Commercial Breaks

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2009

Want a gorgeous white sandy beach for your next television commercial? Sarasota County has miles of it. A jungle? Yep, just down the road at Myakka River State Park. Orange groves? Check. Beautiful mansions? Ditto. Warm Mineral Springs? Why not?

And when Volkswagen put out the word recently that it wanted a manicured polo field for an upcoming commercial, Sarasota Film Commission director Jeanne Corcoran let the car company know all about the posh Sarasota Polo Cub at Lakewood Ranch. (The verdict’s still out about whether they’ll film here.)

Twelve years ago, after the Woody Harrelson movie, Palmetto, was filmed in downtown’s atmospheric Gator Club and other area locales, Sarasota was on its way to becoming a popular location for commercials and feature films alike. But the film commission, a one-person arm of the Convention & Visitors Bureau, essentially disappeared, and with no one championing the area as a production paradise, the work went away. In 2007, the renamed Film & Entertainment Office was re-established under the auspices of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, and cameras are once again turning their lenses on Sarasota.

“It’s a matter of reintroducing Madison Avenue and the people who make commercials that we’re here,” says Corcoran.

Commercials and other productions shot in the Sarasota area since February 2007 have brought in about $3 million into the local economy, Corcoran says. Those dollars flow to companies renting production equipment, rental cars, hotel rooms, restaurants, local talent and other expenses.  

“Commercials can be a very important piece of the puzzle,” Corcoran says. “They’re very intense. They tend to spread a lot of money around—about $10,000 a day—in a short amount of time. Production crews tend to be in and out in three to five days.” 

Changing technology means more work is done on the spot, whereas years ago, film shot during the day had to be flown to Los Angeles or other cities with elaborate processing facilities and then returned to the commercial location to be viewed by the production company.

More changing technology—computer animation, Web advertising and other virtual products—is hatching from the creative minds of entrepreneurs and marketing types who see that the future of advertising work in this region may have as much to do with mouse clicks as mangroves.

We found three local companies that are tapping into the new commercial market.

Coming to an arena near you

If the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) was bringing its brand of mayhem-in-tights to an arena in your hometown in the last 20 years, there’s a good chance the guy you heard plugging the event on the radio was Nick Sommers.

Now the head of Sarasota-based international marketing company, Nick Sommers Productions, he still lends a radio-friendly baritone to similar commercials these days. But advertising is changing, and Sommers admits that he and longtime friend and producer Ed Weigle are keenly aware that their marketing niche—providing location-specific commercials for rock music and other entertainment tours (“Coming to the St. Pete Times Forum for one night only…”)—is shifting just as quickly from what was a primarily radio-heavy product toward a greater balance between radio and television, with Internet marketing working its way into the mix.

“The message isn’t changing, but the delivery is,” says Sommers. “Radio and television are still what we do, but we have plans to develop the Internet side in the next year or so.”

Regardless of the medium, whether it’s a local radio station or your cell phone, there will always be a need for what the company provides, Weigle says. A client might supply the basic ad material for a touring show, Disney’s High School Musical on Ice, for example, and then Nick Sommers Productions tags that spot with particulars about the dates, arena and box office information. Other clients might need an entire promotional campaign created, and in their three recording and television production studios near

Westfield Sarasota Square
, Sommers, Weigle and the other four full-time employees can make that happen.

The company continues its long association with wrestling and motorsports, and is taking on new clients to the tune of a “steady, solid growth rate” of about seven percent to eight percent a year, Sommers says. 

That the company does TV and radio spots for pro wrestling and Elton John’s current tour speaks to the variety of work they seek and in which they excel. That they do all that work far from the media capitals of New York or Los Angeles, or even Miami, speaks to the nature of digital production and their shared appreciation of Sarasota’s charms.

Sommers started his own production company in 1994 in Indiana, and relocated to Sarasota in 1997. “This area has been a second home for years,” says Weigle, who was actually hired to replace Sommers at their previous employer. “Working full-time here was the easiest move I ever made.”

And in the electronic age, there isn’t a need for much travel. Word of mouth generates most new business. That, along with the relatively small fraternity of professionals in the promotions business who send business here, means Nick Sommers Productions can focus more on production and less time chasing new clients.

“It would have been tough to accomplish all this from Sarasota 10 or 15 years ago,” Sommers adds. “But 100 percent of the radio spots and about 75 percent of the television production are transmitted electronically these days. You don’t have to be in Los Angeles or New York to do this any more.”

Virtual Tour Guide

You’re thinking about booking a vacation at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, so you click on the hotel’s Web site to take the virtual tour.

Only this is no average tour. You’re not just “standing” in a suite while your vantage point swivels around, offering glimpses of the bathroom, the sitting room, bed linens and mini-bar. You’re already in Vegas, baby, “wandering” in that suite. And it’s all thanks to MotionVR, a Sarasota County-based company that is putting travel destinations at your fingertips and on your desktop. 

“With most virtual tours, you’re in the center of the room looking all around you,” says MotionVR’s Dan Tilton. “But you’re in a fixed spot. With our technology, you can walk through a hotel or a museum or a new home and see everything.”

The technology is cutting-edge, but the concept is relatively simple. A special high-end digital camera, with mirrors in the lens, captures a 360-degree image with one shot. The camera is mounted on a dolly and moved ahead a few inches or feet, depending on the situation.

MotionVR’s exclusive software, developed in-house, puts the images together cohesively, and eventually a hotel company, builder, real estate developer or other customer will have that tour on its Web site. A virtual tour can cost a client anywhere from $4,000 to well into six figures, Tilton says, depending on its scope.

Greg Ellis established MotionVR in Sarasota in 2005 after he discovered virtual tour technology on a real estate Web site he was exploring with an eye toward buying some property in California. He eventually met with the inventor of the technology and the two signed an agreement, says Tilton, paving the way for MotionVR.

