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MSLCE Class Looks at Business Models in Creative Enterprises

By Jacob Nelson

To teach his students about the relationship between business models and technology in the creative enterprises, Northwestern Assistant Professor Dan Gruber talked about Pixar.

The animation studio responsible for a string of huge hits like the “Toy Story” series and “The Incredibles” was acquired by Disney in 2006. When that happened, Pixar brought its creative culture to the home of Mickey Mouse.

“There was an acquisition of culture by Disney,” Gruber said. The move led Pixar employees to create “a creative culture in an organization.”

This is one example of what Gruber’s course focused on — media company business models and strategies. The course involved a string of guest speakers that ran the creative industries gamut, including a columnist at Forbes, the associate artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater Company and the founder and president of a public relations firm.

“We created a culture in the class where everyone felt comfortable asking questions,” Gruber said.

A running theme of Gruber’s course was that the students, like the guest speakers, were making career pivots. Gruber explained that none of the students were making drastic career changes, but that they were transitioning to a more business-oriented side of the creative fields.

“They’re here to make a career pivot,” Gruber said about his students. “It’s not a huge transformation, it’s a retooling. To have this degree will allow them to be successful in the business side.”

Gruber encouraged his students to turn the class into a community based on curiosity. Students would look for everyday examples of interesting business models in creative enterprises, and would tweet their thoughts using a shared hashtag. The class also split into groups to do case studies they presented to the class. Gruber was impressed with how creative his class got for these presentations.

“Students put on a three act play to present the case of creating an investor meeting,” Gruber said. “They really got into it and that inspired me to consistently be open to taking the class where they wanted to go.”

Universal Pictures’ Film Music President Talks ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Soundtrack

Mike Knobloch (left) answered questions from MSLCE Professor Jacob Smith and students. (Picture by Amy Ross)

Mike Knobloch (left) answered questions from MSLCE Professor Jacob Smith and students. (Picture by Amy Ross)

 

By Amy A. Ross

When Mike Knobloch and his team at Universal Pictures first took on the challenge of developing music for the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, they knew they would have to impress. The President of Film Music and Publishing at Universal Pictures, Knobloch directs the department that lies at the intersection between the arts and the industries of music and film. Not only was he and his team building off a trilogy with specific songs explicitly weaved into the storyline; they were also catering largely to a fan base familiar with the content of the novels. The end product did not fall short: the soundtrack released last February in conjunction with the erotic drama brought together artists of the calibre of Annie Lennox, Beyonce and Sia and even drew more favorable critiques than those of the movie.
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MSLCE Student Debuted Film at Cannes

By Jacob Nelson

Evyenia Constantine came to the MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program to learn about the business side of the film industry.

“I really liked how this program is new, for artistic people to fine-tune and develop their business acumen for the field,” she said. That means she’s very excited about classes that, to others, may not sound that exciting, like finance and entertainment law. “What I’m working on now I will be able to use when I leave,” she said, “I’ll have a business plan to present to investors to get projects financed.”

Constantine earned a BS from The New School in New York City with a concentration in Film and Media Studies and worked as an award-winning producer on a film that debuted at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. When she decided to go back to school, she looked at Northwestern specifically because it’s where her mom earned her Master’s and PhD in social psychology.

Currently, Constantine is researching and developing two untitled projects, and what this program offers are the skills she needs to get “investors excited to invest.” She’s open to different jobs in the film industry once she receives her degree. “It really just depends on where the best fit is and where I can bring what I’ve learned here to the table,” Constantine said. Until then, she will continue to learn about the business side of media production, while considering ways to apply it to her own work. “Everything we’re learning now I’m finding a way to channel,” she said.

kollide.tv Owner Brings Multicultural Media to Online Audiences

By Jacob Nelson

The owner of kollide.tv, an online video platform with a multicultural focus, spoke on Monday to Aymar Jean Christian’s MSLCE class about his experiences in the media industry and the trajectory of his career.

Lateef Sarnor started kollide.tv last May, and has since been building up its programming and distribution. Before then, Sarnor worked as AOL’s Head of Multicultural Sales, Marketing and Strategy, BET’s Director of Brand Solutions and Black Enterprises’ Interactive Media Manager.

