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Moving On Up: Trends in Mobile Production

Five companies exemplify how this niche industry continues to thrive.

By Mark Smith

Camera Coptersí turnkey approach works on all types of projects.
Camera Copters’ turnkey approach works on all types of projects.

After a long, cold winter in the mobile industry – and during today’s various and continuing iffy economic forecasts – many unit owners seem decidedly more upbeat these days. If that wasn’t the case, would Crew West be getting ready to upgrade its last truck for about $100,000 to get its entire fleet to full HD? Would truck builder Gerling & Associates have added 20,000 square feet to its headquarters and be contemplating more hiring? Or would Alliance Productions, the cooperative of the mobile providers, have trumpeted 2011 as its best year to date? Yes, there are still issues in the business, notably to do with fuel and travel costs; but, all told, the horizon is brightening in this end of the film and video production industry.

Gerling truck interior. The company has 40 trucks or trailers under construction.
Gerling truck interior. The company has 40 trucks or trailers under construction.

Building the Business, Industry
If what’s happening at Gerling & Associates, of Sunbury, Ohio, is any indication of trends in the mobile industry, the arrow on the chart is shooting upward.

  A CVM Productions trailer interior.
  A CVM Productions trailer interior.
  Crew West has been ìbusy as heck.î
  Crew West has been “busy as heck.”
  Allianceís fleet consists of 48 trucks.
  Alliance’s fleet consists of 48 trucks.

Gerling’s recent expansion has boosted its square footage from 80,000 square feet to a whopping 100,000 square feet. In addition, president Fred Gerling is “happy to say that [the business] acquired two new buildings and 10 acres, then hired 20 more employees,” adding that it may require 10 more engineering and construction workers during the first quarter.

Today, Gerling has 40 trucks or trailers under construction that “break down across the entire spectrum of mobile facilities [trucks] built” on site. So if that sounds like business is booming, it is.

“We’ve been told by reps of Sports Video Group [an industry trade association] that we’re responsible for about 90 percent of the television production truck and trailer fleet expansion in North America,” Gerling said. “We’re also proud of our exterior look which, in our case, is a seamless, rivetless appearance with sides that expand outward as much as 80 inches.”

One reason appearance is important, he said, is because when a director shows up at a trailer and its looks great, “he assumes that the equipment is that well maintained on the inside, too. It also has a psychological impact on the production personnel, who might have to work 14-hour days.”

Gerling-built trailers are used by all of the major production companies that produce HD sports coverage for the major networks in North America; international business also has been strong in Australia, the Philippines, Malaysia and South America, especially Brazil, said Gerling. He expects another big uptick in business. “Most of the major broadcast contracts for all sports expire in 2012-13,” Gerling said. “As new contracts are awarded, we expect new trailers that include our latest designs and features to be required.”

Group Effort
A co-op of 13 mobile companies from across the United States, Alliance Productions serves “as a national sales force for broadcast outlets that are looking for a one-stop shop,” said General Manager Craig Farrell, noting the company’s offerings of equipment rental, crewing, production management and payroll.

The Alliance fleet encompasses 48 trucks, including many 53-foot expandos, 30 of which are HD. More upgrades are en route, as the company will “definitely” be adding more trucks in 2012: Corplex just rolled out a new 53-foot HD expando; and Crosscreek Television Productions will convert two, 53-foot digital trucks to HD, as well as add a new HD unit.

That’s good to hear, as the slow economy had held up expansion in some quarters in recent years. “There had been some issues with financing for some of the smaller companies that only had a couple of – or a few – trucks,” said Farrell, “but those opportunities are starting to open back up. The larger companies were not having that issue very often.”

Farrell called 2011 the company’s “best year yet,” as it worked with a bevy of clients such as ESPN; the NFL; Versus (now NBC Sports Network); CBS; and Belmonte Productions, a New Jersey-based production company that packages boxing events worldwide.

He’s predicting more sunny weather for 2012, especially with the NFL and NBA lockouts resolved, and the fact that Alliance “doesn’t do a lot of hockey” – which is important since the NHL’s current labor agreement is up soon.

“We’re in a different position than most of the mobile companies since we’re a consortium that addresses the logistics of the industry and keeps the units closer to home. That’s important,” Farrell said, “because the big issues today are fuel and travel costs. That means our regional approach is critical in these cases.”

An Alliance Productions/Corplex 53-foot HD expando was used to assist with GOP debate coverage.
An Alliance Productions/Corplex 53-foot HD expando was used to assist with GOP debate coverage.An Alliance Productions/Corplex 53-foot HD expando was used to assist with GOP debate coverage.

The Right Niche
A fairly recent addition to the mobile sector, South Bend, Indiana’s CVM Productions has served the industry as a production company for two decades. It was about five years ago that it entered the mobile arena via “large corporate shows with a 20-foot cargo trailer that we built out into a small SD truck,” says CVM President Ron Vander Molen.

  A CVM Productions compact HD trailer.
  A CVM Productions compact HD trailer.

