How This Creative Video Agency Doubled Its Revenue in 2020
You could say Esteban Escobar is a trailblazer in the video production industry. He says his company, 5:00 Films & Media, has been “doing remote video production since before the pandemic.” His award-winning video-focused agency specifically produces content for organizations strapped for resources such as charitable nonprofits and associations. He tells us why many production companies were unprepared for the pandemic and how 5:00 Films & Media doubled its revenue by fully embracing remote video production.
Shivan: Hi, thanks so much for chatting with us. Since the pandemic, how have you leaned into remote production at 5:00 Films?
Esteban: We’re doing a project for the World Resources Institute in five international cities. So we’re doing remote production in the context of having local crews represent us. We’re still producing and directing everything, we’re doing all the logistics, but we’re working through people on the ground there because we can’t travel due to COVID. Normally we would have traveled to all five of these cities. That’s one layer of remote production. But we don’t do a whole lot of that. We like to shoot stuff ourselves because we’re very close partners with our clients. We want to be able to represent them in the field. At 5:00 Films, when we talk about remote video production, we’re generally talking about video production where the crew is not in the room. We’re executing the production from our desk essentially.
Shivan: What was your production model prior to the pandemic?
Esteban: Before the pandemic, 85 percent of our business was more traditional. We’d go out and shoot ourselves and edit. And then 15 percent of our business was remote production. Something that’s different about us is that we work almost exclusively with nonprofit organizations. So being in that niche, organizations with a mission, you’re always trying to do a lot with a little. They don’t have the big budgets of the Fortune 500 companies. Their teams are small, their resources are small, but their aspirations and what they’re trying to accomplish are big. They’re trying to solve climate change and they’re trying to fix social inequities.
So, well before the pandemic, that’s what drove us to find creative ways to deliver value when travel was not possible. In some cases, we worked with organizations in war zones. We’re not going to travel to war zones and try to shoot video production. Sometimes it was logistical challenges and most of the time, budgetary, where it didn’t make sense to send a crew and spend $10,000 on a shoot somewhere when we could capture it for 500 bucks remotely and get 80 percent of the value. It’s that 20 percent of the effort, 80 percent of the value rule. For a lot of our clients, remote production just made sense.
Shivan: Has remote production proved more efficient than traditional production?
Esteban: The big caveat is that like many things just because it’s efficient, doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s much more difficult to do a remote production well than when you’re in the room because you’re not in the room. It drives costs way down, but it is a discipline in and of itself. Our clients run a lot of events: fundraising events, galas, conferences, and trade shows. All of that has gone virtual. The virtual events that succeed are the ones that don’t just take the in-person event and try to make it virtual, but they adapt it. They recognize that the strengths and weaknesses are different. It’s very similar to remote production. You can’t just do what you would do on-site and try to do that virtually. It’s a completely different approach because you’re working through somebody else who is not a professional. They’re doing their best on their end to set up equipment. In some cases, we have remote kits that we’ll ship to people to set up. And it’s preloaded with software that allows us to remotely film. It’s a very different approach that requires a lot more soft skills than typical video production does.
Shivan: Are you conducting interviews over Zoom? How are you gathering the content?
Esteban: Zoom interviews for us are the last resort. We don’t like doing them because you have even less control. You’re streaming over a third-party platform. You’re at the mercy of everybody’s internet connection and the quality of their camera. When we do need to use Zoom, we generally will create a matte to put over the video. We would create a graphic with two windows in it. We edit it so that the lay-person would have no idea that it was even recorded on Zoom.
One tool is Open Reel. Open Reel is the exact opposite of Seenit. Seenit is designed to capture a lot of footage from a lot of people into one story. Open Reel is designed to give you the ability to do a one-on-one interview. But Instead of streaming it over Zoom, you download an app or you can use a Chrome browser and they basically log into the system and agree to give you remote control over their camera and audio. We can control exposure and color temperature and focus remotely. Then all of that content is saved locally on their device, in full resolution. At the end of the shoot, it uploads automatically to us. So we get full quality production. That’s where these kits come in. We’ll ship these kits. They have a couple of iPhones, a light, a stand with an iPhone clip on it. They have a plug-in lavalier microphone. We’ve had 80-year-old women set these things up. Then as soon as they log in, we can take control of the shoot.