But the company, now with 11 full-time employees and production facilities in Sarasota and Panama City, hasn’t always strayed so far from home for clients. Builders Lee Wetherington and John Cannon have used MotionVR to show off new home designs. Likewise, real estate companies such as Michael Saunders & Company have employed the virtual tour products, as have the Ringling Museum of Art and Ringling College of Art and Design.

Tilton says the company is looking to develop college campus virtual tours and other products, but the “bread and butter” for the foreseeable future is the hospitality market, followed by homebuilders and real estate. With interest coming from Las Vegas and other markets, Tilton says the company grew by 300 percent in the past year alone, thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign in the hotel and homebuilding industries and considerable interest in its Web site. Tilton says MotionVR’s logo is on most of its tours, so potential customers are seeing the product in use and are expressing interest in adding it to their advertising efforts.

“There are so many opportunities out there that you don’t want to turn anything down,” Tilton says. “That actually presents a challenge of its own. You can’t be all over the place and maintain quality; you have to be very focused.”

The key, he says, are the quality of the service and the scope of the product. The company can track how long users spend on a virtual tour, from what city these users are viewing a client’s site, and more. The technology even allows a customer to stop and start a tour with colleagues in remote locations, all viewing the same scene on their desktops.

“I can take control of that tour and I could remotely walk you through it,” Tilton says. “There’s no question that the way advertising dollars are being spent is changing. Budgets are tight, but companies are spending more money for online advertising, particularly in the travel and hospitality industries. We tell them they’re getting a tool to make their sales force more effective.”


Homegrown Talent

Growing up in Venice, Jim Scott and Nick Gulick were your typical skimboarding, wakeboarding, beach-loving teenagers. Both, however, had interests in film and communications in college, Scott at the University of Tampa and Gulick at Florida Gulf Coast University.

So it made sense a few years ago to combine their interests, form Off Kilter Productions, and produce the wakeskate DVD, FLATLINE: Disconnected, which not only sold to action sports fans around the world, but helped the pair launch their own production company. “We really liked filming and we wanted to move the whole [wakeskate] industry along,” says Scott.

The DVD experience moved the friends’ ambition along, and soon they were producing commercials for Zap Skimboards out of Venice, Play-n-Trade game story in Sarasota, Venice MainStreet, and recently the two Westfield Mall properties in Sarasota, to name a few from their growing client list. 

“We’re in a super growth mode now, close to 50 percent growth in the past six months,” says Scott. He and Gulick are Off Kilter’s only full-time employees—they hire freelancers to help with jobs as they come in—but they hope to eventually hire editors, graphic artists, sound and lighting technicians, videographers, and an office manager to help keep things running smoothly.

In an economy where advertising dollars are just as tight as any other operating expense, how do you convince a business to spend their money on you? “The way we approach it is that the product we give you will stand out and get viewers’ attention,” Scott says. “They’ll be drawn to your business.”

Gulick adds that a lot of their work has come through referrals. After producing a commercial for the Beach Club on Siesta Key, Off Kilter began hearing from the Daiquiri Deck, Siesta Key Oyster Bar and other nearby establishments that wanted similar spots of their own. Comcast and Verizon have referred interested clients to Off Kilter, as have some nonprofit agencies that have worked with the company.

Scott admits that he’d like to find some time to get back on the water, but for now the focus is on moving to a new location in Sarasota and building a fully equipped studio where commercials and shows can be produced.

“We really like dealing with the local businesses,” says Scott, adding that he’d like to see the company do more television shows, such as the cable series, Chef Rolf’s New Florida Kitchen Cooking Show, that airs three times daily on Comcast Channel 97.

“I’m pretty excited about where we are right now,” Scott says. “We want to do more short videos that companies can put on their Web sites. That’s the big thing right now. That’s how a lot of people are advertising.”  

That’s Entertainment

Commercials, movies, TV and digital media bring billions to Florida

In its 2009 Florida Film and Entertainment Industry Economic Impact Analysis, the Florida Film Commission reports that between 2002 and 2007, the production of commercials, television series, motion pictures, music videos and digital media grew from about $4.7 billion in revenue to more than $8.5 billion.

Despite a drop-off between 2006 and 2007, in which film and video production work in Florida fell by nearly half, with employment in that industry declining from 50,340 in 2006 to 26,257 in 2007, forecasters still expect the industry to be one of the state’s major growth areas. The state expects the overall film and entertainment industry to grow by 20 percent—faster than the biomedical/biotechnical cluster (19 percent) and the defense and security cluster (18 percent).

Though the Florida Film Commission’s report doesn’t distinguish between television series, feature films and commercials in terms of their economic impact, the analysis does break out advertising agencies as one of the industry’s key components. In 2007, Florida had 2,093 advertising agencies, a number that has held steadily during the past five years. Revenue during that same period is up 30 percent among Florida’s advertising agencies, earning more than $6 billion in 2007 alone.

The 2008 and 2009 numbers are expected to be down significantly when the state begins compiling its next five-year economic assessment. In addition, the state budget, which has included a cash rebate incentive program to lure national productions to Florida ever since 2004, had its totals slashed from $25 million in incentives in 2007-2008 to just $5 million in 2008-2009. Hoping that spending more will boost the state’s economy in the year ahead, however, the 2009-2010 budget bounced back with $10 million in incentives.

Most advertising and creative production is still centered in Orlando, Miami and Tampa. Southwest Florida remains near the bottom of the state’s regions in terms of employment and economic impact in the film and video production industry. In 2007, this area employed a little more than 1,300 people in the business, compared to more than 5,000 in the Tampa Bay area, 6,000 in Orlando and central Florida and nearly 16,000 people in Southeast Florida.



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