At the beginning of the summer, as I rummaged through the pickings at a neighborhood garage sale, I came across a book called Cloning for Dummies. Certain this had to be some kind of joke, I examined the book closely, and found it bore all the earmarks of a legitimate installment of the for Dummies series. And if that wasn’t enough, it even included a foreword by Dr. Thomas J. Eckleburg, founder and president of the Society for the Irresponsible Use of Pseudo-Scientific Knowledge, endorsing the whole enterprise. Ever since I’ve been kicking myself for not forking over 50 cents and buying it, if only to convince myself that I really saw it. And at no time have I been more regretful than during the week of August 23–26 at WEVA Expo 2010 at the palatial Disney Dolphin resort in Orlando, when I realized that there would have been no way for me to attend all the seminars I wanted to see without fashioning a few clones of myself and bringing them along to the show.
If I had picked up that book and successfully followed the steps, I could have caught no less than 70 presentations focused on the business, art, techniques, and technology of wedding and event videography and filmmaking. But I had to settle for a sampling of the newest and the best presenters (which sometimes turned out to be one and the same) and draw what conclusions I might.
Based on what I saw at the opening night gala, which packed in attendees for the most streamlined Creative Excellence Awards program in recent memory, WEVA’s 20th anniversary Expo was destined to become a heady mix of the new and the old—the very old, at times. Self-styled Godfather of Video John Goolsby kicked off the evening with a journey through the darker and (unintentionally) funnier moments of our industry’s pre-WEVA past—when it was hardly an industry at all—with a look at what wedding video actually looked like in 1987. That shudder-inducing glimpse of the way we were couldn’t have struck a more striking contrast to the way we are, as evidenced by the most uniformly dazzling assemblage of CEA-winning clips I’ve seen in the 6 Expos I’ve attended. Just when it seemed that the night might lean too heavily on self-congratulatory celebrations of past glories—trapping a good number of current attendees in a past they neither remember nor probably care about—the awards clips transformed this night from an homage to old-school lifetime achievements to unabashed DSLR-worship, firmly grounded in the here and now. I didn’t keep track of how many award-winning videos were visibly DSLR-shot, but the overall effect was stunning. With nary a clunker in the lot, this year’s winners were a whirlwind of bokeh-bolstered visual pyrotechnics that not only showed how far this industry has come, but also rendered the point irrelevant. Past? What past?
And if this was in part a night for the old guard to celebrate what they and WEVA had built together, there was also a changing of the guard afoot, as upstarts Adam Forgione of Pennylane Productions and Ray and Jessica Roman of Ray Roman Films achieved a level of dominance in the CEAs unseen since the award-amassing heydays of VHVIDEO.com and Brett Culp Films, who appear to have willingly ceded the CEA spotlight to new champions. Most of all it was Forgione’s night, as he wore a path in the carpet in no fewer than 9 trips to the podium (and as he held court at the piano into the wee hours after the ceremony). The night also yielded yet another remarkable showing for the Philippines, with 8 Filipino studios collecting awards and demonstrating once again how deep the talent pool goes in that country. But the overall effect of the show was to establish the remarkable extent to which the DSLR movement has put its stamp on our industry, and how impressive the filmmakers who’ve deployed these cameras best have made us look.
If Monday’s dinner left you gorging on the eye candy that’s becoming our industry’s calling card in the DSLR age, much of the rest of the week was about getting back to business, and acknowledging that studios can’t survive on pretty pictures alone in an economy where, more than ever, most potential clients put price first. All the seminars I attended were awash in either good, solid instruction on shooting or editing (as opposed to quips between clips), or business, branding, and marketing insight that spoke directly to the times.
One of the more heavily hyped seminars of the week was four-time EventDV 25 honoree Steve Moses’s TV talk show-style “The WEVA Show: The Best from the Best,” featuring new-sheriffs-in-town Roman and Forgione, along with newly minted Bob LeBar Vision Award winner Dave Williams, fresh off DVideography’s full-scale rebrand as Cinema Cake. While acknowledging that his company has only had to lower prices once in 6 years, Williams said, “Everybody’s having the budget discussion. It’s a little frustrating. You have to be more patient. The biggest thing we’ve done is to put more films online. Our new site is like our own little YouTube, organized by venue, religion.” Williams said he welcomes the attention the site has brought him, even if it means not every bride he sees is likely to become a Cinema Cake bride. He said he has prices on the site, but visitors have to look at the work first before they see them. “If you have more people coming to your site and more people to talk to, you get more bookings.”
