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The New Story of Biography Filmmaking
Posted May 5, 2011 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Linda was very sick when she called me up to tell me the grim news. I produced both of her daughters’ weddings a few years earlier, and I could tell she was very much into the history of her family.

In a calm voice she said, “Hal, I want to tell the story of my life so my grandchildren will know about me before I start chemo in a few weeks as I do not have long to live.” The first thing this meant to me is that my wife, Dee, and I would need to postpone our vacation. Dee has gotten used to living with a filmmaker, and we both have learned that it only takes one phone call to change our plans. Linda told me, “Money is no object as long as you get it done soon.” How can one even talk about contracts, payments, and numerous other “what ifs.” Linda realized I was a bit confused about how to deal with the fact she was going to die, and at the same time she wanted to discuss the fee for the production. I didn’t know how to talk money at a time like this; luckily, Linda suggested a fee that we both thought was reasonable.

Requests for this end-of-life video for a legacy production have been happening more frequently (check out Alan Naumann’s take on this type of project in his latest Cradle to Grave column). We spent the good part of a week interviewing Linda’s family and friends and looking through her home movies and videos. I was able to use the video skills that I have nurtured over many years, and one that was of utmost importance to Linda was that I would be able to finish her production in less than a week. It was a humbling feeling to watch Linda cry as she watched her finished production (below), which we call a “biography story.”

I’ve been producing biography stories for many years, and I’m still excited by our business, the lives it allows us to capture, and the stories it allows us to tell. All during Linda’s production, I kept hearing the immortal words of Hyman Roth to Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II: “This is the business we’ve chosen!” Producing Linda’s biography story was more than a job; it was what is known as a mitzvah, a good deed. I felt honored to produce a video legacy for Linda, knowing that it will help her family, especially her grandchildren, to remember the essence of who Linda was.

Not all of my biography films are produced for clients who are close to death. Usually, my biography stories are shown at an event, such as a wedding, anniversary, or birthday gathering, and are fun and entertaining. But requests for these end-of-life legacy productions have been coming in more frequently.

Challenges and Changes
On this sunny afternoon in April, business is steady, the phones are ringing, and I hope and believe my clients are satisfied. But just 2 years ago, business was different. Two years ago, I was spending my days feeling full of anxiety as the phones stopped ringing and new clients were nowhere to be seen.

In spring 2009, I was going through a midlife business crisis as the economy started to tank. I faced a career challenge when the bottom fell out of the high-end wedding market in Boston. The economy, especially the stock market, made brides more budget-conscious as their families’ checkbook balances sagged. My phones stopped ringing, and I spent many a sleepless night wondering how to reinvent my video company and restore my dwindling cash flow.

After a few weeks of staring at my editing monitors, with little work and waiting for the phones to ring, I decided to change the way I did business. In the past, I used to rate the success of my business based on the amount of events I did each year. Forty events were good; 50 events were better. My entire accounting for each year’s work was summed up in a set of numbers: 44, 52, or 47. In 2009, it looked like my accounting number would fall below the radar screen with just 34 major productions. This was not good business. I needed to reinvent my business model and add new revenue streams.

Hal Slifer, The Biography Authority

Biography story producer Hal Slifer

My studio is known in the Boston marketplace as a company that produces biography stories with same-day edits to be shown at an event that highlights the lives of a bride and groom, a bar or bat mitzvah child, or a couple celebrating their 40th anniversary. Besides capturing the event, I receive additional fees for supplying the AV equipment to show the client’s biography story. During the economic slowdown of 2009, the biography story was the first line item that was cut from a family’s diminishing budget. Where once we commanded upward of $6,000–$9,000 per job, we found ourselves producing videos for half or a third of that price just to be competitive and to keep having work come our way.

I needed a quick business fix. Who would have thought that the U.S. government would come to my rescue? As you know, a few years ago the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated that all TV stations would have to switch from analog to digital transmission of their programs. Slowly, our clients began to understand what was going on with their local TV channels, and this awareness started a small buzz among people who wanted to upgrade their existing VHS and 8mm video/film libraries to contemporary digital media. Surprisingly, we began getting calls from clients who wanted to transfer their old analog VHS tapes and home movies to the digital age.

