Hand Crank Films in Bellingham began the old-fashioned way, with Bell & Howell camera
Puget Sound Business Journal – by Julie Franz
Date: Friday, December 3, 2010, 3:00am PST
Hand Crank Films was born with a simple TV commercial made with an old Bell & Howell hand-crank 16 mm film camera. The camera had been given to founder and CEO Max Kaiser by his grandfather.
A graduate of Yale, Kaiser moved to Bellingham in 2000 to head up the marketing department at Saturna Capital, his father’s financial firm based there. In summer 2005 he made his first TV ad for Saturna.
When the local cable company people saw the 30-second spot, they asked Kaiser if he would consider doing something similar for their other clients. Initially, he turned down the idea.
Eventually friends began asking Kaiser to make commercials for them, so he finally agreed. At first it was just something fun and different to do.
At Yale, in addition to majoring in Asian studies, Kaiser was heavily involved in the theater department. After graduation he took an intensive summer film class at New York University, where he learned some basics. Initially, obsessed with making feature films, he did a number of odd jobs on various production sets as well as acting before he found his direction.
Once Kaiser started doing more commercials he had a lot more fun than he thought he would. Originally he just wanted to do feature films and he didn’t think commercials were as worthy as filmmaking. Then he started to notice how much his work helped the companies that hired him.
“I thought if we can do it in a really cool and different way then it’s OK. It was kind of a ‘eureka’ moment for me. I realized it would differentiate us from competition and that I would be able to maybe even expand someday outside of Bellingham,” he said.
In 2005 Kaiser made the decision to jump ship from his family’s company and open a 400-square-foot office to concentrate on Hand Crank. He thought it would be slow to start but, just the opposite, it kept growing. Hand Crank kept getting one job after another doing commercials and corporate videos.
Because the hand-crank camera is old-fashioned, the company had to take a different approach in making commercials. People couldn’t talk into the camera since the camera doesn’t record sound. Instead, Hand Crank used voice-overs and concentrated more on making beautiful shots.
At first, clients were perplexed when they would show up to film because they were used to a different style of production, he said. However it’s that different style that has kept a steady stream of clients seeking out Hand Crank. The company has since begun utilizing digital cameras but it’s kept the same essence achieved from that old hand-crank camera.
After about a year of being in business, the company got a big break involving a project that Kaiser had put into action before Hand Crank Films was ever conceived. While working at Saturna, Kaiser worked closely with the Islamic community because Saturna manages the two largest Islamic mutual funds in North America. As marketing director of the mutual funds, he always attended the annual Islamic Society of North America conference in Chicago, where 40,000 Muslim people come together. After 9/11 he got to see firsthand the pain that it caused in the Islamic community and how unknowledgeable Americans were about Muslims, he said.
A Muslim friend wanted to get a private pilot’s license, but after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it was going to be tough.
“I had just gotten my pilot’s license and we were talking and he said, ‘I want to get mine too someday but of course I can’t because of 9/11 –– I’m going to be on the no-fly list.’ So we decided to make a documentary film about it,” he said.
They shot some footage and posted a little trailer on the internet. Shortly after that Kaiser left Saturna to concentrate on Hand Crank. The project was almost forgotten when all of a sudden, two different organizations began vying to give them funding to make the film. They were given $100,000 and a promise that the film would air on PBS, which was even more important than the money, he said.
The 60-minute documentary, “A Wing and a Prayer: An American Muslim Learns to Fly,” was completed and ran successfully on PBS for about a year.
“That was a turning point that defines us to this day, in that we do a lot of different kinds of projects,” Kaiser said. When the recession hit and a lot of advertising money seemed to disappear, Hand Crank hit a wall for the first time. Kaiser took the quiet time to devote his energy to the website.
He also began noticing that in comparison with other companies, Hand Crank stood out with its style. That inspired him to take out a bunch of Google ads all over the country. Eventually one of them paid off. About a year and a half ago, Hand Crank was hired to do a project for International Food Policy Research Institute called “Millions Fed,” which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The 12-minute film documents proven successes in agricultural development.
Another Hand Crank success was the ad it made for the city of Bellingham in response to the Google Fiber for Communities project. The ad garnered attention from CBS and MSNBC; both news organizations featured Hand Crank for its unique approach.
Last year, Hand Crank’s annual revenues leveled out at about $250,000. But this year, the company expects to double revenue to about $510,000. Kaiser has taken a back seat on the directing side by hiring two other directors, and has focused on the business side. Currently the firm has three salaried and two contract employees. For 2011, Hand Crank’s goal is to grow by 30 percent, and by 2012, the company wants to be at $1 million in revenue.
“The main thing that differentiates Hand Crank in the marketplace is that we are a company rather than just an individual or two,” Kaiser said. “We have banker hours, we’re always there from 9 to 6, we always answer the phone, there’s always someone there to solve problems. It’s a marriage of that kind of responsibility to the client and then really good creativity on the other side –– it’s a 50/50 marriage.”
The company has plans to open up two more offices outside of Bellingham in the near future.
Hand Crank’s Max Kaiser explains his tips for success.
1. Build projects on meaning rather than price: We’ve always succeeded most when we’ve concentrated on meaning, or telling our client’s story to the best of our ability, regardless of price.
2. Double down in a bad market: A downturn in the economy is a great (though admittedly scary) time to make investments in your processes, your infrastructure, and your people.
3. The importance of good people: Some companies don’t realize that their brand is an extension of their culture. And that culture is defined by what happens inside the company. So hiring the right people isn’t a luxury, it’s an imperative.