2020 Transcendent, LLC
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Katherine Bomboy
Paper: Tennessean, The (Nashville, TN)
Title: EXECUTIVE Q & A - Film House CEO hopes his first feature will transcend Nashville's rep
Date: February 15, 2004
Section: Business
Page: 1E

By Deborah W. Fisher
Assistant Managing Editor/Business

Curt Hahn, chief executive officer of Film House, runs the largest film production company in Tennessee.

His company makes 500 to 1,000 television commercials each year for clients throughout the world, including the U.S. military.

The Nashville company — started in 1976 — recently began a subsidiary, Transcendent, which is in the final editing stages of its first feature film, No Regrets, starring Janine Turner, Brad Johnson, Robert Merrill, Lari White, Jennifer Hetrick, Edward Albert and Kate Jackson.

Hahn also heads an Internet marketing company, Ascendant Media, which is partially owned by Film House and partially by individual investors.

He recently talked with Assistant Managing Editor/Business Deborah W. Fisher about his company and its new ventures.

Q. Tell me how you began Film House.

A. When we began, we were a typical film production company. We would do training films. We would do corporate films — pretty much whatever the local market needed in Nashville.

Early on we found a niche that became our specialty, and that was making TV commercials to promote radio stations. We made our first TV commercial to promote a radio station in 1980. There weren't any people specializing in that at the time...we found that if we did a TV commercial that helped a country station in Dallas get better ratings, that it was likely that other country stations would say, "I'd like to see the TV commercial that you ran that helped you get those better rating because maybe it'll help me, too."

We found that because each radio station is a local business, you had literally hundreds of prospects for the same basic idea for a commercial.

The radio niche has been a remarkably consistent business for us. We have clients who have been coming to Nashville every year for the last 15 to 20 years to make their TV spots.

Q. What has changed in the industry?

A. There are so many things that have changed. For instance, 27 years ago when we started, there was no such thing as a music video. Music videos became a real boom industry in film production in this town.

Whole companies sprang up overnight to produce country music videos. Directors and others moved here from other places to latch onto that wave. That wave crested about five years ago or more when you had CMT playing videos 24 hours a day. You had Great American Country playing videos 24 hours a day, and you had TNN playing a chunk of videos a day.

Q. Did you ever do any music videos?

A. We did a few, but we never went into that business in a big way. That business went from being nothing to being a big business in this town to being next to nothing again.

There are just so many fewer outlets now for country music videos. If an artist has a video made of one of their singles now, that's the exception, not the rule. Before, if you were a major star, they would make a video for virtually every single you put out. Now they might make one video for every five singles you put out, and if you are not a major star, you don't get a video — unless maybe you're launching a new artist and you want to give them a video on their first single, give them a chance.

But there are just fewer outlets. Look at MTV. MTV hardly plays music videos at all anymore, and CMT is moving in the same direction.

Q. Your business has been much more stable.

A. That's the unusual part because most things aren't stable. The things that are changing now are largely technological.

Digital video cameras now are stunning in their ability to capture images that, until a few years ago, we would have thought you would never get on video. You would have had to shoot film to get that quality.

All TV commercials would be made on film if you could afford it. But that's changing now to where the quality of digital video — particularly with one new camera that just came out this year — is making it that film is going to become obsolete.

Why would you bother to shoot film if it costs more? You have to wait overnight to get it processed, and the images are no better.

Q. What will that mean to your industry?

A. Two things. No. 1, it will mean that the cost of producing comes down. No. 2, it will also mean that anyone who has $4,000 can buy themselves a really amazing camera and call themselves a filmmaker, whether or not they know the first thing about how to light, how to shoot, how to direct, how to edit, how to score music.

It's the democratization of the process.

It's the same with editing. It used to be that to edit a simple TV commercial, you'd go into an editing suite that had over a million dollars of gear and you would rent it for somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 to $500 an hour.

Today, you can get on your Mac, get a starter editing system for a few thousand dollars and this is the same system that people are editing feature movies on.

Q. What does that mean to established businesses in terms of competition?

A. Let's say you have a high-end TV commercial where you need professionals to light it and direct it and cast it and edit it. That's not something that's going to be done by somebody who just got their first camera because, interestingly, the cost of producing a TV commercial is typically one-tenth the cost of airing the TV commercial.

One of our New York City clients might spend $1 million to $2 million running one of our commercials in a year — they're not really worried about whether they pay $40,000 or $60,000 or $80,000 or $100,000 for the commercial itself. They're more concerned that the commercial be really good because they're going to turn around and spend $2 million airing that commercial.

Q. Let me ask you about your work for the federal government. You do about 200 commercials a year for them. What exactly are these commercials?

A. Wherever we have troops stationed overseas, we will have AFRTS (American Forces Radio and Television Services). It's essentially the military's way of keeping the troops in touch with home. You can watch Oprah. You can watch the programs on HBO. The programs are given to the government for little or no money as sort of a patriotic gesture.

The main difference between AFRTS programming and what we see here in the States is that there are no commercials. So in place of the commercials they put the spots we produce, and the shorthand name for them in the military is command information — essentially information that the command wants the troops to know. We in the States tend to think of these as public service announcements. It can be anything from, "Don't be a target for terrorists when you're stationed overseas" to "Wear a helmet when you're riding your motorcycle."

Q. How can you be creative with those? They sound pretty straightforward.

A. In fact, there's a tremendous variety. One of the challenges for this client is that normally when you would watch television you would see TV commercials produced by all different advertising agencies and production companies.