As it happened, that corporate work spawned CVM’s entry into the small local sporting event market, where it has found a comfortable place of business. “Two years ago, we took that truck and started covering Horizon League college events,” says Vander Molen. “That led to our producing 10 Sprint Car races for Must See Racing,” which aired on about 20 regional sports nets.

That meant it was time to make a move. “Since everyone was starting to use HD, we designed and built a 38-foot HD truck,” he said, “but wanted to stay within the smaller college markets that can’t afford the big trucks. That’s how we got the smaller colleges on the air.”

Still, Vander Molen says, “It’s important to note that the HD truck has all of the same hardware that bigger trucks do,” like a Chyron HyperX, a GVG Kayak switcher, a Trinix NXT 3G-SDI Digital Video Routing Switcher and the Yamaha M7CL 48 digital mixer, with five Sony HXC100K cameras.
The unusual approach has worked thus far and has even revealed an extra market. “We have some bigger companies that are considering our truck as a B unit, too,” he said, adding, “Though we came in new during the middle of the college sports season, we’ve been pretty busy,” with some University of Illinois-Chicago home games on the agenda for Comcast Sports Net Chicago.

As for that 20-foot SD trailer – CVM sold it to the University of Notre Dame, which uses it for video production at Notre Dame Stadium, “and we still crew it,” says Vander Molen.

Flying High
There are most mobile units, then there’s the mobile unit from Camera Copters, coined the “Big Rig.” It’s a NASCAR-inspired transport/production trailer that comes not just with the typical production and editing equipment, but everything clients need for an on-location aerial shoot – including an MD 500 helicopter, jet fuel, camera-mounting brackets, gyro-stabilized camera system, living quarters and crew.

The tractor/trailer is key to getting the copter and gear to location, economically and efficiently. “We’re the only aerial production company that transports a helicopter and all the gear this way,” said Paul Barth, the owner/pilot. “We take that truck anywhere and everywhere, and even bring the client’s camera of choice for their project, be it 35mm, 3D, HD or IMAX.”

Camera Copters has everything a client needs for an on-location aerial shoot.
Camera Copters has everything a client needs for an on-location aerial shoot.

Camera Copters (locations in California, New York and Florida), with its turnkey approach, works on all types of projects, from industrials to features; Barth said its highest-profile project during 2011, the company’s “busiest year yet,” was Superman: Man of Steel, for Warner Brothers, which shot in Chicago. The movie required the rental, all told, of four helicopters, one being the MD 500 mocked up like an Army “Little Bird.”
Also dotting the dossier was work on 20th Century Fox’s Call Me Artie, which was lensed in Atlanta; and more in Newport, Rhode Island, for Jobson Sailing and ESPN.

It’s plain to see that the Big Rig gets around. “After the Jobson project, we then went all the way to Gold Beach, Oregon, to shoot a Mercedes-Benz car spot on Highway 101 for Mission Photo Productions; we went coast to coast within five days,” Barth said. “Then it was on to Yaak, Montana, to shoot a segment for the History Channel’s Mountain Men for Warm Springs Productions of Missoula, Montana; then it was back to Atlanta for Call Me Artie; then up to Boone, N.C., again for Mountain Men. Now, that’s what I call nationwide,” he said.

The Two-Way Approach
The mobile business is a bi-regional effort at Crew West, which lives up to its name from its Phoenix office, where it also houses SatWest, and from Lakeland, Florida, the home of its sister company, Satellink.

The company, which doesn’t own or offer production trucks, serves as a transmission source that supplies crews; it has two uplink trucks at each location, as well as an insert studio in Phoenix. It specializes in field acquisition. President Jim Farrell said the company is upgrading one of its trucks in Phoenix, “which will be our last truck to go to full HD. There’s nothing cheap in a satellite truck. For instance, the encoder, receivers and other components routinely cost $50,000 each; it costs anywhere from $70,000 to $140,000” to make such upgrades, he said.

Crew West has been covering a great deal of sporting events recently in Arizona and Texas.
Crew West has been covering a great deal of sporting events recently in Arizona and Texas.

Given that price tag, it’s a great thing that Crew West has been “busy as heck in Phoenix in recent months,” covering such events as the Arizona/Arizona State football game for Fox Sports Net Arizona, MLB’s Arizona Fall League championship game for MLB Network and the Austin Trout vs. Frank LoPorto boxing match from El Paso, Texas, for Showtime.

At press time, Farrell and company were preparing to head to the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2 and its fifth consecutive Super Bowl, this year in Indianapolis, on Feb. 5. Crew West also is awaiting the start of 2012 NASCAR coverage, as well as MLB spring training and even work at Universal Studios Orlando for events like Harry Potter movies media tours.

Farrell noted that the “new thing that’s been thrown at me lately” is Internet Protocol (IP) broadcasting. “We’re getting our first big IP job shortly,” he said. “It looks like its going to be very lucrative and we’re already looking into buying more equipment.

“We’re making significant investments now,” Farrell said, “that could become even larger in the next year.”