Fade to Black

Technology moves video, audio production away from large companies

April 29, 2007|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,Sun reporter

At Renegade Productions Inc. in Hunt Valley, 6,000 square feet of space contains hair and makeup stations, a "green" standby room (that happens to be purple), a casting room and a cavernous studio complete with professional lighting and thick black and green curtains that sweep around its perimeter.

That soundproof studio can be transformed into nearly anything. For several Comcast commercials it was turned into what was supposed to be Cal Ripken's living room. For a Time Warner Cable training video, it became a baseball stadium, an amusement park and the Serengeti region of Africa. It is also the studio at one of the few remaining large-scale production companies in the Baltimore area.

As software-based editing products and digital technology increasingly put professional editing tools into the hands of freelancers and small businesses, many of the larger local production houses closed up shop. What was once a studio outfitted with of tens of thousands of dollars worth of software and hardware has been reduced to an affordable package that workers can carry from job to job, allowing many to open up their own businesses and edit from home or a small studio.

It's a trend that has played out around the country. And while some large production houses remain, few are independently owned, said Randi Altman, editor in chief for Post Magazine, which covers the post-production and digital entertainment industries.

"All these big companies, they can't afford to stay open anymore," Altman said.

Don Barto Sr. has seen the transformation firsthand. A local sound engineer who has been in the industry for more than three decades and in 1998 founded Soundriven Inc., Barto used to work out of large, traditional studios "using the kind of stuff you would see in a recording studio for making records."

"And now that's all migrated to a computer, and I sit here on my sofa and mix TV shows," he said.

When he worked at those studios, Barto used equipment that cost upward of a half-million dollars, he said. Four years ago, he bought a new system for his Timonium home-based business that cost $6,500 per workstation. The gear - which Barto says is so small that he can work from anywhere - paid for itself in a month, he said.

A half-dozen or so years ago, the Baltimore area had four or five big production houses, local industry workers said. But most have closed.

"Some of it is mismanagement," said Rip Lambert, president of Producers Video, one of the few surviving large production firms. "Some of it is you have corporate headquarters moving out of Baltimore, which affected the advertising agencies' ability to be doing work for those clients. You have the old technology revolution, where smaller individuals could get into the business at a lower price point. ... It's a little bit of everything."

When Flite 3 Studios, one of the best-known Baltimore studios, shut down in 2003 after 44 years in business, it was amid declining profits, in part because of competition from smaller shops. Flite 3's production work included such movies as Die Hard: With a Vengeance, My Best Friend's Wedding and Runaway Bride.

"The digital technology has come down in price and to the masses so that everyone thinks they can get in our business," the company's president, Rita A. O'Brennan told The Sun at the time. "One guy, one computer, out of his home, is competing with what I do."

Like Jeff Atkinson. He worked as a camera operator, assistant editor and director of photography for two of the big production houses in town, then left in 1999 to start his small firm, Freedom Digital Media. Now he runs his business with a crew of independent contractors, and his projects range from corporate image pieces to commercials, infomercials, training videos and documentaries.

"Everything's come down in price, and I think a large part of it is this business tends to breed free-thinking people who want to act independently of each other," Atkinson said.

The new business model, where most in the industry are freelancers, allows workers to pick and choose their jobs. Plus, it allows companies to select the right person for each job on the set, rather than having to use one company's staff, Atkinson said.

Using a freelancer for a job can have pluses and minuses, said Gabriel Biehal, who used to work in advertising and is now an associate professor of marketing at the University of Maryland, College Park's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Freelancers are less restrained by situations, creatively and in terms of hours, and often have specialized skills, he said.

On the flip side, though, they might be less stable than hiring a large production company, Biehal said. "People get very sensitive to what these freelancers can offer," he said.

Lambert, the president of Producers Video, said larger firms like his bring a team of expertise to each project that independents can't match.

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