The story so far∑
Look back over at the past five years since Pro-image was publicly listed in 1984 and it's easy to see how fast it has grown from the company that know one knew to the first name that springs to mind in video post-production. With production houses in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and New Zealand, Pro-image, in a typical day, produces an average of 35 commercials or corporate programmes, distributes 3,500 movies to the public through its CEL subsidiary and duplicates 8,000 cassettes for the local and overseas market.
The company employs over 500 staff who operate the country's largest video editing, facilities, outside broadcast fleet, video duplication facilities and the largest library of movie titles for sale or hire. Though it has no ownership stake in any television network, Pro-image is responsible for a broad range of production and post-production facilitating of programming.
Most major sporting events from basketball and football to golf and surf classics are facilitated by Pro-image's Outside Broadcast Division. Several of the top concert programmes of the past few years including INXS- In Search Of Excellence, John Farnham's Whispering Jack Live, Under The Southern Cross and Richard Clapton's recent live album and video were recorded by Pro-image's specialist music video teams who have also been responsible for most of the great Australian rock clips and those of several overseas artists of the past decade. The company produced the internationally acclaimed Suzies' Story AIDS documentary which has gone on to be viewed in over 35 countries and won a Logie, United Nations, Media Peace Prize and whats considered to be the Pulitzer Prize of broadcast journalism, a Peabody Award.
And in any given commercial break, it's likely that at least one 30-second spot or more was realised through Pro-image's network of production and post-production facilities. "How Pro-image has gone from 'Who?' to 'Wow!' was the headline of a major magazine piece on the company a while ago and it's the best way to describe its growth. In an industry which is generally regarded as volatile at best, this company continues to strengthen and grow, retaining its position as market leader. The story of Pro-image, from its humble beginnings in Adelaide, has entered a new chapter with the completion of construction of its new Pro-image Post facility in Sydney which offers the latest in digital video post-production and is the largest post-production house in the Southern Hemisphere.
In 1983, a small Adelaide video production facility which specialised in the outside broadcast of local sporting events was purchased by a group of Melbourne investors and corporate managers who saw an opportunity to turn around an operation with vast potential. Blackwell Image Resources was formed with the present Pro-image chairman John Kavanagh at the helm. Current group managing director, Rob Williams, joined from Channel 7 at its inception and the management team that was put in place continues to this day. The company soon took an open warehouse and transformed it into a modern studio with edit facilities and it became a leader in the Adelaide market, expanding its base with commercials and corporate video production. In late 1984 it was performing well enough to float. Pro-image Studios Ltd was created for listing on the Australian Associated Stock Exchange.
In 1985, Pro-image expanded into Melbourne with the acquisition of Video House Pty Ltd and a year later acquired the business and assets of Video Color Facilities Pty Ltd, which added outside broadcast capability to the Video House studio and post-production operation. A programme of modernising and refurbishing the two components of Pro-image's Melbourne operation started to cause worry for competitors who had regarded the facilities as near death and the Pro-image mob as video upstarts. The real shock came when Pro-image entered the Sydney market, purchasing the business and assets of Enterprise ColorVideo in June 1986.
ECV, Sydney's largest independent video facility, had been in receivership since February 1985 and, like its Melbourne counterparts, had been rumoured to be at death's door. The Pro-image Group compounded its investment in purchasing ECV through an extensive upgrading of equipment and created the largest network of post-production houses in the country. In late 1987, Pro-image's them parent company, Quatro, snatched Communications and Entertainment Ltd from a planned acquisition by the Taft Hardie Group. CEL had several divisions - home video sell-through and rental titles as the chief operation linked with a theatrical distribution arm, the major Sydney and Melbourne VTC production houses as well as New Zealand's Vidcom, the Duplication Centre and the Video Channel training films divisions as primary components.
