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Studio Time: Business Matters
Posted Jun 27, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Michael Kolowich has succeeded in business, but not without trying. It's been 32 years since he graduated from Harvard with a degree in engineering and applied physics, and 26 years since he earned an MBA, with distinction, from Harvard's Graduate School of Business. In that time, he's held executive positions with some of the world's best-known technology companies, including Lotus (where he led early Lotus Notes development efforts), Ziff-Davis (where he served as the founding publisher of PC/Computing magazine and founder of Ziff-Davis Interactive), and NewsEdge Corporation (which he co-founded). Before all that, he shot spot news for three television stations in Boston, eventually working as a news producer and science and technology reporter for WGBH-TV, the local PBS affiliate (and earning an Emmy Award for Outstanding News Reporting in the process).

Needless to say, Kolowich's career trajectory is a bit unconventional. As an undergraduate, he says he cultivated a "strong interest in media" by taking "every media course Harvard had to offer" and by seeking out practical experience at WBZ-TV, the CBS affiliate where he interned. "Several reporters and cinematographers took a special interest in me," he says of those years. "They taught me the art of video storytelling—something that went far beyond covering stories with a camera."

Over the next two decades, Kolowich worked for a time as a global management strategy consultant, leading the online publishing charge in the early 1990s, and observed the confluence of factors that would soon drive video into the mainstream. "By 2001, it was clear that online video was within reach," he says. "Compression algorithms were getting better and the overbuilding of the global communications network assured widespread, cheap bandwidth. It was only a matter of time [before] everyone would have access to video in a browser on nearly every computer screen. What's more, the DV format and digital postproduction were radically changing production economics.

"I had seen this kind of sea change before," he continues, "and I sensed that opportunities were ahead. It was time to put my career interests in video production, publishing, software, and online services together."

Revolutionary Decisions
In January 2002, Kolowich founded DigiNovations, a full-service video production company in Concord, Massachusetts. Because he hadn't been involved in hands-on video production in more than 20 years, Kolowich says he built his business—and rebuilt his camera and editing skills—slowly. "The consumer market seemed like the right place to start, so we focused on video tributes, theater performances, and cinematic wedding videography," he says. That venture, dubbed MemoryWorks Studios, "has become a skill-development and proving ground for young talent," he says, and continues to operate under the DigiNovations banner.

By 2003, Kolowich says his team felt ready to take on "more and bigger corporate projects," but they wanted to keep the branding of their consumer and corporate work separate. Thus was born North Bridge Productions, the division that provides a full range of video production services to companies, schools, and organizations all over the country. Named for Concord's historic Old North Bridge, the site of one of the American Revolution's first battles, North Bridge Productions serves clients as varied as AOL, MIT, the Museum of Science, Thermo Electron, and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. It also accounts for more than 75 percent of the company's annual revenues. (MemoryWorks generates the remaining 20-25).

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Here, DP Benjamin Eckstein and associate producer Matt Hargrove shoot a simulated operating room environment at the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology.

"We decided early on that we wanted to do all the work we need to do, from script to screen," Kolowich says of DigiNovations—the umbrella name for the company and its two divisions, and the name under which it provides general video production services. "For example, clients would call DigiNovations to hire a camera crew for a day, to author a DVD series, or to do a few days of postproduction editing," he explains. "But North Bridge is the name under which we do script-to-screen productions. Every member of our production staff is a multiple-skill player with at least two of the following skills: shooting, editing, writing, producing, graphics, and/or animation." From its 3,500-square-foot, fully networked studio space, DigiNovations tells video stories that often fall in four self-described "centers of creative excellence": technology marketing/education, nonprofit/education fundraising, college/school marketing and admissions, and corporate/institutional image-shaping.

"When we market, we stress three things—strategy, creativity, and technology," Kolowich adds. "More than half of our productions of any size have won awards in regional or national competitions. And we've made it a point to keep honing our skills in video streaming, animation, DVD authoring, and web development." Bottom line: "Clients hire us not only because we have a good eye, but also because we have sharp minds."

On the consumer side, Kolowich says MemoryWorks takes on no more than 12 cinematic weddings each year. "These are always in the mold of high-end, storytelling-style weddings and are about 25 minutes in length," he says. "We also do a limited number of tributes—either original films or video photo montages. Interestingly, there is some synergy with our corporate business in that some of our corporate clients started out as consumer clients and some of our corporate clients have had personal needs served through MemoryWorks." To date, he adds, DigiNovations has completed more than 500 consumer projects and about 60 corporate projects.

Corporate Videography 101
Like others who cater to corporate and institutional clients, Kolowich has no trouble noting the key differences between the two client types. "In moving from consumer and classic event videography to a higher mix of corporate work, we've noted major changes in the selling and production cycles, the stability of the production schedule, level of demands from the client, sophistication of the client, and the opportunities for repeat business," he says. "Corporate projects often take two to four months to develop—sometimes even longer. Often the first call comes while someone is seeking a budget that needs approval. Other times, it will be part of an RFP process because a company's purchasing guidelines require several competing bids. The irony is that, once approved after a very long process, the production schedule is very compressed. It's the opposite of ‘hurry up and wait.'"

In most cases, he continues, the production cycle for corporate projects is quite extended. "Often, the executives, customers, and others who need to appear in the video aren't immediately available," he explains. "It's not unusual to see production schedules as long as six to eight months, though we've also had ‘crash' projects that needed to be completed in two weeks, start to finish."

It's also important to be timely in all correspondence with potential corporate clients. In the early days, he says, "I sometimes got in the bad habit of procrastinating in getting back to clients with proposals, and almost always, that was greeted with concern about whether we really wanted the business." Now, he says, "when I can't reply right away, a reply that sets an expectation of when they'll hear from me is a minimum courtesy."

Perhaps the most important lesson to take from corporate videography is this: Be flexible. "Interviewing for a video is not usually the most important thing on an executive's agenda," he says. "Late cancellations, delays, rescheduling requests, and no-shows are not unusual."

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This menu shot was created for an institutional marketing film used by Boston's Museum of Science. Kolowich says his all-time favorite project was completed for this museum.

Executive Summary
Ironically, Kolowich's biggest professional gear-shift—the one that most successfully merges and satisfies his diverse interests—also is the source of a major regret. "My biggest mistake [as a videographer] has been to underestimate the challenges of moving from the consumer to the corporate market on a big scale," he says. "The first couple of projects were easy, because they came through personal contacts. Emboldened by that experience, I added staff, capital, and overhead to achieve the scale necessary to compete in the corporate market on a scale that was larger than the projects that could come from my Rolodex. That was an expensive lesson, and it's just now starting to pay off."

If he had to do it all over again, Kolowich says he would concentrate his efforts "on a particular corporate market theme and formulate a three- to four-year transition strategy, rather than trying to tackle four market segments in two years. In retrospect, the strategy of tackling multiple segments at once—and on a relatively grand scale—was fraught with risk."

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