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History opens new market for Film House

by Randy McClain
October 18, 2009
The Tennessean

Film House studios in Nashville has long produced commercials for the soldier audience on Armed Forces Radio and TV.

With a new, sizable contract announced this month, Film House marches even further into military work with a job to produce film exhibits for the U.S. Army Museum that will be built along the Potomac River.

The 33-year-old Nashville company will handle a World War I film for the museum.

Curt Hahn, CEO of Film House, discussed with Business Editor Randy McClain how the company got the contract, what it will mean, and how the studio's strategy has helped Film House survive the changes in the industry and recession.

Hahn, who wears his gray hair tied in a tight ponytail, chuckles when he says his small firm may outlast the giant General Motors plant in nearby Spring Hill, Tenn., which goes on standby status next month.

How important have U.S. government contracts become to Film House's revenues?

It has become the mainstay in terms of predictable annual revenue. Say, 15 years ago, it used to be that our mainstay was producing TV commercials for radio stations to promote their programming. We've done the TV spots for WSIX-FM radio and Gerry House for 20 years now, for instance.

But our business today isn't defined as much by one industry or one type of work; and that's why we've been able to weather the recession. The nice thing about the government is they don't change the amount they spend during a recession, while most advertisers do hunker down.

What sort of commercials do you produce for Armed Forces Radio and TV?

It all falls under the broad heading of command information for our military forces stationed all around the world. We do everything from a spot on how to vote in a presidential election when you're stationed overseas ... to a spot about wearing a helmet while you're riding a motorcycle because the military loses an awful lot of young men every year to motorcycle accidents.

We focus on the same kinds of subject matter that you'd think of here as public service announcements.

Is the military radio and TV contract divided among a variety of studios around the country?

The military used to do it that way. But 11 years ago, they consolidated it and gave it all to one company. The idea behind that was to attract more bidders by making the contract a little more substantial.

Now, we do all the spots, and it's the largest contract that the U.S. government awards for film production. It's worth about $4 million a year. We just signed a contract for a five-year cycle that's worth $20 million.

You also have been named one of the vendors to do film work for the U.S. Army Museum, which has a projected cost of $300 million and will open in 2013. What precise role will Film House play in that?

This is going to be amazing. The part that we've been assigned is World War I. There'll be other exhibits on World War II, Korea, Vietnam and so on.

They chose us specifically to do World War I, and I think in large part it's because they know our company has the expertise to find archival film footage, old footage ... and identify who owns it. It could be privately owned or owned by the Library of Congress or a news organization. We find it, bring it together and license it at a reasonable cost.

We also do a lot of re-enactments in terms of TV spots for the Armed Forces under our radio and TV work already. We've done spots honoring every Congressional Medal of Honor winner, for instance. And when we do, we often re-enact the events that led to their winning the Medal of Honor.

Will you film on any European battlefield locations for the museum project?

We don't know yet. We were literally awarded this contract last week. We will actually write the script in house. But we haven't had our first sit-down with the client yet to get an overview of what they want. The bidding brief, though, says they want to tell the story of trench warfare and the fact that when General (John J.) Pershing arrived with the American Expeditionary Forces in 1917 there was a 1,000-mile-long stalemate ... along the Western Front.

Pershing was determined to get the battle out of the trenches and into open warfare. And part of his plan was fueled by the fact that gasoline-powered engines were becoming available in large numbers thanks to Henry Ford and the assembly line. And we were producing an enormous number of new troop transports and tanks that hadn't been available before.

When WWI started, there literally were more mules than tanks and trucks. So, we'll tell the story of how the war changed.

What will the World War I exhibit look like?

Visitors will enter through a trench, past sandbags into an immersive theatrical experience. Think Epcot ... the way you go into a space and there's lighting and sound design that, in this case, will put you in the battle. I think it will be very powerful and a very moving experience. The main theater you enter will have five screens and multiple projectors.

What possibilities does the U.S. Army Museum open up for Film House in terms of finding additional clients?

This will be a great showpiece for us. I've heard speculation that the Country Music Hall of Fame is talking about vastly expanding, and the African-American Museum is about to go up next to the Farmers Market here.

For us to have been chosen to be a key part of what promises to be one of the most highly anticipated museums of the next five years really bodes well for us. We may be able to continue to diversify the business this way. There are 800 museums and visitor centers in this country, and they're all prospects for us now.

What advantages does Film House have in going head-to-head with other film companies that may be based in New York or Los Angeles?

The simplest answer to that is that everything costs less in Nashville. If you go to the West Coast and look at the cost of doing business in California, it's a much more expensive proposition. I think lower costs have been a big factor helping us compete with much bigger companies. For instance, the contract for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service attracted 85 companies to the pre-bid conference. But we bring value to the client — good production values for less money.

You mentioned pursuing other museum-related work. What are other potential growth areas for Film House? And what sectors are hurting right now?

Revenue from TV commercials is off in a huge way for us this year, but maybe with the Dow going back above 10,000 ... advertisers may start to come back from under their rock and commercial work may return to where it was.

Feature films are another potential growth area for us. So are webcasts and webinars (for business clients). We've started to do a substantial number of them from our MetroCenter studios. We do them for a particular client, but it also allows you to create your own programs. And you don't need a TV network to pick it up. You sell it yourself. You post it as a webcast, and it's good enough that viewers actually pay a fee to watch it.

We like to create things and own the copyright; that's why we're sitting in this nice building because we own the ideas. We've had (some TV commercials) where the same basic concept gets sold to 100 other clients around the world.

Webcasts are right in that same wheelhouse. If we create it here, and it's successful, we can turn around and do the same webcast every quarter or every week if it's powerful enough.

Give me some examples — real or imagined.

You need something that people are passionate about as fans or it's really important business information — things targeted toward professionals who pay hundreds of dollars to get the information, maybe a timely economic forecast.

Or, say you did a shoot behind the scenes of Taylor Swift's new music video and you made it a webcast. You interview Taylor as part of the day ... how many Taylor Swift fans would ask their parents if they could spend $5.95 to watch that? I bet a lot of them would.

We haven't done that yet, but I am just throwing that out there for them. I expect a call on Monday.

Randy McClain is business editor. Reach him at 615-259-8882 or [email protected].

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