His decision to start his own business focused on multicultural media came in part from the realization that media audiences seemed increasingly receptive to it.

Multi-cultural media is blowing up,” Sarnor said during his talk. “You’re starting to see a burgeoning influx of shows.”

He mentioned new television programs like “Empire” and “Fresh Off the Boat” as examples of shows that focus on non-white cultural experiences: “Fresh Off the Boat” is an ABC show that is the first American sitcom starring an Asian-American family, and “Empire” is a Fox show that centers on a hip hop music company.

“It’s not just black folks that are watching ‘Empire,’” Sarnor said, “It’s a much broader audience.”

In his discussion of his own company, Sarnor pointed to the different ways of tackling multicultural media. The big networks have a huge amount of money to support expensive, original productions — which means that smaller, online media companies need to find a different niche from which to focus.

That focus is on making kollide a way of distributing multicultural media rather than just producing it. Sarong said his video player is a platform for people to both find and distribute multicultural videos. It’s like YouTube, Sarnor said, but with a much narrower focus.

“We really see this as having a targeted option that fits the consumer,” Sarnor explained.

His discussion about kollide reflected a larger discussion about the direction of television, which he said would move away from channel packages towards unbundled channel and program choices. He hopes to support kollide with both advertising and subscriptions.

During the Q and A, Sarnor talked about some of the obstacles he ran into when starting his company, including raising funds from investors (he’s currently funding the company on his own).

“The challenges with companies that are content based its hard to get people to invest,” he said. “If it hinges on this one piece of content… Are you going to make your money back?”

Sarnor’s hope is that kollide proves successful enough that others begin to emulate it, increasing the exposure to and amount of multicultural media.

“I wanted to prove that there’s a model,” he said. “Between advertisers and the subscription piece maybe we circumvent going out and getting investments.”

Another student asked how he chose which cultural experiences he wanted to focus on within kollide. He said that, though diversity in the programming is his goal, the first thing he looks for in a program is its storytelling.

“At the core I’m trying to find really good shows,” he said. “To me there are universal truths around content. People care about strong characters, relatable story lines. They want to be entertained.”

In the Hostile World of Freelance, a Seasoned Photojournalist Reinvents Himself

By Amy A. Ross

At first glance, it can seem hard to imagine that a professional photographer with a portfolio as thick and impressive as Jeff Haynes’ would find himself struggling to find enough work to make ends meet.

Over the span of 25 years, Haynes’ career included news coverage of an seemingly endless list of news events from the OJ Simpson trial and the Columbine shooting, to numerous editions of the Oscars, the Grammys and the Olympics; most of them as a photojournalist with Agence France-Presse (AFP). However in 2008, Haynes found himself scrambling for work after his employer opted to relocate his position from Chicago to Los Angeles, New York or Washington, a demand he was unable to accommodate due to his personal life.

For the first few years, the veteran photographer found a relatively steady stream of work through a contract with Reuters, but in 2013 the international news agency decided to dispense of it sports coverage in the United States. As he struggled to make ends meet, Haynes found that the world of freelance photography is a hostile one. “There is a demand more for pictures than ever before, but there is less of a monetary value placed on them,” Haynes said. “Photography has been downgraded because anybody can take a picture at any time and it is pretty darned good.”

As he pointed out, the struggles of the news industry directly affected photographers, who were very often the first to be cut in company layoffs. Furthermore, people with much less expertise and knowledge of the craft are increasingly capable of taking publishable photos due to the increase in high quality consumer cameras. Not only can these cameras focus and adjust to the light on their own, they also enable users to take a virtually endless amount of pictures. In addition, postproduction tools and software facilitate the correction of mistakes that result from the lack of skill. Thus, in the midst of financial tensions, many news organizations prefer to sacrifice some of the quality that professional photographers can guarantee, in exchange for saving money on those salaries. “

The industry has started to hire people with very little experience and equipment for $120 a day, and we just can’t afford it,” Haynes said. On the photographer’s end of the equation, surviving off of freelance work has also become increasingly difficult as a result of the the overhead costs of photographic equipment. “The hardest part is not having a regular paycheck and at the same time having to purchase all the camera equipment that was provided as a staff photographer, from a cellphone all the way up to a $10,000 camera lens,” Haynes said. As a result, he has found himself at a place he didn’t imagine a decade ago: reinventing himself at 47 years of age.