Within a year of Quatro's acquisition of CEL, its entire operation was in turn purchased by the Pro-image Group and combined with existing facilities. While Pro-image dominated the video production market, the immense investment in Disctronics coupled with a shakeup in the CD market proved problematic for Quatro which had acquired Pro-image's share of the CD manufacturer. In April 1989, John Kavanagh acquired 43 per cent of Pro-image from Quatro, resigned from the Quatro board, acquired enough of the reaming stock of Pro-image shortly thereafter to take control and is now firmly in the driver's seat. Pro-image's six divisions now include: Electronic Communication, which comprises all the production and post-production facilities; Pro-image Duplication, which is the country's largest video cassette duplicator: Pro-image Television, which produces programming for local and overseas sale: Pro-image Outside Broadcast Division, handling sports, concert and special events production: Video Channel, which produces and distributes training films and has the rights to the highly acclaimed John Cleese series of motivation videos: plus the CEL home video and theatrical distribution entity.
Each of the six divisions is responsible via an executive director to the managing director, Rob Williams. The Electronic Communications division is headed by Peter Colby. Under him is Sydney's Pro-image Post general manager, peter Skillman, while Pro-image in Melbourne is run by Rob Osmotherly, Pro-image Adelaide by Wayne Chritian and Auckland's Vidcom by Bob Rising. Pro-image Television is under Graham Ford, who reports direct to Williams, while Paul Hardie heads up Outside Broadcast. Barry Bridge is in charge of keeping the tapes rolling at Pro-image Duplication, while CEL's executive director and chief executive is former Vidcom general manager Allan Golden, who is also responsible for Video Channel where Stephen Shaw is general manager. In a little over five years, Pro-image has become the most dynamic and profitable organization in the Australian video market, successfully diversified its operation and attracted the top technical, professional production and management personnel in the field.
Its people and products keep winning awards. As an example, over 30 per cent of last year's FACTS winners had Pro-image involved. Pro-image is a company with over $175 million in assets, but as chairman Kavanagh states, "Our biggest asset and the reason for our continued growth is the quality of our people."
Staff the key to success∑Skillman
WHEN Peter Skillman was 'headhunted' to succeed Steve Priest as general manager in 1985, he was just 24 - the youngest general manager of a major post-production house. Since then he's directed the dramatic turn around of ECV from receivership, through purchase by Pro-image in 1986 and into profit over the past few years. Prior to joining the Nine Network in 1979, he'd taken the film course at North Sydney Tech and completed the AFTRS Open Course with a view to breaking into television. At Nine, he rose quickly from cameraman to in-house studio and outside broadcast director and then to the commercials production division as a commercials director. After a year, he was asked to manage the division, in 1984.
As he recalls: "When l was making up my mind whether or not to take on the immense challenge of running ECV, a lot of my peers urged me to make the safe choice of staying in television. But I didn't want to take the corporate network whirl.
"When I looked at joining ECV it was scary, I could the heart of it was the people, not politics and the problem was a need for strong management and direction which the Pro-image Group brought to it.
"I was amazed that it was in its third receivership and still going. The bosses get a lot of the credit for turning the situation around, but the reason it survived then and has prospered now is clearly the loyal and dedicated staff - most of whom are still here after four years.
"But we're not nearly as successful as we‚ll be in the foreseeable future."
Vehicles for Video Visionaries
FOR the past 15 years, 166 Willoughby Road in Crows Nest has been the address of the most innovative production house in the country. From imaginative three minute rock clips to the most inventive commercials on television and a broad range of television programs, documentaries, corporate videos, producers and directors made this production house their creative home. The outside looks pretty much the same as it did when it opened. But over the past five years, the facility known as Enterprise ColorVideo went through a financial crisis, a takeover that changed its name to Pro-image ECV and now a transformation into a new name - Pro-image Post - and a new era of creativity.
Since last September, clients using the "fantasy factory" have had to contend with massive renovations which were part of a facilities upgrade and re-design that has just been completed. The result is much more than a change in identity, it‚s the addition of a whole new building behind the Willoughby Road facility, the merging of staff and equipment from the recently closed VTC sister complex and the integration of a new generation of digital video technology. A lot of new gear and the same dependable old faces are what clients expect. But they will probably most appreciate the covered parking for their coveted cars first before they walk into the biggest and most dynamic change this facility has undergone since its birth.