After quite a few calls and much procrastination, I decided to expand my business and open up a consumer and corporate video and film transfer lab as a revenue stream. It was also a way of introducing new clients to the type of productions that we do.

With the help of Jim Meegan, my senior editor, and David Slifer, my son who oversees many of our productions, we moved forward with my business venture. We bought everything that B&H could sell us for the transfer business, as we were new to this and we thought that the more we bought, the better off we’d be. I squeezed all of my new transfer equipment into the third floor of my home, above the second floor editing and conference room, and opened up my new company: The Biography Authority.

David Slifer, The Biography Authority

David Slifer of Hal Slifer Productions

We built a new website, www.thebiographyauthority.com, and I advertised the business with a hefty pay-per-click budget with Google AdWords.

My new business model was to produce about 35 weddings and events per year, a significant drop from our previous schedule of 40–50 events. This would free me up to spend more time with the transfer lab and to market my biography stories. After a few months, the business model started to click into gear. The consumer who came in to transfer years of VHS, Hi8 videos, and home movies was also the person I could talk to about having us produce a family or corporate biography story.

Many times, a client would come in for a small order to transfer a few VHS tapes to a hard drive, and then she’d come back 2 months later to ask us to produce a biography story of her 85-year-old grandmother, or to speak to us about an upcoming wedding or corporate job.

With most of our advertising budget going to Google AdWords to bring in a steady flow of customers, I now had a new revenue stream that allowed me to buy more transfer equipment and market the biography video side of my business more aggressively.

I reinvented my business and got away from the mindset of assessing my business purely on the basis of how many events I was doing each year. Instead of relying on the struggling event side of my business to deliver most of my income, I now had a business model that included synergy from three businesses: Hal Slifer Productions, for events; the Biography Authority, for video and film transfers; and Biography Stories, for producing full-fledged biography films.

History Projects
The great thing about running a film/transfer lab is that you get to see some amazing historical footage. One client had us transfer 16mm film footage of the dedication of a local synagogue that was shot in 1935. It turned out that the clients were looking for a video company to produce a documentary of the 75-year history of Temple Emanuel of Newton, Mass., and through their connection with the transfer lab, we landed the job.

With a healthy production budget, we interviewed 100 temple members. With home movie footage and many historical photos, we produced a 45-minute documentary that was shown in front of 500 temple members, delivered on DVD to 1,500 families, and viewed on the web more than 25,000 times in the first month the film was online.

The Temple Emanuel documentary was well-received, even though out of the 100 people that we interviewed, we only used 22 in the final cut. To be part of this documentary, interviewees had their hair done, bought new suits, and took time off from work. We quickly realized that there were 78 people who were upset with the film that we delivered. They spent a lot of time and energy to be part of the documentary, and they wanted to know why they did not make the final cut.

We came up with an idea to satisfy the folks who wound up as extras on the hard drive. We built a six-page website and embedded the video interviews of the 78 voices in short, 30-second sound bites as they discussed the history of the temple. The 78 people who were originally cut from the main video enjoyed seeing themselves on the website, and so did their friends. We called the website Temple Emanuel Voices. We’ve extended this style of web video into a series of clips we call Voices Of, and we house the clips on a website filled with talking-head testimonials. This site has proven to be an excellent marketing tool for the organization and companies that we have worked with.

Other Biography Success Stories
The recession has been tough for many videographers, yet some companies that have added biography services to their production services have reported success in a difficult market.

Michael Kolowich: DigiNovations
Michael Kolowich owns a video company in Concord, Mass., called DigiNovations, that bills itself as “New England’s Video Storytellers.” Kolowich’s clients include Harvard University; MIT; The Museum of Science, Boston; Appalachian Mountain Club; Genzyme Corp.; and Monster.  DigiNovations has a team of 10 on staff: two producers, two editors, a chief videographer, a production assistant, an operations manager, a graphics artist, a part-time bookkeeper, and Kolowich, who serves as executive producer.