Among other things, this implies branching far out from editorial photography. “Now my camera is a hammer and I’ll pound nails for anybody; I’ll go from a high-end corporate client to my friends’ family pictures for $100,” said Haynes. Most of his current work serves customers  like Sports Illustrated, the NBA, and Best Buy, where he does weeklong courses to teach employees knowledge about cameras that will aid them in sales. He also does some photography for the Associated Press, Getty Images, and some corporate clients in the Midwest. Haynes urges upcoming photographers to tread with caution and carefully consider other alternatives to supplement their photographic work.

“Maybe I am 47 years old and bitter, but I see where this is leading and the people at the beginning of the product are suffering the most,” Haynes said. “I’m not saying there aren’t going to be photographers but I am saying that I think it it is going to be very, very difficult to break into the industry. You are really going to have to stand out from the crowd.”

Pitchfork Media Finance VP Talks Getting Into Print, Organizing Festivals

By Jacob Nelson

What was your path to your current position at Pitchfork? I started as an intern at Pitchfork in October of 2005, prior to that I had worked as a bookkeeper for a couple manufacturing companies out in the suburbs while I completed my bachelor’s program at DePaul. From my internship, I dabbled a bit in ad sales at the company before becoming an administrative assistant. When my supervisor left the company a couple months after I graduated, I was promoted to General Manager with the opportunity to improve and streamline a lot of our day-to-day business operations. As the company continued to grow, I continued to look for opportunities to expand and develop my role and in 2013 I was promoted to VP of Finance.

What is your day to day like at Pitchfork?  My day to day varies greatly. I spend a lot of time in meetings and on calls with our executive team developing our strategies, budgets and planning for new hires. I handle all of our AP and AR as well as our HR, so I’m back and forth with clients, vendors and employees all day. It’s very much a mixed bag.

Pitchfork is unique in many ways, but perhaps one of the most unusual things about it is that at a time where many print publications are going digital only, Pitchfork has expanded to print. As the VP of Finance, can you talk about the motivations for that decision? The Pitchfork Review is a passion project that allows us to focus on long form content and feature content that has a more timeless quality to it and is difficult for us to find a place for on the site. It also allows for us to package, design, and deliver that content in a different way.

Working for Pitchfork puts you in two industries that have been seriously affected by the advent of digital media: music and journalism. How have you seen that play out in your current job, and your career in general? Pitchfork happened at an incredibly important time where we were able to do something that few others were doing on the same scale and we were able to do it with relatively low overhead. I think the other piece that has been important has been consistently being aware of a community that exists online that we are a part of as well as the geographical communities where we operate. This encompasses thinking about how to bridge what we do online to the events that we do.

Pitchfork has had so much success with its music festival that it now feels like sort of a given that a music journalism publisher would naturally know how to organize and stage an outdoor music event. What was the learning curve like for it? How did it come about in the first place? In many ways this relates to the community piece as well. For the Chicago Festival, we have been working with the same production company, At Pluto, since the festival started, and honestly we couldn’t do it without them. When it comes to organizing and staging the event, they handle every aspect and we have complete trust and faith in how they run the festival. They are Chicago-based as well and very simply put, there is an understanding of who we are and what we’re trying to do. It is a comfort that when I start working on the festival related projects each year, I’m continually working with the same people and when it comes to the week of the festival I’m seeing the same faces that I’ve seen for the last ten years. In addition to the working relationship with the production team, there is also an effort to make sure that Chicago talent is a part of the festival-line up and that we’re working with different Chicago charities each and every year. In regards to how the festival came about, it was another area that we saw as an opportunity to do something that wasn’t being done. We work to maintain all the aspects that we feel work and due to the festival’s size, the talent that we book, the vendors that take part, and the partners that we work with; the festival continues to be unique. It has been a conscious effort to maintain all of these aspects.