Williams said that this means he’s booking less than 10% of the brides he talks to, but says there’s an upside to that statistic: selectivity. Roman put it best: “If you’re ever booking beyond 70%, it’s time to raise your prices.”
Forgione, who said his company now has 60–70 films online, sees it a bit differently. He said he took prices off the site earlier this year, but then put them back up because he was losing “so much time answering unnecessary calls.” He insisted that while many videographers’ first instinct in tough times is to lower prices, it’s important to try more aggressive strategies first: “If my business is slowing down, the first thing on my mind is to call more wedding planners. If there’s a celebrity wedding near you, call the wedding planner who did it and network.”
Stepping out of the wayback machine and planting his feet firmly in the present, John Goolsby also offered tips for surviving the recession. “The economy is bad, the market is down, my friends are suffering,” he said. “What am I gonna do, roll over?” Hardly. After 25 years as Cannon Video, Goolsby underwent a full rebrand as Godfather Films, and began manufacturing new markets by strategically giving away services to open them up, and dove headlong into social media networking. “Our income is based on one important skill: networking,” he said. “People say, ‘I don’t have time for social networking.’ I say, ‘You will.’”
Perhaps the most fascinating take on dealing with a down economy came from Brett Culp, who spoke on “Thriving as an Artist in an ‘I-Can-Get-It-Cheaper World.’” Those of us who have been attending WEVA Expo and other conferences for the last several years have no doubt heard any number of speakers tell us to stop promoting ourselves based on the technology we use, to banish the cameras and the tech talk from our websites and business cards and so forth. But Culp brought it home as never before. Noting that he’d recently shot a $20,000 gig with the Canon T2i, an $800 DSLR, he said the playing field has become pancake-flat as far as equipment is concerned, and there’s absolutely no room for differentiation left there. “If you bring equipment into the selling process,” he said, “You just lost. That is over. We can’t talk equipment and editing systems any more, because whatever you’ve got, the guy down the block doing weddings for $600 has got it too. There are still great clients and opportunities out there, but we’re gonna have to think about it differently to get them.”
One key point of Culp’s seminar was the seemingly contradictory “diversification through specialization.” But there was a great insight in there: “When I started in this business, being a wedding videographer was enough of a specialization. Now there are sub-categories within sub-categories.” After his company developed a specialty in documentary-style storytelling in wedding films, and began to look at how to expand their business into corporate world—particularly, “not-for-profit videos that are intended to pull people’s heart strings”—the way to get that market, Culp found, was not to develop a new specialty or create a portfolio based on different kinds of work, but rather to find the commonalities between the films he was creating for weddings and what his would-be corporate and non-profit clients wanted to convey. “The skill we use to make a love story can transfer to what we do for not-for-profits, because they’re trying to elicit the same emotions,” he said. “To diversity your business effectively, find a specialty and understand it. Ask yourself, ‘What does my work mean? What does it mean to my clients and why does it mean that?’ When you get to the core of that, you’re ready to apply it to other types of films you’ve never done.”
Of course, one of the biggest motivations for wedding filmmakers trying to diversify their offerings is to pursue the ever-elusive “weekday work.” This was the ostensible topic of Whit Wales’ seminar on “Producing Biographies that Sell.” Like Culp, Wales delved quite a bit into how to adapt existing skills to different types of work—in this case, interview-based biographical films for families and businesses. As a wedding filmmaker, he said, his work is about creating films that reflect who his subjects are rather than his own style, his artistic aspirations, or—least of all—his equipment. It’s about “trying to find the people where they are, and suiting the film to what the client is about. If you can translate this into corporate and family biographies, your weekdays are covered—it’s low-hanging fruit.”
Wales delved further into how he approaches interviews. And “the first rule of interviewing,” he said—invoking novelist Chuck Palahniuk’s First Rule of Fight Club—is that “there is no interview here.” It’s all about making the client comfortable, he explained, and bringing out emotions and stories without reminding them that they’re being asked questions by a guy with a camera who needs a bunch of sound bites to make his film work—their film that they’re paying him for. “Never feel like you have to kill a client with questions,” he said. Let them talk, take the pressure off, “and catch them being articulate.” Easier said than done, perhaps, but the payoff is significant: “The thing that separates us from photographers is words. Going forward we need to play that up. What will stand the test of time, and what people connect with, is words.”
