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Small Business | BUSINESS MAKE-OVER: A Year Later

Keeping Momentum Going Is Real Adventure for Video Firm

April 07, 1999|CYNDIA ZWAHLEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Another in an occasional series revisiting Business Make-Overs.

Like the extreme-sports enthusiasts he shoots for his video and film production company, Michael Strassman has learned that he has to top past achievements if his Range of Light Productions is to succeed.

The company, located near Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra, posted its best year ever last year with $240,000 in revenue. Half of that came from one big TV job--"Climb," a 13-episode series on rock climbing and mountaineering for the cable channel Outdoor Life. The five-member company also found a new client for its footage in Action TV, and Strassman was featured on Real TV as an extreme cameraman.

The company's new Web site (http://www.rangeoflight.com), which includes video clips, has attracted the attention of new stock-footage clients. And its new local cable series, "Adventures in the Range of Light," is being shown on the Resort Network. (Range of Light is the name the 19th century environmentalist and mountaineer John Muir gave to the Sierra Nevada mountains.)

The problem the company now faces is how to keep the momentum going.

"We came into this year kind of a little apprehensive and nervous," said Strassman, 39, who founded the company in 1986 with the backing of a wealthy investor and fellow climbing enthusiast.

The company's successes have come after a lousy couple of years ended in 1997, when revenue bottomed out at $80,000 and Strassman considered shutting down. The company had lost the backing of the investor, and its award-winning videos were aging. Strassman was trying to figure out if he could shift the focus from making one film a year for the home video market to video and television production.

He contacted The Times for a Business Make-Over to determine if the transition made economic sense. If not, "I was ready to close this thing down and open a trailer park in Bishop," Strassman said in the Dec. 17, 1997, Make-Over article.

Since then, Strassman has had mixed results accomplishing the goals recommended by Victor H. Prushan, a certified management consultant, who met with the video maker at The Times' request. As suggested, Strassman hired a salesperson, someone who contacted him after seeing the article. And he devoted some time to pitching potential big accounts himself, as recommended by Prushan, president of VHP Associates in Thousand Oaks and author of "No-Nonsense Marketing: 101 Practical Ways to Win and Keep Customers" (John Wiley & Sons, 1997).

He has added more staff and now has four employees, up from the single part-timer he had in 1997. And the company's revenue and profile have risen after its increased exposure last year.

Unfortunately, the salesperson didn't work out after six months and Strassman hasn't taken time off from shooting and production work to continue to pitch clients himself, or to hire a replacement.

"The sales and marketing area is still kind of sagging," Strassman said.

In an ideal world, the company would have a salesperson who would have new work lined up for Strassman and his team to start on as soon as they wrapped up a project. Strassman has been collecting resumes but has found that $24,000 a year plus commission, his top offer, is not attracting his ideal candidate.

"The perfect person would be someone older, who's been in Hollywood, has run five or seven different production companies, has contacts all over and wants to move up to the mountains and do this as a hobby," said the business owner. The newly minted college graduates he's hearing from do not have the contacts he needs.

That's become more of an issue as Strassman and his company try to climb the ladder in the world of video. The Outdoor Life gig was great, he said, but the revenue is considered small in the world of television. His company was able to afford to do the job for $130,000 only because it already had a lot of the footage needed, Strassman said.

He's happy that Fox Sports, a steady client, is interested in a kids' extreme-sports series he's working on, but frustrated that the network expects him to sell sponsorships for the series. He's pleased that other series producers want to buy rights to his footage but wishes he could get more of his own series on air.

"What I've found is you need the connections; you need to be out there on the golf course with these people," said Strassman, referring to the executives who buy shows. "That's our continuing weak link."

For now, he's putting the money that might cover a salesperson's salary into speculative productions, including a kids' ski and snowboard movie called "Gromms."

Although extreme sports pays the bills--the payroll alone is now $120,000 a year--Strassman is eager to take the next step artistically. He wants to go beyond "the eye candy" of extreme sports to work on projects, such as "Adventures in the Range of Light" that show the adventures of real people.

"If I see one more guy jump off a 50-foot cliff, I'm going to kill someone. I'm bored with it," Strassman said.

He still takes the money shots, but now he tries to include more of a story line in his projects.

"I'm hoping one of these things hits," Strassman said. "It's got to."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Company Make-Over in Review

Name: Range of Light Productions

Headquarters: Crowley Lake

Owner: Michael Strassman

Sales: $80,000 in 1997; $240,000 in 1998

Employees: 1 part-timer in 1997; 2 full-timers and 2 part-timers in 1998

*

Main Business Problem One Year Ago

Revenue was in a slump at this video film and production company as it tried to regroup after losing the backing of a longtime investor.

*

A Year Later

Range of Light Productions landed a major deal to produce a 13-episode series for the Outdoor Life channel, but it is having a tough time repeating that success.

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