What skill set would you encourage someone to have who is interested in pursuing a finance position in a creative field? Would it look any different than that needed for any finance position? When this question was asked during the session it was hard to explain exactly what that skill or experience set is, but it is absolutely important that candidates understand the company’s mission and the company culture. It is also important that the finance, accounting, and business background is in place. It is also important to recognize that in a finance related role you will not be separate from the creative staff at a company. Those relationships will also be closer at smaller companies so the finance and the creative roles do need to operate as a team.

What’s the best concert you’ve seen? Robyn at our Paris festival in 2012.

Chicago-based Graphic Production Company Creates Titles for Marvel Movies

By Amy A. Ross

For someone who hadn’t the faintest idea of what she was getting herself into when she founded her own production company in 2009, Erin Sarofsky certainly didn’t let it show.

In a matter of just five years, Sarofsky Corp. has allotted an impressive portfolio with work for clients as noteworthy as Coca-Cola, General Motors, Verizon, NBC Universal, Sony Pictures, Fox TV Studios, the Russo Brothers and John Wells Productions. In 2014, Sarofsky Corp.’s work made its way into movie theaters across the country, after creating the main-on-end titles for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a custom-made typeface for Guardians of the Galaxy. Her success in the commercial and film industries earned her a spot as an honoree at the 2014 Women in Film Chicago Focus Awards. Sarofsky describes her work as design driven production, which encompasses all types of graphical products from live action production, visual effects and 3D development, to design and animation for both the entertainment and advertising communities. She is a graduate from of the Rochester Institute of Technology with a BFA in graphic design and an MFA in computer graphics, both with a strong photography influence. In 2006, Sarofsky was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for her work on the Ghost Whisperer main title sequence. Sarofsky Corp. company now consists of 15 full-time employees, but often has twice that many people working on projects through freelancing.

A few weeks ago, Sarofsky talked to the MSLCE blog about her experience in the design industry, her success as an entrepreneur and the direction of her creative work.

Your company does work both with entertainment and advertising. Where do feel most comfortable now and where do you allocate most of your time?

Even though our website looks like a lot more entertainment it is actually about 80% commercial and 20% entertainment. The budget from the entertainment side is significantly lower so in order to be able to afford it we have to make sure our work is firmly rooted in advertising. 

What made you want to pursue a leadership position with your own enterprise, rather than work at some of the big name companies you were previously associated with?

It is interesting, I thing naivety is the biggest reason. I had the talent and resources to be able to put it together but I didn’t necessarily know what I was getting into. If I knew then what I do now, I think I would have thought about it more. I grew up in New York and came to Chicago to work at Digital Kitchen. I returned to New York but missed Chicago. I wanted to come back but no company aside from Digital Kitchen was doing the level of work that I was doing.

What was the biggest challenge?

Getting access to the work and convincing people that you are worthy or their jobs; it wasn’t actually the work itself… It was like starting over to prove to people that you are capable of bigger projects. It’s all about relationships. When I was at Digital Kitchen, I also became friends and a resource for my clients so even as I moved and started my own company they would come to run things by me. I was a resource and I was helpful. If you are good to people they will be good to you when it is appropriate. All these people that were my clients became my friends and then became very supportive of me as I started my own company. A lot if it comes down to word of mouth. That is how we got work, especially in the beginning.

How did your company start and how big is it now?

The initial mindset was to depend a lot on freelance because there is a lot built into the overhead. At first it was just me and some of my freelancers who are now full-time employees. Now we are 15 full-time and double that half of the time. Sometimes we have people in animating or story boarding artists. I usually hear about them through word of mouth. It’s a pretty small design community so we generally share resources and recommend them to other companies. I ask my friends that are professors at the Rhode Island School of design about their upcoming designers and I call dibs on them. When designers are starting out, I like taking them in and teaching them. You do lots of work across platforms from television and film to the Internet.

How does this multiplatform context affect the creative work?

