Gates of Eden: IN[FOCUS] 2011
Posted Feb 2, 2011

IN[FOCUS] 2011When IN[FOCUS] co-founder Chris P. Jones first explained to me the concept behind "The Gateway," the theme attached to IN[FOCUS] 2011, I figured it could go one of three ways: The Gateway would be the banner under which attendees would enter the conference, check the theme at the door, and proceed onward to sample the protean talents of the various presenters with little more than lip service paid to the theme from there on out. Possibility #2 was that the conference's organizers would try too hard to shoehorn the presentations into the theme, and sap some of the vitality of the presentations by not playing to their presenters' strengths. The third result I envisioned was four days of gateway-rooted hit-and-miss, with some seminars playing well to the theme and the others seeming like holdovers from some other event. Little did I know there was a fourth possibility: the four most satisfying, captivating, inspiring, and rewarding days I've experienced anywhere, anytime in 6 years in this industry.

On the third night of IN[FOCUS], which took place January 23-26 of this year in New Orleans, just before we headed out to the streets of the French Quarter for a jubilant second line parade, complete with brass band, I asked Jones if the Gateway theme had started with Patrick Moreau's headline presentation topic, and he acknowledged that it had. The basic idea of "The Gateway" was to present 10 seminars with a common purpose: to suggest ways in which an approach to wedding filmmaking that's infused with ambition, storytelling, visual artistry, and sound business strategy could serve as a gateway to other satisfying and profitable endeavors. While each presentation served that theme in its own way, it was Moreau's that really exemplified it.

Moreau's studio, StillMotion has come a long way in the last 18 months, and when you look at what the company had already achieved at that point—oodles of awards, sold-out workshops, high-end booking around the globe, corporate sponsorships, and arguably the most widely copied style in the business—it's even more remarkable to see how far they've advanced since late-2009. The biggest news out of StillMotion in 2010 was that Moreau had been hired by the NFL Network to produce a series called The Season, which put him right on the field with his 5D rig and Steadicam. What's most inspiring, as Moreau described in his seminar, is how he got that gig (as well as high-profile work with Callaway Golf, Apple, and other big-time corporate clients): The producers saw his wedding work online and sought him out to produce their shows in exactly the same style, without ever asking to see a commercial sample.

But what I appreciated most about Moreau's presentation was not just his illustration of the gateway effect of powerful wedding filmmaking, but his explanation of how the gate swings both ways, making wedding work much more than a means to an end. "This is where we're headed [as a company]," he explained. "Shoot for the NFL one week, shoot for Apple the next week, and shoot a wedding for a couple we love the following week." And each week, regardless of the venue, the process is essentially the same: find the uniqueness in the subject, tell a compelling story, and make a meaningful film. "That's what allows us to tell these different stories and makes it exciting week after week. It's the same for Phil Mickelson as it is for Winnie and Gerry."

Part of the reason the approach crosses over so well, he said, is that StillMotion doesn't approach a wedding film as a film about a wedding so much as a film about a couple. When he has dinner with a couple in an effort to get to know them prior to producing their film, he says, "We don't ask them about the wedding. We don't care about the wedding. We care about who they are. Questions about the wedding don't tell us anything about who they are." Asking these questions allows the film to answer questions such as "What's happening today that means more than just today? What bigger story do those details tie into?"

One underlying message of Moreau's presentation was not just a shared process between different kinds of production work, but approaching different types of projects with a common purpose. And again and again, what resonated about IN[FOCUS], and what I believe will help it continue to grow, is a specificity of purpose that goes beyond simply providing opportunities for videographer education and interaction, and a real commitment to providing a customized, unique experience for attendees who want to gather with as many of their peers as possible without getting lost in the crowd.

The "gateway" theme of IN[FOCUS] manifested itself in various ways in other seminars, such as David Perry's look at how self-knowledge and identification of personal strengths and weaknesses, and discovering your own "genius" (as well as "what you suck at") can tell you how to structure your business and your own role within it. (David got a big assist from Jose Ortiz, who will be taking the stage again during the WEVA event at NAB 2011.) And Matt Davis of Life Stage Films, stepping outside his usual "business coach" comfort zone, used succeeding in business as a jumping off point for finding "your business compass": "You're a success. So what? What are you going to do with it?" His answer was pursuing socially meaningful (but also professionally profitable) work in mission and nonprofit video, even referring emphatically to his current level of involvement in wedding filmmaking as temporary: "My vision is that in 2017 I won't be shooting weddings. It's a means to an end. But what we learn on this job is critical to being able to tell stories the right way to impact the world."

Ray Roman, fresh off his own workshops in South Florida, gave a presentation called "The Gateway to the Other Side"—the "other side" being high-profile clients, and an escape from the low-to-mid-range rut—in which he was even more blunt about why he does what he does: "For me, this is all about the Benjamins. I left police work—a steady job with benefits and a pension"—to get into this business. "I love shooting wedding video, but I need to make money at this job." Roman also argued that the potential for moving into higher-end work is less limited by the prices others around you have commanded to date than the amount of competition: "If you can't name 10 great wedding filmmakers in your area, the market is wide open." Roman advised attendees about the importance of looking high-end if they want to be high-end, and warned against falling into the trap of putting every wedding film they produce on their blogs, and ever putting anything less than the work that represents them best up front. He also contributed what is sure to become one of our industry's most oft-quoted lines about the unique power of film to capture and represent a live event: "Do you wanna see the Super Bowl in a photo album, or watch it on TV?"