One of my goals at WEVA this year was to catch as many first-time speakers as possible. Two that I saw who were particularly impressive in their Expo debuts were Sylvia Broeckx of U.K.-based studio Ever After Productions, and Travis Cossel of formerly Boise-based Serendipity Studios, who is taking his talents to South Beach as we speak. Broeckx’ topic was “Anatomy of a Short Form,” which she approached from the intriguing angle of being a UK videographer, working in a country that still remains predominantly unconvinced of the idea that an astutely edited 20-30 minute wedding film is worth more than (or even a legitimate substitute for) two hours of tedium. It’s a welcome perspective from someone who’s standing behind the podium; too often, I believe, speakers who have long since moved on to selling the types of artistic wedding films they want to produce forget that short-forms and more stylized takes are a tough sell for most of the videographers in their audience, whether because of the market they’re in or their position in it. As Broeckx launched into a seminar that was at once a convincing defense of the short form and a thorough explanation of how to do it, she said that distilling a lengthy wedding to its most essential and dramatic elements in a way that keeps viewers’ attention and keeps them guessing as any absorbing film should “is not rocket science. It’s an organic process. It’s like Michelangelo with a big block of marble, and you have to find the sculpture within it. That’s how I see wedding video,” she said, and—ever self-effacing—added, “Not that I have delusions of grandeur.”
Kicking off Wednesday’s seminars with perhaps the most intimidating spot on the schedule—going head-to-head with Patrick Moreau and Matt Davis—was Travis Cossel and his “Editing Can Be Sexy Too” seminar. Presenting a well-organized and easy-to-follow walk-through of a shortform edit in Final Cut Pro, Cossel sprinkled his seminar with lots of memorable turns of phrase; my favorite: “Don’t be afraid to leave awesome clips on the cutting room floor. Include only what you need to tell the story.”
One thing I appreciated about this year’s Expo was that, after John Goolsby’s hilarious tales of yesteryear at the beginning of the awards gala, the program was so squarely focused on the present, and what to do to succeed in this business right now. But it also kept one eye on one possible future for event filmmaking, with a low but steady buzz (thanks to a film running non-stop in the Panasonic booth) about shooting weddings in 3D. The clip featured in the Panasonic booth was shot by Philadelphia-based filmmaker Mike Brand of Lafayette Hill Studios, and was almost certainly the first wedding film captured entirely in 3D in the U.S. (Brand has done 2 at this writing.) Produced with Panasonic’s just-introduced AG-3DA1, Brand’s film certainly speaks to the potential and possibilities of 3D wedding productions, and demonstrates that it’s surprisingly easy to do for someone with well-developed skills in 2D wedding filmmaking.
Wednesday afternoon’s WEVA’s Wide World of Weddings & Events thrust Brand into the spotlight, talking mono a mono with WEVA Chairman Roy Chapman. Brand admitted to being skeptical, initially, of how practical it would be to produce a wedding film with the AG-3DA1, and how brides would react to it. He put the question of how the bride would react on the wedding day itself to the test by acting as if he were doing nothing out of the ordinary; “They didn’t even know we were shooting 3D on their wedding day,” he said. “That’s how unobtrusive you can be with this camera,” he added, likening the handling and feel of the 6.5 lb. AG-3DA1 to Panasonic’s evergreen DVX100, and the button and dial layout to the widely used HVX200. The big difference between the new 3D model and these older cameras is price, of course; at $21,000, the price of the AG-3DA1 seems almost impossible to amortize over infrequent 3D upsells at this point. Brand dismissed that issue by pointing potential adopters to the rental market, which seemed more than reasonable.
But the real “proof in the pudding” of Brand’s experiment was showing the finished project to a parade of potential clients who have come through his studio since he shot the 3D wedding, and capturing their responses on film—a fascinating twist, given the number of folks in our industry who have questioned whether there will ever be any demand for 3D films in the wedding world. After all, wedding films, as a genre, couldn’t be a whole lot farther afield from the types of Hollywood films that are getting the treatment today. Of the future brides and families who watched the clips in his studio, Brand said, “They were overwhelmed.” He showed some of the responses on the big screen at WEVA Expo. One of the viewers in Brand’s studio remarked, “It’s so real. It makes you feel like you’re there. Everything’s gonna be 3D. If you’re not, you’re gonna be passé, old-fashioned.”
Ah, the zeal of the convert. So often the stock in trade of technology industry trade shows, and the kind of thing that tends to wear off pretty soon after you get home and return to attending to more practical matters. But in a year when this industry’s largest and longest-running show was so solidly packed with reality checks and practical advice for weathering the gathering storms of an inclement economy, what’s the harm of a few blue-sky predictions? Especially if you’re seeing that sky in dazzling 3D, however blurry it might look without the glasses.
Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EventDVLive and programming director of EventDV-TV.