In the AFRTS world, every commercial you're seeing is produced by us. So the challenge is to make it not like they're all produced by the same company. To accomplish this, we do a lot of different things. One is we hire a lot of different writers so we get a great variety of ideas.

We cast for actors far and wide. They don't want us to use the same actors over again because they don't know how the spots are going to run ultimately. You don't want a spot about wearing your helmet when you're riding a motorcycle to feature the same actor as one that's talking about what you do or do not do if you're captured as a prisoner of war. Those might end up running in the same commercial break.

Q. What inspired you to start Transcendent, the movie-making company?

A. A combination of factors. One was the lowering cost of production. Another was that over the 27 years we've been in business we've not only learned a lot about film production, but we've also met a lot of people.

We've worked with a lot of Hollywood actors over that period. We have come to know a lot of Hollywood agents and managers, and these are the deal-makers.

When you're first out of film school, the idea of making a feature film is very exciting, but where do you start? How do you even know how to begin or who to talk to? Over our years in the business we've developed enough of a network. The last element was having a script that we wanted to produce.

Q. You wrote the script. How long did you work on that? A main character is a Nashville architect.

A. The first draft of No Regrets was written in 1988. But starting about this time last year we started talking to Janine Turner, whom we had done some TV commercials with.

We didn't have to go through all (the channels) that you usually have to go through in Hollywood. We had her phone number. We could say, "Hey, we're working on this project. The script is getting ready. Would you like to read it?"

We spent the entire summer talking to a lot of agents and a lot of actors to see if they would consider coming to Nashville to work on a low-budget independent feature.

We were incredibly fortunate to get Kate Jackson to be open to the idea. Maybe the fact that she's from Birmingham had a little something to do with it. I think a lot of people in Hollywood think if it's being done in Nashville, it must not be very good. But she was open to at least reading the script, and she loved the script and said, "I'm in, let's do it." Then we got a marvelous actor named Lari White, who lives here in Nashville, who most people in this town think of as a country singer.

Q. Some of it was filmed in Nashville?

A. It was all filmed in Tennessee, most of it here in Nashville. But we also filmed a good bit of it at Center Hill Lake, which was doubling for New Hampshire. I went up to New Hampshire to look for locations up there, and then I came back and looked at the pictures and looked at Center Hill Lake. It was like: Which is which? So we decided it was going to be a lot less expensive to film everything here. It was 18 days of filming, which is a short schedule for a feature film.

Q. Your story is about two young couples who get mismatched?

A. These two couples were best friends in college and through a series of events ended up with the other person. They didn't speak to each other for 18 years. Now flash forward to where the movie really begins which is when one of the guys decides to go look up his college sweetheart. It's a drama about triangles.

Q. What do you expect from the film?

A. The goal for Transcendent is not to produce a single film. The goal for Transcendent is to start a film production company that produces quality, low-budget independent features.

We're looking to do something that's not being done in Hollywood. We think there's a niche there, where Hollywood studios tent to chase the ever-younger movie-going public.

Most films made by the studios are targeted to audiences under 25 years of age because they buy the most tickets. So it becomes sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We believe that we don't have to have a gigantic market to be very successful because we didn't spend $83 million (to make the film), which is the average a Hollywood studio spends now to make and market a movie. Anything that's under $3 million is considered low budget.

So how do you successfully distribute a film such as this?

A. The typical scenario is that you take your film to a film festival or film market. We plan to take the film to Cannes.

We'll submit to the festival, although we feel like there's virtually no chance of being accepted for the festival because it's so competitive. They tend to take films that show Americans as being really violent and scary. Natural Born Killers was a big hit at Cannes, and that's the opposite of the kind of film we're trying to make.

Q. So what would you do?

A. They have a film marketplace, which is actually larger than the festival. Assuming we're not accepted into the festival — if you got in it would be like winning the Academy Award — we will go to the film market and for a fairly reasonable investment rent a screening theater and show the film.

We'll set up three times to show the film and invite distributors who are present en masse to come and watch our film. Basically what happens is they wander in, they watch a few minutes and then wander out again. Hopefully they'll see something that they like enough to want to acquire the film for distribution.

Q. Anything else to add?

A. Nashville has a unique opportunity to expand its entertainment industry. For the music industry, we already are the Third Coast. In the entertainment industry we are not.

There is an opportunity because of the entertainment industry infrastructure that's here. Lari White lives here. She lives here because of the music industry, but she also happens to be a great actress.

We have offices of all the major talent agencies here. We have entertainment industry law firms here. Yet a sleepy burg like Wilmington, N.C., built some sound stages 20 years ago and created a whole burgeoning Third Coast film industry as a result, along with the appropriate tax incentives from the local government.

We have all the same advantages here in Tennessee plus a whole lot more. And yet to date we haven't had the vision or the great set of circumstances to really turn this into a bigger entertainment-industry town.

The thing that's driving this now is tax incentives. The Louisiana Legislature has just passed the most sweeping set of tax incentives of any state in 20 years. The other one is New Mexico. They're trying to compete for runaway production that leaves the United States and goes to Canada. Now it's even leaving Canada.

Cold Mountain — a $78 million movie — was shot in Romania even though the story was set in South Carolina. They looked at South Carolina but it was cheaper to take Nicole Kidman and everybody to Romania for months. There's a way to keep that production in the United States and encourage new production.

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