“The economic downturn,” says Kolowich, “had a disproportionate negative impact on our business, both because of the nature of our market and the structure of our company. Marketing programs—especially in not-for-profit institutions—are among the first line items cut when an organization needs to tighten its belt, and that often means video. And because we’ve structured our company with a salaried staff of producers, videographers, and editors rather than a Rolodex of freelancers, the fixed costs were a killer when the economy went south.” Kolowich says he used the time that was freed up when business was slow to invest in new video technologies, such as KnowledgeVision, that, he says, “have helped us come out of the downturn stronger than ever.”

DigiNovations has a biography production wing called MemoryWorks Studios. MemoryWorks markets biography services entirely through search engine optimization, inbound marketing techniques, and word-of-mouth recommendations from DigiNovations’ corporate business, Kolowich says.

An important aspect of Kolowich’s work is how he has woven biography into his company’s mainline corporate productions. An excellent example of this was a film his studio made for Boston College to launch its 2010 capital campaign. “Light the World” is a film that portrays Boston College’s core values through a series of 1-minute biographical interviews with eight alumni who have accomplished extraordinary things below the radar in public service. “You’d be surprised how much biography you can get into a one-minute segment,” says Kolowich. “The overall effect is quite extraordinary in telling a larger biographical story about an institution.”

Kolowich says that the secret of his work is embedded in two words: storytelling and immersion. In much of his work he applies biographical techniques by avoiding narration like the plague: Most of his films tell their stories entirely through interviews. Take, for example, the film he produced for Harvard Business School. Through 22 interviews, he tells the story of Harvard’s innovative teaching approach—the case method—in a highly immersive experience, shot with between two and four cameras in most scenes.

Another example of Kolowich’ work, based on biographical techniques, was the chronicle of Mitt Romney’s campaign for president in 2008. While there were plenty of news clips and sound bites gathered from more than 100 hours of field videography, a key piece of continuity came from three retrospective interviews with key insiders in the campaign.

Michael Kolowich, Diginovations

Michael Kolowich shooting for the Mitt Romney 2008 presidential campaign  

Chris Perera
While Michael Kolowich runs an amazing company with a creative team of filmmakers, Chris Perera, from New York City, runs a one-man shop, Perera Pictures. He has also found success as a storyteller. I met Perera while shooting a wedding at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston on New Year’s Eve. The bride was being featured on the popular TLC show, Say Yes to the Dress, and Perera was at the wedding to get footage for the show.

“I am a documentarian at heart,” says Perera, “which means that I’ve spent much of my life capturing and telling people’s stories in a way that I think is unique. I rarely ever hire someone else to film or ask the essential questions. I want my editorial to be as good as my production service,” he explains. “My clients have been referred to me through my customers as well as a network of friends, family and colleagues. Apart from a part-time publicist and web developer, I’ve been able to keep my overhead costs to a minimum.”

Chris Perera

Chris Perera (right) shooting a wedding

Perera’s philosophy is that he wants to tell a great story. “I’m always looking for a hook,” he says. “I want to find a unique aspect of the story in which I can tell the story visually and capture the viewer’s attention. Most importantly, I want to blow the client away. As a freelance business, I’ve been fortunate to work on a host of corporate videos and popular TV shows that allow me to do exactly this. For Say Yes to the Dress that airs on TLC, I have the license to be as creative as needed to capture these critically important wedding scenes that are seen by millions of people.”

Whether Perera is shooting an event for a wedding or biography client or footage for a television network, he feels that the key to telling a great story is to maintain a connection with your subjects that causes them to feel totally comfortable in your presence. “So comfortable, in fact,” says Chris, “that your camera falls away and the subject is free to be who they are, hence cinema verite. That’s when you’ve immortalized gold and the viewer will know that you are doing a lot more than delivering just pretty pictures.”