It may seem odd to compare Australia's most modern video post-production facility to a major car rental company, but in essence, that's the analogy Pro-image Post general manager, Peter Skillman, is fond of using. "In terms of the latest in video technology, the telecine film to tape transfer facilities, new editing suites and enhanced audio capabilities, it seems we have the Star Wars equivalent of a post-production spacecraft," Skillman says proudly as ha describes the exhaustively refurbished two connected buildings that comprise the new Pro-image Post complex. "We look at our 13 separate facilities a bit simplistically though, much like a top rental car company views its fleet though we fondly call our fleet of suites 'Vehicles for Video Visionaries'.
"Our markets positioning demands that we meet the needs of all levels of budget and post-production values. Were neither elitist nor pedestrian.
"If a documentary maker needs a 'Video Volkswagen ' minimal facility such as an off line suite, we can meet his budgetary constraints.
"If another client doing a music video wants a mid-size edit suite for a clip or long form, we can service his requirements without his having to pay extra for space and equipment that is non essential to his needs.
"But for the commercial maker that demands a Space Shuttles worth of equipment, or a Rolls Royce type of video post production vehicle, we can offer the latest in digital technology that provides a galaxy of possibilities to make that project launch his clients product into orbit! Dare I say horses for courses. But Skillman's stresses that it is the technical staff of editors, maintenance, and support personnel who represent the most important aspect of the dazzling expansion that Pro-image Post has just completed.
"Our staff is like a racing team because our clients are always in a critical struggle with their time with as well as their budgets.
"We have to keep the vehicles on the road all the time at their ultimate performance potential and we have a goal of no break-downs while the race is on. The clients, the driver, we furnish the machines and the team.
"And if they need a co-pilot to help drive their project home, we can provide our own in-house producers and directors who have a circuit of credits on the international fast tracks." Skillman says.
From people to production values our attitude is 'Every thing you want, all the time'."
This attitude carries over into the design of the new facilities, most evident in the editing suite. Each of the new edit bays has its own adjacent private office with dedicated phone line and fax machine so that clients can stay in touch with the office, make and take calls while still keeping an eye on proceedings through a window into the suite as well as having meetings only a step away from the work space.
"Our clients businesses don't stop running when they're working for hours in an editing suite," Skillman says.
"We can offer the best machinery and people but we felt that one hurdle a lot of clients need to overcome in a production situation is being out of touch, often when they most need to be - with office, other clients and projects outside the one with which they're involved.
"And with their own fax and phone lines, there's never a problem a waiting to get something in or out or running down the hall to make a call."
Another welcome addition for clients and staff alike that's created a lot of positive feed back is the new kitchen area which is contained within the building - this in addition to Willoughby Road kitchen.
At the pace they're producing, it takes two chefs and a lot of fuel for the catering requirement of clients and staff alike which often rival their need for the latest equipment. The equipment list is extensive in the 3 telecine suites, 4 on line and 2 off line edit bays, two audio suites and 3 client viewing rooms. There's the AVA Computer Graphics System, the Abekas A53 digital effects and five ADO ports, the Abekas A64 Digital Disc Recorder and the D2 VTR in addition to the extensive range of the finest post-production equipment available. For film - to - tape transfer there are two Rank Cintel MK lllC telecine chains which have been extensively customized. On the audio side, Pro-image Post has an automated Series 34 60 channel Sound Workshop desk with AMS Audio File driving the only 48 track Sony digital tape machine in the Southern Hemisphere. It's created quite a demand among the rock 'n' roll clients who've been a mainstay all along with their clip and long form projects.
Evidence of this is two recent projects. WEA Records digitally recorded a live album for Richard Clapton using the facilities at the same time that a 90-minute television program was recorded in front of a selected audience of Clapton's mates. And Jon English is currently finishing his recording of the music for his long awaited "Paris" rock-opera which features a 'Who's who' of singers and musicians. As Skillman describes it, there is just as important an emphasis on audio as video quality in the new facilities: "There's always been a perception that a video post house can't be used to produce quality audio.