Perhaps the most entertaining 90 minutes of the week (that is, the most entertaining 90 minutes spent in-seminar) came courtesy of the Bui Brothers (although "Godfather of Video" John Goolsby gets an honorable mention for delivering comedic edutainment on some of the most you-may-not-enjoy-talking-about-this-but-you-absolutely-need-to-know-it, nuts-and-bolts, business-specific material imaginable, and headliner Adam Forgione also deserves special consideration for operatic bursts of bombast that no one else who shared that stage could ever pull off). The Bui Brothers are two photographer/cinematographer siblings born for standup comedy, who hit on a range of topics related to how to get your work seen on the web. They kicked off their SEO discussion by Googling the terms "new orleans wedding video royal sonesta" (the Royal Sonesta being the New Orleans hotel where IN[FOCUS] took place), and showing how they got their site to come up first, even though they a) don't shoot wedding video, b) don't work or live in New Orleans, c) had never set foot inside the Royal Sonesta prior to the event, and d) had accomplished that feat of SEO supremacy with a few minutes of careful keyword placement the day before their seminar. The idea was not so much to show off their mad SEO skills as to demonstrate how little videographers tend to leverage location-based SEO. Part of this has to do with the cart/horse dichotomy between photographers and videographers: "Photographers do it backwards. They don't know how to use their camera, but they go out and market and get to #1 on Google. You perfect your craft first, and then you go out and do your marketing and SEO." The Bui Brothers also delivered the week's most memorable line (which is probably repeated somewhere on their blog, www.thebuibrothers.com—as if they need more traffic) on the dangers of doing video work with zebras, their reputation for docility notwithstanding.

Also touching on entry into and interchange with the photo world was Imagique's Daniel Boswell, who talked about how DSLR shooters can add photography (and particularly photo-to-CD and SDE-only packages) to their services and grow their business while reducing their postproduction time. (Look for Boswell's forthcoming EventDV column on this topic, which will kick off in the April issue.)

And some of the most cogent branding insight of the entire week came from two men who valorously stayed home to fight the battle of Bedford Falls last November while their wives set the industry on its ear with POSH 2010, Steve Zugelter of Studio Z Films and John Moon of Northernlight Filmworks. One of the most interesting topics they introduced, new to me, was the notion of using a promo, rather than (or in addition to) a demo reel to bring more attention to your studio. While the long-familiar demo is a collection of clips from past productions, the promo is all about the filmmakers, a short film designed to capture the vibe they bring to an event and suggest how who they are informs the films they produce, and what they'd be like to work with. This, in turn relates to Moon and Zugelter's advice on how to introduce yourself to prospects on your website or blog: "Don't go into great detail about your passion for filmmaking. Your visitors know you're passionate about filmmaking; that's why you started your business. A website is very cold by nature. It's up to you to warm it up by talking about you and who you are."

Repeating that quote, it strikes me that we've come a long way, as an industry, to the point where we take for granted that a "passion for filmmaking" is likely to be found at the heart of a wedding video operation, and serves as the primary inspiration for the person who started it. I'm not even entirely convinced that description applies to everyone in this business, even today, although it's becoming more and more the norm, and I'd guess that it applies to the vast majority of the self-selected group who found their way to IN[FOCUS] with their eyes on that gateway.

It was particularly fascinating to hear Kevin Shahinian, founder of Pacific Pictures and writer/director of event filmmaking's first magnum opus, City of Lakes—a guy whose passion for film is well understood—speaking quite passionately about wedding-day cinema. This is something new for Shahinian as a presenter in this industry, which I suspect brought home his message to people who may have been awed by his concept work in the past but seen it as something worlds apart from what they do or might ever get to do. Describing the event filmmaker as the "interpreter of an event," he said, the idea is to produce a film with more in mind than pleasing a specific client. "Why is it important to have mass appeal?" he asked. "Pleasing the client is not enough for me. The ultimate test is as a random person—do I care? Am I rooting for the couple to end up together?" At the heart of that question is the ability to make a wedding film that's compelling in the way that fictional, narrative films with 3-act structures (status quo > journey > resolution/restoration) keep an audience's attention: "How do we create mystery and suspense in a film with a totally inevitable outcome?"

Shahinian also stressed the importance of approaching an event as a filmmaker, rather than a documentarian, and establishing that role with the bride and groom from the outset: "Tell them ‘I'm a filmmaker, not a videographer. Let me give you my vision.' The biggest challenge to overcome is getting your client to trust you implicitly. The bride and groom are choosing every little thing—why would they want a paint-by-numbers wedding film?"

Producing a successful educational event, let alone one that eschews paint-by-numbers formula is much harder than it sounds. And turning a profit at it in this day and age is even harder, although it's exciting to see how smaller gatherings and workshops are finding innovative ways to do just that. And if event videography was, at one time, a predominantly paint-by-numbers endeavor, those days are long behind us. Producing inspired educational experiences, like producing inspired films, takes vision, purpose, and ambition—three things co-producers Jones, Don and Joanne Pham, and Terry and Joe Taravella, and their stellar speaker roster brought to IN[FOCUS] 2011 in abundance. And as that vision continues to unfold with next year's already-announced event, "A Filmmaker's Odyssey," we can all count ourselves lucky to be embarking on the odyssey with them.

IN[FOCUS] 2011
IMAGE BY DAVID ROBIN, david robin | films

Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV.