Sunnyside Films Interview: Getting it Right with Planning and Casting

Jon Huberth is the owner of Sunnyside Films. He specializes in helping educational institutions, healthcare organizations, and non-profits communicate high-impact messages through commercial quality film, video and digital media.

I thought Jon would be an interesting person to speak with about some of the challenges and rewards of running a production company. With over forty years experience producing award winning films and videos, he has successfully adapted to numerous shifts in the industry. Jon has experience working as a one-man-band, collaborating with other production companies, and managing a team of production and post freelancers who he’s worked with for years.

You do a lot of work with colleges and universities. How did you get started in this niche?

I’m a trained theatre director out of Yale School of Drama who wandered into film. For the past 45 years I have split my time between theatre and film. I produced “persuasion documentaries” for companies such as The Nature Conservancy and training films for the likes of the New York City Police Department and a documentary training series on EMS for a healthcare publishing company called Mosby Lifeline. Plus other educational films in psychology and ecology. Amherst College [my alma mater] asked me to do a fund-raising film for an endowed professorship, and that was enough of a success that Dartmouth came calling and all of a sudden most of my work was for colleges and universities in admissions and development. Princeton, Swarthmore, Kenyon and a couple of dozen more.

A lot of your clients are located in different parts of the country. How does working with remote clients compare with working with local ones?

I work with clients all over the country. I will travel to their locations [campus] and meet with them the same as I do with more local clients. We then hold focus groups on campus to gather information, and we get to know the campus and the institution. We are next on location during the shooting of a project, and we keep in contact by phone and by posting links to rough cuts during post production. The only real difference between local and distant clients is that there are increased costs for travel expenses, when we go to clients farther afield. Most clients see the value in getting a better company from farther away than many of the companies they can get that are closer.

Any tips that you can share on collaborating with clients remotely?

Always be in touch. But this holds true for any client. Communication all along the way will result in a video that is what the client expected – and more.

How is your time split between production / post, client management, sales & marketing, administration? Would you like to re-balance where you spend time?

When I do a project at Sunnyside, my time is pretty evenly split among all those things, though less with administration, because as I said I’m a one-man-band. You forgot pre-production in your list. I think I spend a large amount of time on pre-production.

Planning out a video in advance is probably the most important aspect of getting it right – getting the video to reflect the authentic “voice” of the institution. And even though my films are “industrials” or documentaries, casting is the most important aspect of it, because the people will draw the viewer into the story. If you have engaging, authentic people in your video, you’re more than half way there.

How do you market your business, and what channels do you find most effective?

I am a terrible marketer and avoid it, much to the detriment of making money. When I work with Tribe Pictures, they do a lot of marketing, mailings, etc. I have a web site, but my main business comes from clients who have stayed with me over the years and who recommend me to others.

I've recently started experimenting with online marketing and have been using Vidaao, a marketplace that connects businesses with video production and animation companies that can bring their vision to life. You can check out more about the service and my company profile here.

Any tips / resources / tools you can share on how you keep things organized and run your business efficiently?

Starting a new project. When you start a new project, you have to meet with your client and get to know his/her intentions. The client first needs to be clear on the strategy behind the video they want to do. It’s just not enough to say, well, “admissions needs a recruiting video”, or “we’re starting a campaign and need a launch video”. The client [and I] needs to be clear on what he wants the audience to do, think, feel, buy after watching the video. The client needs to be clear that print material does information well but video doesn’t. Video reaches the emotions. It is not a brochure or a campaign case statement. With all this clear, you can then proceed with video concepts.

Contracts. I have a standard four-page contract that spells everything out. It is revised upon occasion, usually be client attorneys who want to have their say. Large universities don’t bother with a contract and go directly to a Purchase Order, but I really suggest a contract on the side – or a Scope of Work – because purchase orders don’t spell out process. They just spell out payment schedules for the most part.

Limits to the number of revisions. I try to be reasonable, but my contracts spell out two client revisions before additional post production costs are incurred.

You mentioned that you outsource much of your post. Any best practices you can share with other directors on working with post?

I started in 16mm film, so we gave editors a limited amount of footage to work with because it cost about 70 cents a second to shoot when you include raw stock, developing, workprint, and mag tape for sound.

Today shooting doesn’t cost much at all, so DPs tend to spray the camera around, and we come back from a shoot and dump so much footage on the poor editor, the time and cost in post almost takes care of the savings of going from film to tape to digital over the years.

With the best editor, I talk to him in advance of the shoot. He and I really collaborate on the concepts even before I go and shoot the video. I also like Directors of Photography who are not just camera people but are filmmakers – who know how to make a movie, not just shoot it.

If you hire good people all along the way, and you cast the project well, you have put together a creative team and can sit back [to a certain extent] and let everybody do their job and bring their own talents into the mix.

Who takes care of administrative things like accounting, payroll, etc.?

For Sunnyside, I do it all myself because payroll and accounting merely means paying free-lancers. When working with Tribe, they do it, thank the lord.

What are your biggest business challenges / what keeps you up at night running Sunnyside?

Nothing keeps me up at night running Sunnyside. If it kept me up at night, I’d find something else to do. You only go around once, so if you don’t like what you’re doing and worrying all the time, quit. Oh sure, a few client headaches and gearing up for a shoot can take time and energy, but most of it is pleasant energy.

When was the last time you took a vacation? Did you work on it?

I took a vacation within the last month and did a bit of email management. I try never to let my work get in the way of my life. And my life is a blend of different types of work and play. I have a home office, and people who have home offices know what I mean. One minute I’ll be talking to a client, the next minute I’ll be mowing the lawn or directing a play. I like variety. But most of my friends say it’s because I still haven’t figured out what I want to do when I grow up. I’m pushing 70, so this is fast becoming moot.