"It's a perception that the often ailing recording studios in a competitive environment like to foster - that the only place to do audio is in a studio - and they added a lot of audio-to-video equipment to keep this market all to themselves.
"On the other side of the coin, a lot of producers looked at audio as the bastard child of commercials because they assumed that everyone listened to television through two inch speakers. That perception is changing too because consumers are connecting their televisions and VCRs to their stereo systems expecting better sound.
"There are a lot of commercials that have been saved by the audio track, just like a lot of dud songs have been saved by a great clip.
"We've always had a dedication to serving the music industry and their demands are often more immediate and discriminating than commercials clients.
"Music is a perishable product, they can't afford to wait and everything has to be perfect because the record companies don't buy time on clip programmes, they have to supply a production value that makes programmers want to play their three-minute creations over and over.
"In the old days, ECV was viewed by many of our TVC clients as rock 'n' roll warehouse but they've seen the clip makers they encountered leaving the suites in the morning emerging as today's most in demand commercials and feature film directors.
"From ECV to the present incarnation of Pro-image Post, we've made an industry out of music video and though it didn't contribute heavily to our profit margins, we saw it as an investment in talent and its paid off in loyalty from both the professionals who've grown with us as well as our dedicated record company clients."
With individual clip costs often exceeding six figures, they frequently surpass production and post-production budgets of large commercials. Record companies - most notably CBS, WEA, EMI, Polygram and BMG - generate a lot of business with their own television ads and concert specials as well. Yet, as Skillman says, music video constitutes only 15 per cent of the current Pro-image workload with commercials accounting for 40 per cent of billings, corporate videos 20 per cent and combined documentaries, mini-series plus television programming post work taking a matching 20 per cent of time. The remaining 5 per cent are odd jobs and direct clients. Although the company handles a few direct clients with moderate budget commercials, corporate videos and small video projects, Skillman is quick to point out that Pro-image is not in the business of chasing business in opposition with clients as was the case with previous management.
"ECV lost the plot early in the piece when it tried to be more entrepreneurial by being the producer," Skillman says. "They ended up competing with a lot of independents who didn't have the resources - on one side trying to get their business and the next month trying to get their clients.
"Some people in the industry saw the situation as, 'You stab my back, I‚ll stab yours∑' instead of a mutual back-scratching. We view our job as facilitators for our clientele, not competitors to them. It's a part of the past we've worked hard to overcome.
"We've had to overcome a few other hurdles too, chief among which was our going into receivership when everyone thought we'd be going out of business shortly or the rumours had us dead in the water already.
"A lot of clients stopped using us because they felt if we went into liquidation, they'd never get their projects finished, much less retrieve what we had in the vaults.
"Plus, our gear was getting old and the building run down cause of the cash crunch. We couldn't turn the situation around until Pro-image took us over, invested in new equipment, provide management restructuring and allowed us to do what we always did best - provide a reliable facility with the most modern equipment at the same time that we developed new business and encouraged new talent.
"Throughout our past, we've always taken the punt with creatives by assisting the up and coming directors and producers when they've needed our resources to realize their projects.
"To help them out, we haven't always played by the rules and gone by the rate card or payment terms with them, often stretching both to unjustifiable lengths according to our accountants.
"But the result has been their loyalty, continuing business as they developed bigger budgets and more clients, and our development of staff who've worked side by side with some of the most brilliant yet under financed talents in the video business.
"It was an important investment in the talent pool of this industry, just the same as we've made in upgrading our own facilities."
Skillman points to the large number of varied clients and their diversity of requirements as the key to Pro-image's flexibility in dealing with all types of productions. It's about relationships and Pro-image and Pro-image tends to maintain long-term marriages of creativity with both local and overseas producers and directors.
"Although our main business comes from Australian agencies and professionals, we're getting a lot more business from overseas and a tremendous amount of enquiries from Japan," Skillman says.
"They're attracted not only by the landscapes and the uniqueness of Australian locations but also by the world-class facilities we offer at what they perceive as third world budgets when compared to post-production prices in Tokyo.
