A black car takes off at high speed, headed for the bridge over Sarasota Bay. Two police cars chase in hot pursuit. Suddenly the black car goes over the side of the bridge and drops into a boat sitting in the water below. There’s an explosion and a huge fireball. Two news helicopters from competing stations broadcast the story live.
Filmed in downtown Sarasota on a sun-kissed Sunday afternoon, this scene is part of the staged action for Miami 24/7, a television thriller dreamed up and financed by Ken Sanborn, a 58-year-old Longboat Key millionaire who once worked as a TV helicopter cameraman. He made his fortune developing cameras that provide vibration-free aerial pictures for law enforcement and the U.S. military. American soldiers use them to detect roadside bombs before they detonate.
Now Sanborn is the driving force behind Sanborn Studios LLC, a new Manatee-Sarasota film and production studio with big plans to produce and market films and television shows.
He has leased a Lakewood Ranch complex for his productions, and he expects to hire at least 117 employees over three years. The lease deal and the promise of jobs have won him more than $1 million in cash incentives and tax credits from Sarasota County government and the state of Florida.
“While we appreciate the state and local contributions to our success, it pales in comparison to the millions I’ve already invested of my own money in this project,” Sanborn says.
Sanborn Studios has spent about $3 million already on infrastructure and equipment and will invest another $27 million over its first 18 months in equipment, hiring and transforming a 30,000-square-foot building at 7321 Trade Court, Lakewood Ranch, into sound stages and production offices. His second location—and the hangar for his two airplanes—is in the 29,000-square-foot building at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport that once housed his gyro-camera manufacturing business. This building at 8100 15th St. E. has runway access to the airport.
Sanborn has already plowed more than $500,000 of his own money into the pilot production of Miami 24/7, which depicts helicopter news crews from competing television stations rushing to the scene of accidents, fires, crimes and other dramatic events. Although some of the action was filmed in Sarasota, the program is set in Miami, which he says, “has international appeal and a little more glitz and glamour than Tampa.”
For a Sarasota-Manatee company to break into the notoriously difficult film and television industry seems like a long shot. But Sanborn is confident he can do it.
“To sell these products, you need contacts,” he says. “The film and television business is all about relationships, and that’s why a lot of people have not been successful. I went to California to hire people with experience. My assistant, Dana Warning, comes from California. And Karinne Behr, my studio president, has been in the film business for 20 years and has a lot of contacts.”
(A recent Bradenton Herald article noted that Behr and her brother, producer Philippe Martinez, have a history of bankruptcies and lawsuits going back many years. Sanborn counters that Martinez helped him make the “teaser” for Miami 24/7 but “was not only not on the payroll, he provided his facilities at no charge and would only receive a fee if the series was successfully produced.” As for Behr, Sanborn says she was highly recommended and that his “focus is on the future and the dozens of workers we plan to hire and the millions of dollars we’ll be able to generate for the Sarasota-Manatee economy.”)
Sarasota County’s Economic Development Corporation worked with Sanborn to encourage the company’s location here. “We also assisted Mr. Sanborn in applying for county and state performance-based incentives to facilitate job creation,” says Kathy Baylis, EDC president and CEO. She noted that Sanborn “established a solid business leadership reputation with Gyrocam, which earned significant contracts with the Department of Defense.”
Sanborn’s new film business will provide an economic boon of about $164 million for the region when fully functioning in about five years, according to Ron Maloney, EDC executive vice president. He says that number is based on a study done by Sarasota County government.
“I am a guy who is not afraid to follow something he is passionate about,” Sanborn says. “In the early days of the studio, I thought about taking on partners and investors. And I will at some point, but I want to grow the business first.”
Longtime friend and colleague Dan Forman—a former vice president of news for WNBC TV in New York and one of the first customers to buy Sanborn’s helicopter gyrocamera—describes Sanborn as a man who “will have a vision, make a commitment, make a plan for his vision and then deliver on it.” Sanborn’s son Harrison, 19, agrees. “When he has his sights set on something, he is the person who gets it done, no matter what,” he says.
Father and son share strong feelings about the film industry. Two years ago they produced Paradise Lost, a film about the impact of phosphate mining on Florida. Harrison, who had a role in that film, worked as second assistant director on Miami 24/7.