Shivan: Did you put the kits together after the pandemic or were you always using them?
Esteban: The kits we built at the very beginning of the pandemic. We put together 21 of those for MacArthur Foundation and have been using them ever since.
Shivan: So, this is one way in which you adapted to the pandemic.
Esteban: We already knew how to do the remote production. The question was, how do we get the best quality from the other end? We’re trying to create 21 consistent profiles that look and feel the same across 21 different stories happening across the country. How do we do that remotely? We have to standardize the equipment that’s being used. That’s where we created these kits to be identical and give everybody the exact same experience.
Shivan: What is the history of remote production? How long has it been around?
Esteban: It was technology limited. Smartphones are really what made it viable. And only in the last five years or so, are we seeing video quality from cheap cameras, like a smartphone or a webcam, getting to a level where it’s acceptable for professional application. And bandwidth is another one: videos consume a ton of bandwidth. I think it’s really interesting, for example, Netflix, I always wondered why they called it Netflix when they used to just ship DVDs. It’s because their plan was always to stream movies, but the technology wasn’t there yet. And so DVDs were actually a stopgap. When they started the business, they said, “Well, how could we start this now?” The Netflix shipping model was just waiting for the technology to get there. Similarly, only when bandwidth and cameras got to the right price point and disseminated enough in the public did it become a viable option. That was only five years ago. If the pandemic had happened in 2013, I don’t know what we would have done.
There’s a lot of things that had to happen to make it work. And a lot of players had to get their technology to the right place between telecoms and smartphone manufacturers. Also, the camera technologies and sensors had to get to the right place. I can’t emphasize enough that five years ago, the broadband network wouldn’t have been able to handle this volume of people working from home through Zoom.
Shivan: If the pandemic happened five years ago, what would be the state of your business today?
Esteban: Realistically I think video production would have been in the camp of businesses hard hit because the tools were not ready back then. Digital video files were huge, at least at good quality. They are really hard to send over the internet. It would take a long time.
Shivan: What advice to production companies who are playing catch up in terms of remote video production?
Esteban: There’s been an acceleration of revolutions and disruptions in the video production industry. It’s kind of like climate change. Every big disruption, a whole bunch of species go extinct, and then the strongest survive. And it creates an opportunity for new life and that’s what’s happened. The first big one was analog to digital. I started the company in 2004. Most of my competitors were still living in the seventies. The video production they were doing hadn’t changed in 30 years. I was looking around like, “Why are they still doing video like this?” A lot of those video production companies died out of the analog to digital conversion. A bunch of us 20-year-old kids bought cheap cameras and were able to compete with them at a price point that they couldn’t. Here we are. This has been the new big disruption. We started working with Seenit five years ago and doing crowdsourced video. We didn’t say to our clients, “No, you need to use us with our $10,000 cameras otherwise your quality won’t be good enough. It won’t represent your brand.” Instead, we said, “It doesn’t matter what tools you’re using. What matters is the authenticity of the content, how it connects with people.” Yes, shooting on your cell phone is not going to look as good as a $10,000 camera, but it shouldn’t because what you’re doing is connecting with the person behind that lens. Most of the competitors really did not like what we were doing with Seenit, that we were encouraging companies that were willing to spend money on professional video production to do it this way. To do it kind of DIY. They wanted to protect the art of video production.
“If it’s not lit right, and if it doesn’t sound perfect, it’s not going to work.” Those are the companies that didn’t make it through this transition. It’s really easy for creatives and artists to forget that what we are making isn’t a product, it’s a tool. What we create doesn’t end with the creation, whatever we create has work to do, to create something beyond it. So, if we’re creating a fundraising video for a client, that’s not the product, it’s a tool. Their product is the funds that are raised and everything needs to be focused on that goal. So, if the question is we could spend $5,000 on a video and make $30,000 from that or spend $30,000 on a video and make $50,000 from that. The first one is the right choice.
