When interviewed about the success of his first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, author David Liss explained how he’d originally tried to write the novel while ostensibly pursuing his doctorate in English Literature at Columbia University. Ultimately, Liss said, he decided to scrap the dissertation, drop out of his Ph.D. program, and devote all his time and energy to finishing the novel. When asked a few years later if he had any regrets about dropping out of grad school, Liss quipped, "My only regret is that I can’t drop out again."
Of course, not every tale of striking out on your own and following your bliss ends happily. In our industry, plenty of event videographers who’ve enthusiastically "taken the plunge" and quit the 9-to-5 grind to become video entrepreneurs have found themselves back in the work force within a few years, after their businesses failed. Sometimes the problem is ability, other times it’s lack of business sense or strategy; just as often, especially in trying economic times, it’s simply that a given market won’t bear another videographer who is unable to distinguish him- or herself from the existing competition.
In Liss’s case, ironically enough, bad economic times worked in his favor. A Conspiracy of Paper—a historical thriller about the South Sea Bubble that nearly destroyed England’s economy when it burst in 1719—hit bookstores in late 2000, just as the dot-com bubble was beginning to burst. Having just read Liss’s rip-roaring fifth novel, the forthcoming >The Whiskey Rebels, I can attest that his is a talent that would have eventually made him successful. But there’s no question that fortune smiled on him and his bubble book when the egregious speculation surrounding the doomed dot-coms sent the economy into a tailspin eerily similar to the long-ago events his book portrayed.
As we move into another cycle of economic crisis, videographers would be foolish to expect it to somehow work to their advantage as the dot-com collapse worked to Liss’s, which was a pure accident of history. It would also be unwise to assume our industry could somehow be unaffected by an economic pinch that will surely take its toll on our prospects and clients, many of whom will find themselves scaling back the scope of their events.
Different videographers will feel the effect in different ways, depending on the markets they serve and the way they serve them. A decline in client prosperity may well shrink on the high-end markets, simply reducing the number of big-ticket events; the worst-case scenario is that video slips back into the "first-thing-to-go" zone for potential clients who are cutting back the number of services/vendors they involve in their events.
The challenge for many videographers will be to adjust their business plans to match the realities of the times. One encouraging recent trend has been the dissipation of the stigmas attached to a couple of different videography business models. First is the quick-turn, no-nonsense approach that makes high-volume business for low-budget brides a viable approach. The danger in targeting this market is offering too much for too little; without clear distinctions between what’s offered at different levels of the market, as Take 1 Productions’ Don Pham says, "The bride has nothing to do but price-shop." But meeting the budget-bride market on its own terms makes a lot of sense, and it’s been a good corrective to see that approach get more recognition and respect in our industry. It will serve us well as the economic downturn runs its course.
It’s also been a relief to hear a little less from those who unilaterally condemn part-time videographers for dragging down the industry. There’s no question the stereotype of the part-timer who diminishes the value of video by offering a cut-rate product has some validity, but "part-time" and "low-budget" are in no way synonymous, as evidenced by the example of high-end, multicareer part-timers like EventDV 25 honorees Pham and Glen Elliott. But Pham and Elliott are certainly atypical. In 2006, when The Main Event columnist Mike Nelson and I were first discussing the purview of his column, he said he’d like to write about wedding add-ons that would keep a videographer busy and profitable all week long by creating additional revenue streams from what you do with your footage in the editing room. I suggested Eight Days a Week, but Mike felt it was too evocative of the part-timer who’s working multiple jobs to pay the bills and running himself ragged for little return. I know Mike has seen this syndrome bring down a number of studios, as he described in his June column, The Business of Staying in Business.
Over the next couple of issues we’ll pay special attention to meeting the challenges of difficult markets and a sluggish economy, beginning this month with Elizabeth Welsh’s feature on the increasingly prevalent (thanks to the marketing power of the internet) practice of small-market videographers shooting outside their own markets (Road to Success). We’ll follow up that article in September with a Hal Slifer feature on "cash cow" offerings that may not be a videographer’s signature product but provide quick-and-easy, readily available revenue streams and help support more ambitious efforts. Finally, Marshall Levy of Maverick Productions will offer marketing tips on how to capture and even increase sales in an ever-tougher economy. Don’t touch that dial.
Stephen Nathans-Kelly is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EMedialive.com and proprietor of FirstLookBooks, a book review blog.