"And we are scoring business from the UK due to our long term relationship with Russell Mulcahy who prefers to work and edit here as opposed to London and who has been our greatest publicist in that market.
"As for the US, we're seeing more and more commercials producers coming over. They're very demanding of our crews and have high expectations of facilities. We've been able to satisfy them to a great degree because of our experience in working with Americans in the past both on commercials and music video. Plus, we have the technology they take for granted over there but is often hard to find at other facilities.
"But in the end," Skillman concludes, "it's not the smart machines that make the difference because anyone with finance can buy technology. It comes down to the creative minds that push the buttons, slide the faders, grade the film and have both the professional aptitude and attitude to instill confidence in clients.
"That's what we really are offering at Pro-image Post: professional people, professional approaches to solving problems and new vehicles for creativity."
Upgrading in Melbourne
SINCE the merger of VTC and Pro-image Productions in July, the Kavanagh Street facility in South Melbourne, now called Pro-image VIC, has undergone a major facelift with the addition of Edit 3 and Audio Sweetening 2.
The complete facility now offers an impressive range of services including three online edit suites, two audio sweetening departments, AVA Electronic Graphics, a Rank Cintel Mark lllC enhanced Digiscan telecine chain, plus two off-line suites with Shotlister systems. A large 18m x 12m studio rounds out the facility. Edit 1 and 2 are identical in equipment, with ACE 200 computerised editing systems, Ampex Century 3 M/E row vision switchers connected to four VPR-3 1" VTRs with Zeus ADOs with concentrator and infinity, CCD colour and mono cameras plus Betacam and Betacam SP capability.
The mew, upmarket, Edit3 features a Sony BE 9000 computer editor, Grass Valley GVG 300 vision switcher with Omni key and key extenders, two channel ADO and Questech digital effects, four one-inch tape machines and CCD colour or mono cameras plus Betacam SP. An impressive array of equipment, but as the general manager, Rob Osmotherly, puts it, clients are attracted more by people than the machinery. "We've got a strong team of editors in Alan Fairlie, Paul Hannaford, Wally Marcinel, John O'Halloran, Rob O'Neill and Michael Vann and the telecine team of Deidre McClelland and Michael Irving," he says.
"In any analysis of our facilities, l'd put the people first."
Osmotherly headed VTC from early 1987 after staring as business manager two years previously and he took over the combined facilities in June of this year. Also joining from VTC were chief engineer David Parkes, production head Jenny Trigg, producer/director Ned Payne, who team up with the young Pro-image production team of director Grant Pitchford and producer Mark Bradley. Osmotherly is especially proud of the two audio suites, the main one boasting a Harrison Series 10 64-channelautomated console with Editron 500 synchroniser linked to a PCM 3324 digital 24 track and Otari MTR-90 24 track with a range of outboard gear and video synching capability. Audio 1 and is equipped with a 16-channel MCI auto-mixdown desk and MCI 24 track also with Editron 500 and outboard equipment.
The audio side is reinforced with a top mix of operators Michael Slater, John Campbell, Anthony Bohun and Debbie Brockwell. Telecine has had continual upgrading to incorporate features in demand for critical film to tape transfer requirements. The Rank Cintel Mark lllC has full-pin registered 35mm gate with an 8mm and 16mm gate and 35mmslide gate, a Digigrade IV primary colour with X-Y and zoom capabilities along with an Ultimatte 5. It's an extension of Pro-image VIC's dedication to supplying the best telecine operation for commercials, documentaries, television programs plus corporate and general video. Another source of pride for Pro-image VIC new look facility is the Ampex Video Art System - AVA for short - a versatile and powerful videographics animation and editing device which creates superb digital quality cost effective graphics and animation for television and other high quality applications. It's not only a video artist's 'electronic canvas and palette' with millions of colours, blends, textures and variety of brushes, it also renders and creates beautiful fonts with endless permutations and has a long memory with a storage capability of hundreds of images for ready recall.