Whit Wales
Perera, Kolowich, and I all shoot with the Sony EX1 and edit with Final Cut Pro. Whit Wales, an intelligent and knowledgeable filmmaker based in central Massachusetts, works with an EOS-1D Mark IV for his event productions and an EOS 5D Mark II for his corporate and portrait work.

Whit Wales, Wales Films

Masachusetts-based filmmaker Whit Wales in action

Wales films exquisite weddings as well as riveting corporate biographies (check out his work at http://wales films.com). “If your work demonstrates quality,” says Wales, “and you have confidence in what you do, it’s simple enough to convince anyone about your ability to transfer a skill set from one area—weddings—to another—corporate. And more often than not,” Wales continues, “corporate work is only one degree of separation from clients with whom you do biographical and/or wedding work. The referrals fly all ways now, from weddings to bios to corporate and back again. I consider this diversification incredibly important from a business and sanity perspective. Moreover, for a wedding filmmaker, corporate is low-hanging fruit—it’s weekday work during any season of the year.”

A Wales Films production celebrating the nuptials of fellow biography filmmaker Michael Kolowich

Wales feels that the beauty of the biography side of our business is that you don’t have to leave what you’re doing in order to dip your toe into the water. “You simply need to identify those who have a need to have their story told. And it doesn’t have to be a person who is coming near the end of their life cycle. It could, for example, be a child—children of parents who are in your sphere of shared values,” Wales says. “It could be a thriving and important member of your wedding community.”

Alan Naumann
Not everyone who specializes in the biography side of our business has come from the wedding world. Alan Naumann (www.memoryvision.tv) has been a pastor in his native Minneapolis and is known throughout the WEVA and EventDV communities in our industry as a pioneer in the area of funeral videography.

Alan Naumann, Memory Vision

Memory Vision's Alan Naumann, master of memorial and biography films

“One of my first memorial videos opened my eyes to the importance of producing video biographies,” says Naumann. “A family whose father had just died came to me with a box of audio tapes for me to use in their father’s memorial video. They told me they were too broken up to go through them, but gave me the freedom to pick out anything I wanted. One of the first tapes I listened to was a recording made by the father many years earlier. It began with the father playing several chords on the piano and saying, ‘Well, kids, I’m not very good at this, but here are some of our favorite songs that you asked me to record.’ He went on to play songs like ‘Thanks for the Memories’ with appropriate commentary in between selections. I knew I had a winner with that tape,” he recalls, “but [I] didn’t realize how powerful it would be until I saw the reaction of the children. Hearing their father’s voice really impacted them in a way that photos alone couldn’t. I realized then that not only hearing a person’s voice, but actually seeing them on screen was what video was uniquely able to do. This was the beginning of my love affair with video biographies.”

As mentioned earlier, Naumann is known for his funeral videography—producing memorial videos and capturing funeral/memorial services. He is constantly being contacted by videographers seeking his advice on how to work in this field, and his course on funeral videography is the industry bible for filmmakers who want to enter this untapped area of the video business. And Naumann’s more recently developed course on biography video is another essential instructional tome for our industry.

Lives in Film
Kolowich, Wales, Perera, Naumann, and I all have different visions, comprising both the artist and the business mind, that make up our individual filmmaking souls. As filmmakers, we all produce our stories in different ways, yet the constant thread of our work is that we are telling a basic story—a biography of a family, of a wedding couple, of a person’s legacy, an organization, or a corporation. As the economy changes for better or worse in our different marketplaces, we will always be in demand for our storytelling craft. Everyone loves a good story, and every generation needs someone, like you, to tell that story in a compassionate and entertaining way.

Hal Slifer (hal at halslifer.com) has been producing biography, wedding, and corporate films in Massachusetts for nearly 30 years
and was one of the first filmmakers to produce same-day edits in New England. A WEVA Hall of Famer and EventDV 25 honoree, Hal has been a featured speaker at WEVA Expos and other international educational events.

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