Where Have All the Post Houses Gone?

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Once upon a time - say, a year ago - there were post houses, and we knew who they were. Post Perfect, 525 Post, Manhattan Transfer. Their names wore their functions on their sleeves. But where are they now? Manhattan Transfer became Riot/Manhattan, 525 Post was folded into Riot/Santa Monica and Post Perfect is gone, to be replaced eventually by what Creative Content Artists' chief David Carmen describes as a "talent-driven, digitally-oriented content studio." And you can bet "post" won't appear in its name. Few companies call themselves post houses these days. There are creative services companies and design studios and finishing boutiques, but hardly a post house in sight. Has "post" become a dirty word?

"I don't think being in the post business is a bad thing," says George O'Dwyer, executive producer at Austin-based "creative editorial boutique" 501 Post. "But calling yourself a post house sounds like a factory, because a lot of the houses were factories," he explains. "What I hated years ago when I got into this business were the post facilities - the post factories - where people came by and dropped their shit and said, 'Here are the time codes, assemble it and we'll be back in an hour.' That's what we're all running from."

"The paradigm of how we used to work 10 years ago in the post business was that clients would come in in the morning and do telecine, get their cut in the afternoon and walk out with a spot, and everybody had their role," says Jack Schaeffer, president of The Finish Line in Santa Monica. The roles are still there - telecine, offline and online editing - they're just not where they used to be. The falling cost of digital editing equipment and the multiplication of platforms has led to an almost endless variety of hybrid boutiques. Online and offline. Online and telecine. Compositing and effects. Online, design and effects. "The traditional word 'post' has changed," Schaeffer says. "We're not just editing tape anymore like we have in the past. We're manipulating pieces of data."

Postproduction veteran Michael Porte observes that the industry's paradigm has changed dramatically, despite the fact that the post process has remained essentially unchanged. "Postproduction is still the same," he says. "It's everything that happens between the dailies and the final product. It was always separated into different parts, the online portion and the offline portion. The meaning of postproduction hasn't changed. The meaning of online and offline has changed." Increasingly, offline houses are adding online and finishing capabilities that have traditionally been housed at large post facilities. "The model has changed, especially in New York, where there will eventually be no large post houses, because they can't survive," he adds

If "post house" is disappearing from the industry's lexicon, a term that is long gone is "facility." As Porte observes: "No one can call themselves a facility anymore. I doubt you can call anywhere and have them tell you they're a facility." The designation everyone endorses, on the other hand, is "boutique." " 'Boutique' is still important, because it means you, as the client, are the most important thing," Porte says.

"Boutique," of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Smaller shops write larger ones off as "facilities," while the latter, like Liberty Livewire's Riot franchise - which managing director Richard Cormier likes to describe as the "largest boutique" in the world - cultivate a small-shop sensibility. As Matt Miller, president of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, jokes, perhaps "post house" has been replaced by "Riot" as the designation for large, vertically integrated facilities. Even for Liberty, however, specialization has proved a viable strategy. "We have maintained that creative boutique feel," says Stefan Sonnenfeld, president of telecine boutique Company 3, which he founded with 4MC (now part of Liberty) in 1997. "We have the best artists in the business, but at the same time we're trying to utilize the infrastructure of a large company." With editing suites at large post houses going unbooked as edit houses took finishing in-house, Company 3's telecine-only model hit on the right formula and the company is expanding to New York, where it will share space with Riot/Manhattan. "We have a specialized boutique and it's all talent driven, because everyone can buy the equipment," Sonnenfeld says. "And besides your talent, you have to have the environment, and you don't get the environment by moving into a 10-story building with a corporate feel."

The emphasis on talent over equipment is a mirror of marketplace demand. As Saatchi & Saatchi head of production David Perry observes, "The job really goes to an editor and not to a facility. It goes to a person. We make the decision based on personality and skills." As far as the repositioning of "post houses" as "creative services vendors" and the like, Perry is somewhat ambivalent. "There are a lot of euphemisms in this business," he says. "All sales reps are executive producers now. But there is some logic to it, because what in the old days was just cutting film is more than that now. We do a lot of things in post that we used to do in the shoot, so post may be too limiting a term for what they actually do."

Not to mention that since an offline house and a telecine shop are both involved in postproduction, "post house" no longer tells you anything about what a company actually does. "I think the reason postproduction is turning away from post as a name is because it's not really post anymore," says Brian Gaffney of The Finish Line. "We're starting and finishing. And with all the consolidation in the industry there has been a lot of rebranding, where people are saying they're an editing/design/finishing house. It's almost like finishing has become a trouble-shooting process on the final product and we usher it through the pipeline. We're getting more interwoven with the production process."

"The gear is ubiquitous," says Harley Rinzler of Harley's House and Playground (formerly Click3x/Los Angeles). "So how do you distinguish yourself? You distinguish yourself with your project management skills and your client service skills." Rinzler describes his operation as an "end-to-end creative solutions provider," which can handle creative and many functions in-house or hand them off to other vendors, managing the process along the way.

With the increased involvement of post services in all aspects of production has come increased respect for the creative aspects of postproduction; something the industry promotes by shaking off the soulless connotations of the crumbling post facilities of the '80s. "For a long time, people felt that editors weren't given their due for their creative input," says the AICP's Miller. "There tended to be an image of a guy who was between 50 and 100 pounds overweight, watching the clock and pushing buttons. That's just not the reality."

"A good creative editor brings you options, where before they just pushed buttons," adds 501's O'Dwyer. "There was no such thing as a creative editor a long time ago. I think what drives the changes in the industry is there are people out there in the post business with a creative instinct that's being appreciated now, where before it was never asked for, so it wasn't given." "For whatever reason, clients are always seeking that new look and they're asking all the members of the food chain for ideas along the way," says The Finish Line's Schaeffer.

But what clients are asking for from postproduction changes so rapidly, that almost any moniker might soon be outdated, as new formats and platforms come to the fore. "I can see so-called postproduction companies becoming the broadcast companies of the future," Schaffer says. "Post is really becoming a whole new manufacturing center for all kinds of content."

For those who make it to the future, at least. As the AICP's Miller observes: "If I were a post business, I would wear it on my sleeve, because I think it's one of the most difficult businesses to be in right now. Technology moves so fast that you have to be completely up-to-date in the post business or you're irrelevant." Riot's Cormier agrees. "I think the challenge of every company is being able to change very quickly," he says. "You need to build a culture based on change. Change is cool. Change is good. Right now this is how we have to be for our clients - and next week it will change all over again."

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