A TALE OF TWO PARTNERS THE PARTING OF A LEGENDARY DIRECTOR AND HIS LONGTIME EXEC PRODUCER REVEALS HOW MUCH THE BUSINESS HAS CHANGED

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"JON AND I HAD A STRONG BOND FOR YEARS BECAUSE IT was just me and him," says commercials director Henry Sandbank, explaining the breakup, after 19 years, of his relationship with Jon Kamen, his executive producer partner. "But the more directors a pro-duction company gets, well, it's like having a mistress."

Is this a case of jilted lovers, or simply two grown-up people who've grown apart? Maybe it's a little bit of both. Clearly, the more or less amicable divorce of these longtime companions is a story of changing priorities and shifting directions in a business not known for its rock-like stability.

As the commercials production field has moved away from being an industry of small, director-owned companies to one populated by generically named, multi-director shops, many of which boast numerous divisions and satellites, there's been something lost as well as gained. While this "bigger is better" trend makes sense in the current economic environment, for directors, particularly top-echelon talents, it can present some real problems. Sandbank, for example, believes commercials are primarily a director's medium, and directors work best when their needs are addressed by a support mechanism that puts them and the work squarely at the center. When they're not, he warns, "you're in your own orbit, and your goals are not necessarily the goals of the management of the production company." Given this potential for planetary drift, it's no surprise that he and Kamen, who's spent the last two years aggressively moving the company into burgeoning areas of new media while also experimenting with new ways of packaging creative talent, have decided to seek separate quadrants of the galaxy.

Sandbank has reclaimed the banner of Sandbank Films and assembled a new production team headed by producer Robert Berman to work with him in the studio he and Kamen built outside New York City over a decade ago, while Kamen is in the process of renaming what was Sandbank, Kamen & Partners. The new moniker, Radical Media, speaks volumes about where these two guys, ages 62 and 41, respectively, are headed. (The name is being given a fancy typographic treatment, @Radical.Media, to give it that modern Internet feel.)

What's behind this move is the basic problem that many production companies face: how do they keep their directors happy while also trying to run a successful business? As several exec producers note, these can be contrary objectives, a situation made somewhat sticky when both producer and director are equal partners. For Kamen, the process has been a "tightrope act," one that he's negotiated well but not without a scare or two. "There are times I felt like Broadway Danny Rose," he says. "It was a constant struggle keeping everyone happy."

For Sandbank, it's been a slow coming to grips with his dissatisfaction as the company he and Kamen started years ago became bigger and more diverse. "Essentially, the larger companies have difficulty in catering to the needs of the director and nurturing them," he says. "I don't think directors are spoiled, but making commercials is a very intense process. It's hard to be creative all the time."

Sandbank believes that some of the things that directors need to do from time to time to maintain their sense of creative integrity-you know, turn down jobs, rail about agencies and clients and otherwise be a little bit pushy-aren't by definition very businesslike, and this, too, can be a source of conflict. "The bigger the company gets, the more you feel a responsibility to contribute on a parity level with the other directors," he says, adding that now that he's on his own again with a smaller operation, he feels a tremendous sense of freedom.

Kamen and Sandbank went into business together back when Jerry Ford was hawking WIN buttons. It was 1975, and the director was making the transition from still photography to film. For years Kamen was a partner in the operation, but he didn't put his name on the door until he and Sandbank decided two years ago to separate their corporate entities (Kamen says he "bought out" his partner, Sandbank prefers to simply say they split the company), with Sandbank taking over the studio in Hawthorne, N.Y., and the newly renamed Sandbank, Kamen & Partners representing and producing for him.

But once this arrangement was in place, Kamen says Sandbank became uncomfortable with this new relationship, perhaps feeling a loss of control now that Kamen was fully in charge and moving ahead on his plans to remake the company. For his part, Sandbank says the new arrangement just didn't work out.

So where to now? Sandbank says that while he intends to focus on his commercials work, he also wants the freedom to pursue projects that interest him, which he says are not limited to commercials, such as documentaries. He doesn't have a rep, although he admits to getting lots of phone calls.

Kamen, who still represents directors Peter Cherry, Jeff Zwart, John Danza, Jeff Darling and Allan White, says that at Radical Media (get it? @Radical?) he wants to create something that's a collective of talent, more akin to a Tomato (see Creativity, August '94) or The Bomb Factory than a traditional production company.

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