Although Paradise Lost recently received an award at a California film festival, it has not been widely distributed. “For every 1,000 films made, maybe one of them will make money, and we learned that firsthand,” Ken Sanborn says. But shows produced for TV can make money, he says, because so many cable channels need content. “So we basically came up with the concept that the way to be proactive and financially successful is to produce TV show content,” he says.
He floated ideas for six different TV scripts to his contacts in the TV market. Miami 24/7 attracted the most interest. Sanborn then hired a writer to do a script for a pilot program that could be used to sell it as a series. In November Sanborn returned from California’s American Film Market, where foreign investors bought a 13-episode half season of Miami 24/7 for 2011 and the option to buy 22-26 episodes for 2012. He says two or three U.S. distributors also expressed interest in the show, adding, “We have connections with Fox and other TV stations. If a network picks it up, then we would probably produce 22 episodes.”
Burning with energy—you can almost feel the heat—and brimming with ideas, Sanborn works 15 to 16 hours a day and says he likes to “live every day like it’s my last.” He operates from a clutter-free office with a view of airport runway traffic. Shelves hold model helicopters, a vintage camera and Emmy awards.
He has little patience with “bean counters” and their ideas for running a business. “What drives me crazy are the ones who will say if you buy this kind of toilet paper, it will be cheaper and save you money,” he says. “But that is not how you grow a business. You grow by going out and selling and creating new business, not by counting sheets of toilet paper.” He says he doesn’t have any “bean counters” working for him now.
Perhaps that’s not so surprising. Kenneth Lawrence Sanborn comes from a French-Canadian family of entrepreneurs and risk takers.
His grandfather operated a large clothing manufacturing business in New York in the early 1900s. When the Great Depression hit, the Sanborn business collapsed. “My grandfather decided to move to Miami, where a boom was going on. This was a guy who had never driven, because he had a chauffeur,” Sanborn says. “But he loaded the car with his wife and three kids—one of them was my father—and started driving to Florida. He got as far as Wauchula, a cow town south of Lakeland, and ran out of money.” But he had not run out of ideas; he quickly persuaded a local rancher to invest in a housing development project. From Wauchula, the Sanborn family moved to Lakeland, where Kenny Sanborn was born and grew up as the youngest of four children.
From a very early age, he worked closely with his father, Dan Sanborn, a photographer and cameraman who covered Polk County as a stringer for a Tampa television station.
One night six people were killed in a head-on collision outside the town of Mulberry. Sanborn, then seven years old, and his father rushed to the scene. “It was the first time I saw a dead person,” he says. “It was a woman. I asked my father how he did this. He said, ‘Never look at the face.’ I have probably seen thousands of dead people since then, covering the news, and I don’t remember any of their faces because I never looked. But I remember that woman’s face today as if it were yesterday.”
Sanborn was 13 years old when his father acquired a cable television system. “My father did the news and I operated the camera,” he says. “I learned a lot about producing television shows from working there, because we produced everything from boat races to any event that would provide content.”
When he entered Lakeland’s Florida Southern College in the early 1970s, Sanborn considered majoring in journalism but decided he already knew the media business. He majored in the business of citrus while working as a stringer for Tampa’s WFLA Channel 8. After graduation in 1975, he continued his television career, eventually landing a job with the ABC television network in New York. He covered the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, worked for the news magazine program 20/20 and did aerial photography of important sporting events.
Then came the 1991 Olympics, a defining moment for Ken Sanborn.
“ABC got mad at me,” he says, because the aerial pictures he shot of the Olympics that year suffered from the vibrations from the helicopter in which he was riding. “That was the catalyst for me to start building my own camera. I said I would never again depend on anyone else’s equipment.” He quit ABC and began looking for ways to eliminate the vibrations that detracted from aerial photography.
By 1995 he had developed his first gyro-camera with the help of several other people, including some California-based aerospace engineers. “I told them what I wanted, and they built it,” he says.
One of his first customers was the Los Angeles television station that used the camera to broadcast O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco flight down the L.A. freeway on June 17, 1994.
“After that, we couldn’t build our cameras fast enough,” says Sanborn. “Every television station wanted one of them.”
But Sanborn could see limits to this demand. “There are only about 1,500 TV stations in the country, and only about 100 of them can afford helicopters and cameras,” he says. “I began to look for other venues, such as law enforcement.” He kept experimenting and expanding the gyro-camera products he was producing at his headquarters in Morristown, N.J.
