events, such as weddings, bar mitzvahs, graduations and surprise parties. The couple taped more than 90 weddings during their first year of business.

Three years later, Mr. Muller sold one-quarter of his insurance practice to pursue his new endeavor full time. His wife decided to continue her plans for a teaching career. She is currently a health education professor at Salisbury State College, but still helps with the business.

Today, Mr. Muller has a team of six crews who tape events. Occasionally, Mr. Muller will tape a wedding, particularly if it's a relative or friend of a former client. An average wedding fee is $1,200.

It's the corporate end of the business, however, that is keeping Mr. Muller busy and happy, as he does things like training videos for companies, whichsometimes pay as much as $75,000. Some corporate projects have included videos for housekeepers at a Holiday Inn in Bethesda on how to make a bed properly, another for United Parcel Service on how to be a courteous driver, and a safety video for employees of a chemical company.

"Because I work out of a studio in my home, my cost is often 50 percent below what a big company's would be," Mr. Muller said.

"We can do projects for $25,000 or $30,000."

He believes in a "think big" approach.

"In my business, if you think small you will stay small," Mr. Muller said.

When the entrepreneur approached Jack Metzler, the superintendent of the Arlington National Cemetery, in February 1991 with his proposal for souvenir tapes, he was given the job.

"Our goal was to make it a tribute to veterans from all the other wars, starting with the Revolutionary War on up to Desert Storm. The tape lists all of the famous people who are buried there. "To walk through Arlington Cemetery is to walk through American history," Mr. Muller said. The videographer received $30,000 for 16 months of work on the video.

About a month after the Arlington project was complete, Mr. Muller contacted HersheyPark in Pennsylvania and proposed to do a video.

"One thing led to another, and I did the video which is now in every gift shop up there." The tape was released in June. Mr. Muller says that more than 400 were sold the first month, and an average of 10 are sold per day.

With equipment practically spilling out of his basement studio, which presently holds nine cameras, 21 VCRs, two computers, 10 pieces of software, a duplication system and machinery that makes photo graphics, he believes he will ultimately need more employees. Currently, he has one part-time employee who helps with the administrative work. When he needs more people, he recruits a network of script writers, makeup people, lighting experts and camera men.

He is working on a souvenir documentary project about Fort McHenry in Baltimore. And he has the go-ahead to do videos on the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore. He also plans to do two more amusement parks, and is negotiating with the U.S. Capitol, the White House and the Harry Truman Museum in Missouri about more souvenir documentaries.

"We ain't gonna stop," he said.

But his favorite part of the work is watching his clients when they see the finished video.

"When the generals and admirals from the Pentagon, plus the historian, were seated around a huge conference table to review the Arlington tape, I walked in. I couldn't stop watching those generals' stone faces turn to smiles. . . . If I can get something through the Pentagon, I can do anything."

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