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Lives in Pictures: Producing Video Biographies
Posted Jul 1, 2005 Print Version     Page 1of 4 next »

Deck: Video biographies range from photo montages to full-blown A&E-style productions with interviews, voiceovers, and old film footage. While video bios make up only a small part of some practitioners' business, there also has emerged a cottage industry of videographers who specialize in the retelling of lives on video.

Most event videographers' primary business consists of capturing the machinations of a wedding, bar mitzvah, or other special occasion and then editing that raw footage down to tell the story of a single day. But the ability to tell a story with video is a skill that's applicable in arenas outside of just event-centric projects. While independent videographers have found profitability in doing everything from stage events to corporate and commercial work, video biographies, in particular, have proven to be rewarding on a personal as well as a professional level.

Video biographies come in many different flavors, ranging from photo montages to full-blown A&E-style productions, complete with interviews, voiceovers, and old film footage. In general, video bios make up only a small part of some practitioners' overall business. At the same time, there has emerged a cottage industry of specialists who focus all of their professional energy on the retelling of people's lives on video. Even the Wall Street Journal picked up on the trend, showcasing it in an October 23, 2003 article called "The Story of My Life, Starring… Me!" The article profiled a handful of companies offering video biographies, with prices ranging (in late 2003, mind you) from $800 to $20,000, with $2,000-$3,000 emerging as a fair arithmetic mean.

Adding video bio services may seem like a tempting way for videographers to diversify their offerings and increase revenue, but it's not as simple as listing "video biography" as a category on your Web site and waiting for the clients to roll in. Not only do videographers trying to break into the video-bio game have to compete with bio specialists, they also must face a new set of challenges in generating a successful video bio and draw on or acquire skills that they haven't used in their other work. This article takes a look at the realm of video bios from an event videographer's perspective, both in terms of the challenges they entail as well as the growing opportunities that producing video bios can present.

A Booming Market
By far the dominant demographic of people who order a video bio are Baby Boomers, but they don't do so to capture their own lives on camera. "What I'm finding is that more people are buying it for their parents than buying it for themselves," says Brad Flickinger, founder of Port Townsend, Washington-based My Video Story and a self-proclaimed video-bio specialist. "We've got this huge Baby Boomer population. All of my customers have been over 50 years old." Not surprisingly, most video bios center on subjects who have a fair amount of salt in their pepper. "I've never done a biography on a 20-year old," says Flickinger. Rob Fritzer, founder of San Diego-based Family Tree Digital Video, defines his market in different terms. "Everyone has photos that exist in their closet. How many people do you think spend $500-1,000 on Christmas gifts each year?" he says. "Ask people who've lost their parents if they wished they'd done something like this but didn't. The time to do this is now while you and your parents are alive and well. I think every family in America should do this."

Even videographers who count video bios as one among a suite of services have seen growth potential in this nascent market. "We do a few a year. It's nothing we're bringing home the big bucks with, but recently the call volume has started to pick up," says Carolyn Alexander, owner of San Jose-based Family Memories Video and Infiniti Productions. "I think that's indicative of a big wave that's about to hit."

Finding Customers
There's no disputing the potential size of the Baby Boomer customer base, but videographers looking to sell their video bio wares face a daunting challenge in trying to capitalize on this lucrative market. "My marketing has to involve a lot of education to the customer," says Steve Pender, founder of Tuscon, Arizona-based Family Legacy Video. "Quite often a lot of people don't even know that something like this exists."

Trying to educate a customer as to why they should plop down a fairly substantial chunk of change on something they don't totally understand via an advertisement rarely works. "I've done some advertising, but I've found, at least for my purposes, that print advertising hasn't been very successful," Pender continues. "The show-and-tell aspect has been very important to hooking people on the emotions of a video bio." To facilitate this, Pender has given free presentations about video bios to a number of groups, including lion's clubs, rotary clubs, and historical organizations.

Fritzer agrees wholeheartedly with Pender's assertion about the need to reach out to potential customers and educate them about the value of video biographies. His pilot company opportunity includes 15 marketing programs aimed at getting the Family Tree DVD message directly in front of consumers, rather than simply posting an ad and hoping that someone contacts them. [To learn more about Family Tree pilot companies as well as other efforts by videographers to capitalize on their specialized knowledge, check out the sidebar entitled, "Repurposed Repackaging" on Page 4 of this article.] "This isn't something that people see a Yellow Pages ad for and give us a call," he explains. "We go straight to the consumer so that they can see and hear why they should do this."

Larna MacHutchin, founder of Venice, California-based MacHutchin Productions, applies a similar caveat to Internet-based marketing. "I've been really successful at Internet marketing, getting lots of inquiries, but I've never actually sold a video bio through Internet marketing, and I think that's pretty telling," says MacHutchin. "It's too high a cost of a product and too individual of a thing for some random person to come onto the Internet and search for it. It doesn't work that way: it's not like buying a car. All of the business I've gotten has been through relationships I have with people."

Word of mouth is the most powerful way through which videographers can reach potential customers irregardless of the nature of the project itself, but it's especially good for getting older potential clients in the door. "When we're talking about the retired market, they're often scared of anyone trying to scam them," says Flickinger. "Word of mouth is still the best in terms of reaching that group of people." Flickinger adds that advertising for video bios can work, although only during the holiday season when framed as the "ultimate Christmas gift."

Defining Greatness
While video bios may indeed be the ultimate Christmas gift, what makes for the ultimate video bio? The gold standard of video bios that most of the aforementioned auteurs aspire to is the classic A&E biopic. Fritzer's Family Tree DVD takes one of the most extensive approaches to capturing a family's genealogy. "We custom-produce the entire history of a family," he says. "As a customer, you're going to give me 400 photographs that are organized by grandparents, family and friends, vacation, etc. In addition, we'll take up to 40 rolls of your old 8mm film and edit that video down to 12-18 minutes of highlights." A typical Family Tree DVD production costs between $1,000-2,000.

But trying to fit in as much archived content as possible is not the primary goal of all the players in the video bio game, especially those who focus their projects more on individuals and couples rather than entire family trees. "Video people charge enormous amounts of money to do things like video bios," says Flickinger. "If you want a normal videographer who's been doing this for 20 years to do a 20-minute video, it'll cost you $2,000."

Flickinger, on the other hand, only charges on average $300 per production. "There are some videographers who tell me ‘You're killing this business,' but when I edit it all out and do it, it still equates to 50 or 60 dollars an hour," he continues. "Because [the interviewees] speak in sequence, I don't have to move audio around. I just superimpose them talking over 15-20 images and I'm done. We're not going to be putting these on A&E, so for getting the subject's story across, this type of video bio is often more than enough."

Regardless of whether the video bios are 20 minutes or an hour, or cost $300 or $15,000, there are truths that span the entire spectrum of video bios. "I think the things that make a great video bio are the same qualities that make any great video project," says Pender. "It's got to look good and sound good, then it's got to be entertaining with well-paced editing and a variety of visuals as well as music that either fits the mood or the historical era we're talking about."

Flickinger breaks it down even more simply. "What makes a great video biography is when you just get to the honesty of people's lives," he says.

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