In 1999, he moved the company to Sarasota. “I liked it here,” he says. More important, he got permission to build a manufacturing facility at the Sarasota-Bradenton airport that gave him access to a runway. He credits Nancy Engel, then executive director of the Manatee Economic Development Council, with opening the doors for him to win the airport location over 300 other applicants. Engel remembers how impressed she was with Sanborn’s drive and energy. “He was very committed,” she says.
In his new airport location, Sanborn came up with another idea: Why not sell gyro-cameras to the U.S. military? He drove a camera-mounted SUV from Sarasota to a trade show in Washington, D.C. Sanborn’s small company beat out some of the nation’s biggest defense contractors to win a $43 million Pentagon contract in 2006. More contracts followed. This success attracted the attention of Lockheed Martin, which purchased Gyrocam Systems in July 2009. Sanborn won’t say how much money he made from that deal, but published reports suggest that Lockheed Martin paid him many millions of dollars.
The road to riches was not without bumps. In 2006, he borrowed $20 million to buy up parts to build cameras for the military in anticipation of more contracts. His Australian partners were furious. “They wanted to know how I got us $20 million in the hole,” Sanborn recalls. “[They asked] ‘Are you insane? You bought all this inventory with no contract. We will never give you another dime. The company will never succeed and it will be your fault.’”
But Sanborn did get the big military contracts he wanted, and suddenly he was regarded as a genius.
Now he is “thrilled and blessed” that he has been able to launch Sanborn Studios, provide jobs and grow a business that he loves. He has 20 employees, with plans to hire 40 more over the next year. “My father always said you can do anything you put your mind to, and I have always followed that approach,” he says.
Sanborn’s tax credits and incentives.
Sanborn Studios received a total of $1,235,000, which includes $350,000 in cash the company received from Sarasota County government for signing a five-year lease on its Lakewood Ranch facility. Under this agreement, Sanborn is eligible for another $300,000 in cash upon proof that he purchased certain technical equipment. The county can recover its money if Sanborn doesn’t comply with their agreement.
Sanborn is also eligible for $585,000 in tax refunds if he fulfills his commitment to create 117 high-wage jobs (with average annual wage of $72,000 per employee) over three years. The state of Florida would provide 80 percent of the $585,000, and the county would provide the other 20 percent.
In addition to the $1,235,000 in cash incentives and tax credits described above, Sanborn is also eligible for a maximum state tax credit of 25 percent based on his production costs and how big a portion of his production crew comes from Florida.
Tuning into Sanborn Studios
Locations: Aviation and production facility in a 29,000-square-foot building that Sanborn owns at 8100 15th St. E., adjacent to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
Lakewood Ranch production offices, sound stages, make-up and dressing rooms in 30,000-square-foot facility at 7321 Trade Court. Sanborn has leased the building with an option to buy it and 22 surrounding acres. Sanborn’s plans are to expand the facility to 80,000 square feet for film/video production, corporate offices, sound stages, a shop area and other infrastructure.
Founded: September 2010
Full-time employees: 20 as of November 2010, 60 over the next year, 117 over next three years
Average annual salary:$72,000 for full-time employees
Projects: Miami 24/7, a TV show about helicopter news crews from competing TV stations. Foreign investors have bought a 13-episode half-season series for 2011 and have an option to buy 22 to 26 episodes for 2012. Other projects in pre-production include Cutting Edge Medicine, Celebrities Up Close and You Can Make a Difference, a reality show in which teenagers try to raise money to help people down on their luck.
Initial investment: $2 million in hiring, building acquisition and renovation and equipment. Sanborn expects to spend another $28 million over the next 18 months. He’s also spent $500,000 to produce the pilot for Miami 24/7.
Sanborn has created 20 new jobs in the region.
Executive project manager
Director of finance
Vice president of production
Director of media relations and creative development
Senior VP of program development
Studio general manager
Assistant to G.M.
Assistant to G.M.
Casting and internship director
Building maintenance supervisor
The 40 positions Sanborn will fill in 2011*
2nd unit director
Camera operators (4)
Assistant camera operators (4)
Lighting directors (2)
Best boys (2)
Field sound engineer
Production assistants (6)
Script supervisors (2)
Continuity supervisors (2)
Field producers (2)
Prop masters (2)
Video editors (4)
Assistant video editors (4)
Line producers (2)
Production managers (2)
Post-production sound engineer
*This is a preliminary list of prospective full-time positions. Dozens more part-time or freelance jobs will be available, as well as a regular need for extras once filming begins in May, according to a Sanborn spokesman.