Feature on SoureceEcreative.com May 9th, 2012
Drive Thru’s Model is Picking Up Speed
The Minneapolis hybrid production and post studio
finds its flexible, efficient look is starting to shine.
By Anthony Vagnoni
Mole Richardson’s loss turned out to be the Minneapolis ad community’s gain.
What’s a boom mic manufacturer got to do with one of the most storied ad scenes in the US, you might ask? More than you’d think.
Turns out that Mark Setterholm, the founder of Minneapolis hybrid production and post production studio Drive Thru, got his start as a sales rep for a line of production gear. After years of booking orders from production houses, TV stations, camera shops and editing boutiques, it dawned on him that what his customers were doing was a lot more interesting than what he was doing. That’s what started him on the road to opening what’s become one of the city’s best-known one-stop production solutions.
Today, Drive Thru is a dynamic beehive of activity, offering a range of services from full live action production to creative editorial, color grading (via a virtual link with Company 3), visual effects, CGI and finishing. It boasts a roster of directors and a team of celebrated editors and finishing artists whose work for agencies in Minneapolis and around the country has not only won awards, but won kudos for its streamlined efficiency and resourcefulness.
For Setterholm, the turning point between equipment salesman and production insider happened innocently enough. He was at a party of old high school classmates and ran into one who was working as an animator. “He asked if I was ever in Milwaukee, which I was, all the time,” recalls the affable Setterholm, who holds the title of President and Head of Production. “And so he booked some appointments at ad agencies and asked me to show them his work. He said, ‘Just write down the questions that they ask.’ And I said, sure.”
Some months later, a commission check from the animator arrived in the mail. “And I literally quit my job that day and started as an independent artists’ rep,” he explains.
From there his roster of talents grew – including animators, live action directors and production houses – until he began to feel, again, that what hisrepping clients were doing looked like more fun than what he was doing, so he closed his reppingservice and opened Drive Thru in 1986.
The shop started as just a production company; indeed, one of its early directors was Bob George, now Drive Thru’s Partner, Lead Flame Artist and Head of Post Production. He came out of a broadcast background, Setterholm recalls, and had directed some Clio-winningpromos for a local TV station, but was also an editor with a bent towards post production. When George started cutting work for some of the other DT directors, it proved to be the beginning of the studio’s one-stop service offering.
“All of a sudden we were doing work like this more frequently,” Setterholm explains. “About the same time, we started getting calls that went, ‘Hey Mark, I have this really cool project, but I only have this much money for everything.’ We figured if we were going to make any profit on them at all, we had to figure out a way to do everything. There wasn’t enough for two or three shops to share a markup.”
The current Drive Thru director roster includes Timothy Kendall, Patrick Pierson, Jb Carlin,Paul Henschel, David Moe, Mike Nelesen and Afshin Shahidi. Not all of them are exclusively with Drive Thru; some have arrangements with other shops in different parts of the country. In fact, the studio often works with either freelance directors or those affiliated with other production houses, according to Setterholm. The goal is to assemble the right team for the individual projects’ specs and budget. Its roster talents represent an eclectic bunch with a diverse set of skills; about half are director/DPs, giving them the flexibility to shoot their own work.
On the post side, the studio’s roster includes EditorMick Uzendoski, a mainstay of the Minneapolis ad scene who’s cut some of the city’s highest-profile spots and campaigns. He’s been nominated for three AICE Awards this year alone, for his work editing Drive Thru’s West Virginia Lotterycampaign, directed by Kendall for agency FahlgrenMortine, and for work on a Subaru campaign for Carmichael Lynch that was directed by The Hoffman Brothers at Harvest. Also on the Drive Thru roster is finishing and online artist Derek Johnson, like Uzendozki a well-known and respected artist with a wide agency following.
Setterholm, true to his roots, still reps the company, in addition to serving as EP and wizened industry pro. Working closely with him is the studio’s full time Artists’ Rep,Heather McCollum. He admits that the one-stop model that Drive Thru has championed has been around for years; what they’ve done is up the ante in terms of its various components’ quality.
“These kinds of configurations have been around since I started in the business,” he explains. What was different about them, however, is that “not every artist was top notch and respected in their discipline. What we try and do here is package the whole thing, yet also give clients top drawer solutions in every category. So for example, we’re giving them editors whose reels they’re going to like. We’re a formal partner with Company 3, so they have access to the best colorists in the world. We’re giving them an online finishing artist who’s done great work. Everyone we’re offering up has got a quality portfolio.”
The studio’s work reflects a grab bag of disciplines, depending on the client, their needs and their relationships. “We think of all of our services as our specialty and we serve them up as a soup to nuts deal when we can or we sell them a la carte,” says McCollum. “About half of our work we both shoot and edit, and the other half we just handle either the production or the post, but not both. We’ve got an extensive graphics and design arm as well, and that’s starting to evolve. So we also have a lot of work coming into the studio that’s just here for VFX and motion graphics.”
Matt Faris, V.P., Director of Production at Florida agency 22squared, has worked with Drive Thru and director Tim Kendall both at his current agency and at his previous post at Kansas City shop Bernstein-Rein, where he worked on Walmart. What he likes about the shop’s structure is that it enables better collaboration and communication.