Operator Gilbert Moase has an "open door" philosophy with the AVA, making it an integral part of the "ideas factory" and team approach at Pro-image. "We don't have an inner sanctum mystique or shrouding of technology," Moase says. Even with access at short notice, great ideas are readily translated into excellent award winning images.
Our largest duplicator
∑ getting larger. AS Australia's largest duplication facility, Pro-image Duplication produced over two million units last year and expect, an increase better than 10 per cent for the current financial year. In the run up to Christmas, three shifts will work seven days a week to provide the capacity required by it's clients. At present, over 1,000 duplicating machines are all capable of reproducing hi-fi stereo tapes. Duplication chief Barry Bridge says that over the past two and a half years, a large investment in new machinery and improving the condition of duplication equipment ahs resulted in higher quality output as well as increased capacity which has been absorbed by a heightened demand.
"The only other duplication we do is a little 8mm (Video8) with 19 machines dedicated to that work," Bridge says. "We also do submastering, trailer reels, compiles and other odd jobs on both 1" and U-matic format. "Our five one-inch mastering machines are about to be increased to seven. Although we don't have the equipment for PAL/NTSC conversions, plans are afoot to have this installed in the Pro-image Group in the near future." Bridge is continually reviewing and assessing the latest in duplication technology. Soon to be announced, Pro-image Duplication will make a major leap into high technology manufacturing techniques which will set the standard for quality and service in the Australian duplicating industry.
Bridge's background includes managing the duplication division for Videolab from1985 to 1987 when he then went to work for The Duplication Centre and was made general manager in early 1988.
The structure for people to grow
PRO-IMAGE Group chairman John Kavanagh points to Pro-image people as the major asset of the company.
"One of the challenges to the company has been to provide a framework in which all staff can grow to the level of their individual needs as well as building their talents, thus creating staff stability.
"We also promote from within the organisation as a policy which our staff recognise and strive for.
"One thing we've steadfastly maintained is the need to keep the talent we have developed over the years, attract the best technical and professional personal in the local industry as well as bring overseas pros to join us where their specialised qualifications fit our needs," Kavanagh says.
In a business sense, Kavanagh attributes Pro-image's continued success and phenomenal growth to several factors: "We were in the right position at the right time and in this business, timing is critical. We had a belief in the future of the industry while others fell by the wayside.
"Through a controlled aggressive investment policy, we've managed to continue the momentum we started and keep our facilities at the forefront of technology. We also realise we're going to have competition and we watch our opposition without becoming paranoid."
Kavanagh acknowledges two of the chief problems the group had to overcome "The first was controlling our expansion and keeping to the original blueprint we'd laid out. Our solution was overtly going back to the knitting. Also, our former ownership association and confusion between financial press commentary and our actual operational performance caused people to misunderstand the direction and accomplishments of the Pro-image Group as opposed to Quatro's and Distronics' performance. Our solution was to remove the former association and be fully on our own,"
Kavanagh confirms there will be little or no activity outside the television industry: "We have no aspirations to become feature film producers nor to own or manage networks. We aren't planning to fly our own satellite nor to do things which are beyond our scope of operations. Certainly we won't compete without clients.
"Basically, you'll hear more about our expansion of people and resources, getting bigger and better - that's our goal."
Asked his idea of an appropriate corporate motto, he says: "Don't look back because that's not the direction we are walking."
'Winning the race is setting the pace'
As executive director of Pro-image Electronic Communications, Peter Colby's goal is to guide the company through the developing stages into the future with innovative and progressive management.
As he describes it: "To win the race, we must set the pace. We see the success of Pro-image being being attributed to the belief in the industry and the dedication to grow and develop and let others chase you." He describes Pro-image as "A people driven organization providing innovative high technology services to the industry.
"We have to maintain a high profile of our human side rather than the machines they drive. And the challenge ahead is to maintain the momentum of growth with total commitment to service and performance." He sees the company taking a number of directions, all of them channeled into a critical path. "During the massive expansion programme, maintaining a management structure that was strong enough to support the growth and keep the direction clear was the chief hurdle we had to overcome," Colby says.