For the most part it doesn’t. For me production is production. It’s all moving pieces that go somewhere. Now content is becoming more about the person getting it than where it is coming form, and that is key. It’s really about what you are all about as a user and if you like to watch on your phone while you commute that is fine, we can supply content for all of that. It just depends on the client and who they are talking to.

Where do you think industry headed, and how do you see your business fitting into that?

There are two sides. On the creative side it is the trends. We have just been through this dry trend that has been going on for a couple of years, like a guy with kitten for a shirt and Old Spice. I think that is running its course. I think the design and illustration and hand-done looking work is starting to come up. Even though things are digital, there is really a movement for it to feel crafted by hand or like stop motion animation, etc. I think there is an art to that. Either it looks so seamless or it looks hand made and there is a crafty quality. There is also a rise of paper, natural materials, and everything has very natural feel. I like that, creatively. On the tech side, it’s matter of how to best produce things smartly and cheaply. With all the media, the advertising budgets aren’t changing and there are way more delivery mechanisms. It is challenging to continue making the budgets work even for a Samsung or a McDonald’s. Now they do audiences; they want apps to speak to different people. Everything is becoming more segmented. You can tailor the content but the issue is that they still need the content and the challenge is producing it for those different audiences.

We Interviewed an Editor for a Site that Parodies Viral Content; You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

By Jacob Nelson

At first, it looks like a BuzzFeed headline: “14 Romantic Date Ideas for Valentine’s Day that Won’t Break the Bank.” But click on it, and it becomes quickly clear that this is not your average clickbait.

1. Dip your bodies in hot, scented wax to become a pair of exquisite spa candles,” the list begins. “With some fresh herbs and a couple wicks, you and your date can turn your living room into a palace of sensuality for cheap.”

This is Clickhole, a spinoff of the Chicago-based, satirical newspaper The Onion. It launched last June, and it specializes in skewering dumbed-down Internet content, according to associate editor Jamie Brew.

“When Clickhole first came up, it was pitched as The Onion‘s take on the Internet, on dumb Internet stuff like Gawker and BuzzFeed and Upworthy,” Brew said during a recent phone interview.

However, what began as a something meant to target and make fun of other sites has broadened its scope over time while fine-tuning its voice.

“There was a lot of concern this was going to have a short shelf life — it would do it’s thing, make fun of all this clickbait and then have nothing else to say,” Brew said. “There was always a sense in the writer’s room that we needed to make this thing live longer than that.”

The solution? Use Clickhole as the venue to make fun of anything, and package it in a way that’s familiar to all Internet users. The results have been surprising and hilarious.

Some of these take on the self-help genre, like “Tips for Crafting the Perfect Email Subject Line,” which includes the gem “For urgent emails, write ‘I HAVE YOUR DAUGHTER.’” Then there’s Clickhole’s take on the Internet quiz, which includes “Which Hungry Hungry Hippo Are You?” But the kind of content that Brew says is “quintessential Clickhole” is their take on current events and popular culture, like last September’s piece “Stunning Map Shows Just How Much Of Iraq And Syria Vice Now Controls.”

“The headline is so clickbaity, The Onion could never run it,” Brew said, “but the joke it ends up hitting in the way that an Onion article would hit.”

Brew helped launch Clickhole after a two-year stint as a Onion writer. He started working at The Onion through its fellowship program, which was right around the time that he first started thinking this sort of writing could be more than a hobby. Before then, he’d written for Brown University’s satirical newspaper, but hadn’t expected the craft to take him places after he graduated.

“It’s really the only kind of writing I’ve ever been good at,” Brew said. “It’s always been there, off to the side in my life.”

Now, Brew works with about 25 people to generate content for Clickhole, and the more time that passes, the more he feels like they’re all figuring out the site’s voice.

“Sometime five or six months after the site started, writing started to feel less focused over what Clickhole should be and more into the actual jokes,” Brew said, “and the group really started to click then.”

And focusing on jokes more has made Brew realize that he and his staff still have a lot of material to work with.

“There’s so much unexplored territory, so many formats and so many Internet tropes,” he said, “There are plenty of people online making jokes… there’s never been a site as visible as Clickhole is doing it, never a collected center. It feels new.”