“The online artist is ten feet away from the editor and from the artist doing the compositing, and they’re all talking,” he describes. “I know these conversations are happening.” The result, he notes, is that it’s no longer up to him “to make sure we’re shooting things correctly for the effects guys and the compositor. That’s one level of complexity that I don’t have to worry about. I know it’s being taken care of.”
Faris says a big appeal of the Drive Thru approach is efficiency. “By giving one company a bigger piece of the pie, they can work on their markups a little bit and it allows us to do more with less,” he says. And they can do this without having to make any painful concessions to the final product. “There are always compromises you have to make in any production, where you have to weigh the pros and cons,” Faris says. “And I’m sure that with some one-stop companies, by getting a certain director, you have to take the editor or finishing artist they have, too. But I’ve never felt any compromises hurt the work with Drive Thru. Quite the opposite; I felt the efficiencies you create by working with them allows you to put that money back on the screen.”
Setterholm and McCollum say that when they show their work to agencies, they present what they call a hybrid reel that deconstructs what Drive Thru has done on various projects, since it can vary from job to job. “It’s all about showing them what our solutions are,” Setterholm notes.
That was their approach on the Honda “Happy Honda Days” holiday TV campaign that Drive Thru produced last year for RPA in Santa Monica. The effort, which consisted of almost a dozen TV spots (including “Giant Offer” and “Fake Joy“), all directed by Kendall, was a follow up to earlier work they did last spring on Honda’s “To Each Their Own” campaign for the Civic (see our coverage of that campaign here).
Kendall was tapped to shoot the web video component for the campaign, which revolved around a wacky masked wrestler named Cesar and his online hunt for his missing car. On that effort (“Digital Tornado“), he not only shot the content but edited it as well. It was a reunion of sorts for the director and the lead Honda creative at RPA, Jason Sperling, Sr.V.P., Group Creative Director, as the two had worked together when Sperling was at Colby & Partners.
For “Happy Honda Days,” Drive Thru and Kendall shot Honda spokesperson PatrickWarburton as he talked about Hondas, about automotive deals, about the banality of holiday TV ads and a variety of other offbeat topics. All of the spots – over a dozen, shot in just three days – were filmed on a stage in Long Beach, and have an improvisational feel. Setterholm and Kendall both say that the creative and production team were revising scripts on the set, pulling in props as needed (they even had a team of reindeer standing by) based not just on the scripts but on whatever was working in front of the camera.
It was Drive Thru’s first big project for the agency, and might not be the last. ”Part of the appeal of working with them was not just finding a director who could handle the mix of comedy and performance, but this was also a project that had a challenging budget,” explains RPA’s Gary Paticoff, Sr. V.P., Executive Producer/Content. ”And Tim is a talented director who’s pretty good at editing, so they were able to help us with aspects of the post production and finishing.”
Drive Thru, he says, provided the agency with as complete a package as they could have hoped for. “They really were a partner with us on this, in terms of putting the whole project together and seeing it through to completion,”Paticoff says.
The ability to get as much out of the available budget as possible was a key part of the agency’s strategy. “This was Jason’s idea from the outset – with all of these holiday ads, and their frequency, he wanted to be able to maximize the amount of content we could get out of the shoot,” Paticoff explains. ”People tend to see these kinds of spots a lot, and we didn’t want them to say, ‘Enough already.’ We wanted to have this depth of work so that we could keep refreshing the campaign.”
Drive Thru’s knack for working with flexible arrangements like what they have with Kendall and some of their other directors is a bit of an anomaly in the US, where companies prefer exclusive arrangements with their top talents. Setterholm shrugs it off as an example of how they like to do things. “It’s hard to define what we are here,” he says. “It can be difficult to explain to people, because it can sound really weird, but Drive Thru is a combination of relationships. It’s a group of people who work together no matter what.”
The willingness to adapt to unconventional ways of doing business isn’t the only thing about how the company is structured. Its’ very presence in a place like Minneapolis says something about it, too. Setterholm doesn’t feel that being based there impacts their ability to deliver for clients. “If you give me a budget – because we have these relationships everywhere – I can put together a formidable solution for the project, with the best available creative and production talent,” he points out.
However, he realizes that being based in the heartland can cause some potential clients to overlook what they have to offer. “It’s frustrating,” Setterholm admits, without a hint of rancor. “Sometimes we kind of feel like we’re the girlfriend on the side,” he adds with a laugh. “I wish that geography wasn’t so hard on our industry. I wish that people didn’t get labeled based on where they live.”
And where they live is rather nice. The company works out of an airy, light-filled loft space where, based on their Facebook photos, they seem to enjoy having barbecues and beer bashes when it’s not freezing cold outside. “The people who work here have made a decision to live in the Midwest – the artists, the producers, the editors, all of us,” saysSetterholm. “We’ve made a decision to raise our families here. I have a lifestyle that I love. It isn’t that I can’t work in L.A., or that I don’t like to work in L.A., because we do. It’s just that I like my life here better.”
Published 9 May, 2012