Those are the types of compromises and decisions we’re making with our clients all the time. We’re constantly sacrificing what we would like to do because we’re artists and we’d like it to be the best thing we can make with what is going to provide the highest ROI for the client and their goals. That distinction is something that, in my experience, most video production companies get wrong and why so many were unprepared for this pandemic. The pandemic very quickly shifted what tools were available, but the goals didn’t change. Our clients are still trying to accomplish the same things, but all of the tools now are different. So, if what you were building your business around was the tools, you no longer had a business.
Shivan: What role does storytelling play? Is it also a tool?
Esteban: It is all about storytelling. But people in the industry are too quick to say, “I’m a storyteller.” A story is still a tool, storytelling has to produce work. It has to be the right story for the right audience on the right platform to accomplish the right goals. All that has to come together. Just because it’s a great story doesn’t mean it accomplishes anything for the end product. Storytelling can be a crutch, just like tools can be a crutch.
In many cases, their best result is not our best result. And when you have that choice, most companies will push for their own best result instead of the client’s best result. That works fine as long as there’s plenty of money available, and the tools work the way they’ve always worked. But if you don’t have a viable, profitable model to continue to give the clients what they need to succeed then you have an unsustainable business.
It’s a little bit difficult sometimes for us to hire people. People that are really good in this industry don’t like making the compromises that we make for our clients. They’re like, “We can make it so much better. We should upcharge them and try to get the helicopter shot in there.” But it’s not providing enough value for our clients. If it’s not providing value, then we’re not going to do it and we’re not gonna encourage them to do it.
Shivan: Many creatives are all about quality and making sure to film the sweeping drone shots but your approach is completely different.
Esteban: When the pandemic started, Walmart’s commercials were workers filming with their smartphones: going to work, delivering, trucking. All of a sudden brands were like, “Wow, these are getting better results than our super-produced commercials.” At the end of the day, humans want to connect with humans. That is what we want to do. We want to connect with other people that we feel we can relate with and empathize with. And a lot of times the tools actually get in the way of that.
We end up creating an artificial commercial. And we present that to people and manipulate them into making a connection, using glitter and techniques. The tools that we now all carry in our pockets allow us to connect directly in ways that professionals like me find ourselves getting in the way of. Some of the best results now are choreographing the connection instead of manipulating that connection.
Shivan: How did your company find success despite the pandemic?
Esteban: Most video production companies have had to adapt to some degree. But in the early months, almost every video production company that we were associated with had no work. They were just waiting for it to go back to normal. And in the meantime, we adapted. Before the shutdown, we started to switch out the tools in our tool belt. Fortunately, we already knew how to use them. So, our business boomed. We doubled our revenue in 2020 from 2019 because a lot of organizations couldn’t meet their goals with the production companies that they were working with and needed to find somebody that could do remote production. Moving forward, the companies that are still waiting for things to just go back to the way they’ve always been, I think that ship has sailed. There will absolutely be projects that will be done traditionally, but now everybody knows that you can do things remotely and you can get good quality doing that.
It’s never about having the best tools. It’s always how you’re using them. I would like to see some hybrid solutions. Today, somebody is working in London for us. I would love it if that camera was LTE-connected and I could listen in. If I could hear the audio the camera is capturing, I could see the image that the camera is seeing in real-time. And maybe even have some level of remote control over that camera as we do in Open Reel. I would love to see WiFi and LTE-capable, high-end devices that allow a level of remote control. So, you still would hire somebody local. They would still go on set. But once the camera is set, I can still be the director and make sure that the quality and the content that’s coming back is mine and not being interpreted by another crew.
Shivan: Is remote production the future?
Esteban: I’m happy that the pandemic is pushing things to where they should be by necessity because otherwise the industry would have continued following the status quo, and continued to make incremental improvements on cameras. You’d have two camps: professional video production and amateur stuff that you shoot on your phone. The right thing is to hybridize those.
Interviewed by Shivan Sarna, Head of Stories