Not just eye candy: Downtown video entrepreneurs lure customers through their stomachs

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March 19, 2002 // UPDATED 1:17 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Dean J. Seal
Dean J. Seal

Hi-Wire LLC has polished MTV videos and BMW car ads, but its real draw is an on-site chef who makes brown-baggers jealous and restaurant reservations passe

It's truer in television production than almost anywhere else: time actually is money. When you are paying hundreds an hour, or charging it, anything you can do to save time may make the difference between the winner's cut and chump change.

Some people try to go cheap with short staffing and long hours. Others, like Downtown TV-and-movie post-production studio Hi-Wire LLC, go in the other direction.

"My mission is to wow people from the time they walk in to the time they walk out," says proud President Marilyn Timmsen-Aden.

One way Hi-Wire does it: with an in-house chef -- Kristine Szczech, formerly of Table of Contents, now Creative Culinary Director -- whose food that makes brown-baggers jealous and expense-account jockeys willingly give up their restaurants reservations.

Said one ad executive (who declined attribution because it could spoil a good thing), "All things being equal, I'd just as soon schedule an edit session around 11 a.m. so I can eat their lunch."

Another kind of seduction

Somehow, the food factor fits Hi-Wire's business plan. The company is a post-modern post-production facility, where raw videotape is turned into finished product. Words and titles are added, tape is cut down to size by the second, and computer graphics are added as budget and time allows. This is where the seduction of the eyes and ears is studied, discussed, acted upon, and finalized, for commercials, industrial-strength videos, TV shows themselves, and computer animation. The costs, the risks and the rewards are all high.

But Hi-Wire doesn't just think how to seduce the audience; it uses the taste buds to seduce clients. Candy and munchies are everywhere. "Sometimes I think our motto should be, 'Come for the food, stay for the post [production]!'" Marilyn said with a grin.

Consider the meal I weaseled out of them. Sampling the almond-encrusted chicken on a bed of wild mushroom risotto (yum), spinach salad at the buffet, cupcakes or treats for dessert (Mr. Goodbar, Salted Nut Rolls, Sweet Tarts, Lifesavers, Doritos, Reese's peanut butter cups), choice of beverage (with the glaring exception of Diet Coke!!!!) and one can see this could work in the sybaritic environment of corporate creatives looking for a place that saves time, treats them well and makes them feel cool just by walking in the door.

The sales staff can bring people in for a screening and give them breakfast. Front desk as concierge. Corporate dining as a sales expense. Cheaper, faster, on-site. Thirty minutes, not 90.

If the harried executive can get the same service here without going to LA, his or her marriage might last a year or two longer. Plane tickets won't have to be bought, which could go back into the quality of the product, or the office bonus pool.

Spend more, get more

Timmsen-Aden estimates the start-up costs at "millions. Six to ten million."

That translates into hardware, and nationwide talent (from San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, and San Jose). They do work for agencies (Fallon, Campbell-Mithun, Carmichael Lynch) and clients (Best Buy, Ikea, Porche/BMW) -- even MTV videos (Incubus, Pulp, and Local H).

Aside from commercials, Hi-Wire does image pieces, for ABC, Northwest Airlines Network, Victory Sports -- which is a possible new Twins TV network -- and the graphics package for Dragonfly TV, a kid's TPT/PBS show. "That's what we're really good at, the whole branding/broadcast image, graphics package thing," said Timmsen-Aden.

Local skepticism

A couple of independent filmmakers (who declined attribution to preserve their freelance careers) who have seen the equipment closet warn that Hi-Wire may have jumped the gun. "There's no way they can make money with all that stuff. There isn't that much hi-def work in town."

Another agrees. "What I want to know is, does this follow the Pohlad business model of losing tons of money for years until you own the market, and then make it back by selling the business?"

Timmsen-Aden insists Hi-Wire's hi-def focus "changed Minneapolis. Other post-houses have now felt that if they didn't have hi-def that they couldn't be competitive."

In the meantime, this place is busy. "We want to be more than a post [production] house. We want to be more of a seamless part of the companies we serve. More of a business partner," says Timmsen-Aden. "Minneapolis has eight of the top agencies. We're just trying to capture the business that was going out of town, plus a little of the national business. The ultimate would be to bring some back from LA. We're getting some interest now from Minneapolis creatives who are out there."

She paused. "Maybe our motto should be 'Amazing Post, Unrelenting Service.'"

I would suggest this: Digital Candy, Eye Candy -- and Candy.