New Owner Sparks Future for Video Firm

February 23, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — With new owner and President Jerry Brown at the helm since the first of the year, Lawrence Productions Inc. is settling into a niche in the Grand Rapids creative company market.

“It’s a pleasant area to do business,” Brown said. “One of the main reasons we’re here is because it’s nice.”

The video and Web production firm was founded in 1985 by Jack Lawrence as an offshoot of his television station, channel 41 in Battle Creek, and was based in Galesburg. Looking for new markets, the company expanded into Grand Rapids in 1999 by buying Trillion Digital and maintained both locations until January 2006. That’s when LPI moved its entire staff into 25 Ottawa Ave. SW, across from Van Andel Arena, keeping only a leased television production studio in Galesburg.

With Lawrence ready to enjoy retirement, Brown was ready to take over as owner. Starting in 1991 as a writer/producer, he had been named president in 2004.

“It was a very comfortable transition,” Brown said. “We worked out a way for the company to keep going and me to take over ownership. It’s very exciting to take this step.” Brown and his wife, Leslye, who is on the board of directors, finalized the purchase at midnight on New Year’s Eve, he said.

With the expansion of personal computer and broadband Internet connections, video on the Web is an “exploding” market. Brown said he thinks LPI is poised to serve that need.

“We see that as a really nice market,” he said. “When it comes to video on the Web, they don’t want to spend Hollywood dollars. It’s turned out that high-level production companies like Lawrence Productions are in just the right niche in terms of budget and quality. So it’s a nice niche for us, and it’s starting really to grow.”

Fred Munch, director of new media, said LPI sometimes provides just video content, other times just the Web design, and for other clients, both. “We have a client come to us and say, ‘We need a Web site,’ or more often, today, ‘We need to update our Web site,’ because almost everybody has one. So we’ll tie it all together.”

LPI has brought in equipment for shooting and editing for high-definition TV, which is about to become standard with the move toward digital television broadcast signals in 2009. But it’s not standard yet, and Brown said the company is slowly prodding clients in that inevitable direction.

“Right now, there’s nowhere to play HD, so the clients don’t really end up with a final product,” Brown said. “Currently, only a couple of TV stations in Michigan will play HD. Right now they’re just letting network signals through in high def, but if you give them a commercial, they can’t play it.”

However, he added, because video work is archived for so long, it behooves a client to shoot in HDTV now to keep as much of its library as possible in an up-to-date format. Shooting for HDTV costs about $500 per day more than standard format, he said. The size of computer files containing HDTV material is much larger, adding a considerable amount of time to the editing process.

“We have one VHS machine left — we used to have 20 — and we don’t use it,” Brown added.

The company has 12 employees and a stable of dozens of freelancers, from food stylists to camera crews to 3D animators. But back in the 1980s, Brown said, LPI had a staff of 50, including 20 people who produced software for the education market and a stable of pre-digital animators. But those markets shifted, he said, with hand-produced animation becoming too expensive, and big companies like Walt Disney Co. crowding the software shelves.

LPI’s clients can be the marketing or public relations departments of larger organizations, such as Borgess Hospital, and often the company is hired by an advertising agency. Last year, LPI won Telly and Aster awards for work not only for Borgess, but for Grand Rapids agencies Hanon McKendry and Grey Matter Group, and for Kalamazoo’s Biggs/Gilmore, as well as the Michigan Cancer Consortium.

Brown said shooting schedules often take personnel not just around the country, but around the world, such as shooting for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Africa. The company also has worked in Europe and South America.

At times, the globe trotting is virtual. “It’s not unusual to have a client in South Haven, we’re recording up here and the talent is in London,” Munch said. “It’s almost like location is irrelevant,” Brown said.

Brown is among the company’s staff members who still live in the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek areas. With the move to Grand Rapids, LPI softened the blow by establishing a shuttle van service that picks up those workers at D Avenue and U.S. 131 north of the city and drives them to Grand Rapids. Brown said it seemed like the least he could do for those high-talent and loyal workers facing the long commute. “We thought it was kind of unfair that all of a sudden people down there were paying a fortune in gas,” he said.

“It’s always a little risky when you move, because we have a large client base in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek,” Brown added. “But they love coming here. Everybody likes Grand Rapids. Yes, there’s a drive, but once you get here, we’re located right down in the entertainment district, so we have like 40 restaurants within two blocks.”

Local video production companies have a wide range of work and only a few competitors at each level, he said.

“Each fits their own niche,” Brown said. “We think there’s work for everybody, and so this market is really very friendly. It’s not cutthroat like Detroit or some of the larger markets where it really gets kind of ugly.”

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