Hand Crank Films gets a nice hit in the Puget Sound Bellingham Journal

December 3, 2010

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.

Lessons Learned

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.

View our Portfolio


New Work: Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism

November 9, 2010

We’re pretty jazzed to (finally) post this work we did for Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism – a good slice of life here in the Pacific Northwest. Take a look and let us know what you think.

We’re especially happy to have worked with Keaton Collective. They provided the music and deserve mad props. Check out their music video here, which was shot on the RED ONE camera system. Enjoy.

Bellingham State of Mind

September 17, 2010

We gots to give some major domo props to ‘Bellingham State of Mind’ – a really fun video directed by Chris Patton and starring Nathan Cox and Rashawn Scott. Further proof that with minimal gear and a flamethrower full of imagination, you can create something truly spectacular. Respect.

9/11 Happened to Us All

September 10, 2010

We had no idea when we were first contacted by CAIR that our 3 Muslim first responder ads would create such buzz. Not only did they make the front page of Yahoo News – where they were viewed by close to half a million people – but they were also featured on numerous news outlets, including CNN which you can watch below.

The takeaway? Never underestimate the power of story.  Our ‘9/11 Happened to Us All’ theme resonates with huge audiences and communicates a message that is important for us all to hear. Especially now.

View our Portfolio

Hand Crank Films Tapped for Ground Zero Mosque PSA’s

September 1, 2010

Why were we in the Big Apple last week? To shoot a series of spots for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to highlight the fact that people of all colors and religions were tragically affected by 9/11. This includes Muslims.

Check out the first of 3  spots here. We think they’re pretty powerful.

Thoughts? Ideas? We’d love to hear from you.

View our Portfolio

Knocking on the Doors of Perception

August 31, 2010

Google doesn’t have a lock on ingenuity. But it does own at least a full city block as reflected in their latest Google Labs experiment with HTML 5, film and music video, and the band Arcade Fire. The accomplishment? Folding your world into their story.

Check out the future of story-telling here: http://thewildernessdowntown.com

Suggestion: Use the Google Chrome Browser with high connection speeds. If the address of your childhood home doesn’t have enough info via Google Maps, pick another location you know well.

Enjoy the trip. (Kudos to filmmaker Chris Milk)

View our Portfolio

Taking a Bite of the Big Apple

August 24, 2010

A few of the HCF team are off to NYC this week to create some PSA’s centered around the whole ‘Mosque at Ground Zero’ debate. The spots promise to be thought provoking, especially given the media attention and overall heat this topic has generated the last few weeks.

Stay tuned for more late breaking news. In the meantime, you can always watch Ol’ Blue Eyes wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep.

Call to Arms – The Pickford Film Center

August 9, 2010

Everyone over at Hand Crank Films is a big fan of The Pickford Film Center. And to say they’re close to reaching their funding goal to open their new space is an understatement. If we all can get just get 1000 people to donate $10/mo for one year, the film Center will open by the end of 2010.

You heard me right. 2010.  A new facility that will bring us the best films, drive downtown business, and further Bellingham’s reputation as a premier destination will be up and running this year.

It’s a small price to pay to make this happen. So help us in one last push. Plus, its just another feather in your cap.

To donate, click here.

Still not convinced? Check out what the Pickford has to say here.

Sid’s New Film at the Pickford

August 5, 2010

Yo – I’m back after vacation and totally happy to announce that one of our interns, Sidra Villasana, has her new film opening at the Pickford Film Center.  Something Happened to Him, Something Happened to Me is a compelling story about the affects of radical change to a simple life – and we encourage everyone in the Bellingham area to check it out. Opening night is Tuesday, September 7th.

Congrats, Sidra! Check out the trailer here.

View our Portfolio

PeaceHealth Saint Joseph Medical Center

July 15, 2010

I’m pretty jazzed to post this new ad – which was done in concert with advertising agency Baron & Co (props to Chris Bothell and Jason Glover). Be sure to go full screen:

This was shot on the Red camera, and shows just how high digital quality has gotten over the last few years. Take a look and let us know what you think.

View our Portfolio