Diversity and Variety Propel Chicago’s Goodman Theatre

By Amy Ross

Many know it for its annual production of A Christmas Carol, but it is through diversity and variety of that the Goodman Theatre truly propels itself forward after almost 90 years of serving the Chicago theater scene. The largest and oldest non-for-profit theatre in the city, the Goodman combines a largely new repertoire of productions with some popular shows returning in subsequent season after successful premieres.

“We tend to do more large-scale work than our larger peers, and a greater variety of work in each season; because each of our resident directors has a distinct aesthetic viewpoint as well as different cultural backgrounds, the diversity of our work is usually greater than that of other companies,” said Steve Scott, the Goodman Theatre producer and member of the Goodman Artistic Collective. Aside from its annual production of A Christmas Carol, which has been consistently remounted for 37 years, the Goodman produces eight subscription productions each season; five in the Albert Theatre and three in the Owen Theatre.

In addition, it typically presents or co-produces multiple special events such as as the New Stages Festival, an initiative born in 2003 to give playwrights an opportunity to take risks and experiment. “Nonprofits companies such as the Goodman exist to do artistic work and programs that bring cultural or educational benefit to the community, so plays produced by those companies are apt to be less readily known, more serious thematically, or more controversial,” he said. The size of the cast and crew of each production varies greatly, oscillating between as few as two actors, in Venus In Fur, to as many as 29 actors and an orchestra of 1,1 in Brigadoon.

The Goodman’s permanent year-round staff consists of about 150 people, including administrative and technical employees. Each season, it jobs around 200 people total for productions and special events. The Goodman does not have a resident acting company, although it does have resident directors and a resident sound designer.  Each season, approximately 80% of the actors are based in Chicago, as are about half of the designers and at least half of the directors. 

Making living as a theater artists remains a challenge because many companies are small offer limited pay. Most wind up working day jobs outside the industry or in teaching, administrative or other non-artistic positions. For organizations like the Goodman, the growth and consolidation of the Chicago theater industry have also lead to increased competition for high-profile projects, for audiences, for first-rate artists, and for financial support. Many more resources are destined toward fundraising, especially at larger institutions such as the Goodman, where the development department has grown to 16 people, in addition to the effort and time of many other senior staff members.

According to Scott, who has overseen hundreds of productions in his career at the Goodman, Chicago houses over 200 professional theatres, most of which produce very high quality work. Furthermore, the community of theater critics is notably receptive to innovation, compared to other cities. “Chicago has a much larger audience for theater than most other cities,” Scott said, “That audience support allows new theaters to spring up with great frequency, and older theaters to grow and survive.” The Goodman Theatre is located at 170 North Dearborn Street in the North Loop Theatre District. 

The 90th Anniversary Season includes 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Rapture, Blister, Burn, and August Wilson’s legendary Two Trains Running.

Fundraising Vocal Recital for Genesis at the Crossroads Organized by MSLCE Student

By Kathryn Elizabeth Lawson

Our students are hard at work securing their summer internships, but some students have also secured part-time internships during the winter and spring quarters as well. Case-in-point is Kaitlin Very, who earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern in Music in 2011.

Kaitlin is interning for Genesis at the Crossroads, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization led by Wendy Sternberg. Genesis focuses on art-based global peace building and conflict resolution, working across the world for the past 15 years, and has partnered with such organizations as the Kennedy Center, the Chicago Children’s Museum, Rotary International, the US Department of State, and the United Nations.

During her internship, Kaitlin will be organizing a vocal recital that will serve as a fundraising event for Genesis. Seeking Peace: a Musical Revue for Global Empathy will take place on Sunday, March 8, 2015 at 2:00PM at the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest and will feature music that highlights the major goals of Genesis.

Kaitlin will be the vocalist for the event, joined by pianist Jason Carlson, as well as by the members of the Sanctuary Choir of the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest. All proceeds will benefit Genesis at the Crossroads. To RSVP, email info@gatc.org. Suggested tax-deductible donations are $35 in advance or $45 at the door and can be made to gatc.org. First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest 700 North Sheridan Road Lake Forest, IL 60045