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The Zacuto Revolution

Weiss Breaks Down the Hows and Whys of Zacuto’s Success


Over the course of the last few years, Americans have been bombarded with tales of doom and gloom
and images of businesses closing laced with statistics of an economy that fails to render anything more than increasing unemployment.  Every now and then, however, a ray of light pierces this darkness in the form of businesses not merely surviving but flourishing during this recession.  Zacuto is one of those businesses.
Since 2005, Steve Weiss and his partner Jens Bogehegn, transformed their production company into manufacturing some of the most innovative and well made production tools in the industry.  From there, they were able to transcend themselves yet again and return to their first love, production.  Not only have they produced some of the most entertaining and informative programs on the net, they have also pioneered a new way of marketing which has had an effect on the over all growth of Zacuto.  If that wasn’t enough, they have also garnered an Emmy in the process.
Recently, Steve Weiss squared a few minutes from his busy schedule to talk about his roots, Zacuto and the future of production.

How It All Started

CM: How did you decide short form digital films would be good for your business?
SW: I was in production for twenty years prior to starting Zacuto.  From 1982 to 2002.  That’s really my true love, film production and photography.  Allot of people don’t really know that about me, they think I’m really a product designer.  I’m really not, I’ve been shooting since 1973 and Jens was my DP since 1986.  Jens and I have done over 600 productions. I did a lot of interviewing and documentary type work, and my final project was an interview with Rudy Giuliani right after 9/11.
CM: Was there something specific about that interview that made you quit?
SW: I was contracted by an ad agency doing a campaign for Nextel phones, and there were about thirty or forty in the room.  They were grilling me about what kind of questions I would ask Giuliani, and they insisted on being in control of it all.  The way I would do my interviews, I would do a forty-five minute interview and I would really learn about person.  We would talk about our lives, baseball and make small talk, and the agency guys would say, “Oh no you’ve got to get right in there and ask these questions.”  I was like, he’s never going to answer these questions.  I knew from experience I had to establish rapport with him before he would open up to these questions.  I got sort of nasty, and essentially told them I’m going to do it my way, and if not you do it.  In the end I got what they wanted plus I got some incredible archival footage for myself, but then after that, Jens and I were walking down Times Square and it was like, that’s it I’ve had it!
CM: And the first thing you guys started doing was rental?
SW: Yea, I said I just want to take a break for awhile, and we were renting HD cameras to outside productions. We had quite a bit of equipment ourselves  and then bought some additional cameras and had some nice tricked out packages.  The Indie film market was infinitely smaller than it is today.   Because at that time it was still expensive to shoot on 16mm, and no one wanted to shoot on video.  Then we bought two of the HD Vericams and started to rent them.  We figured this could really help this whole indie film scene as a less expensive alternative than film.   So that was sort of our goal was to support the indie film market.  The we started manufacturing, and the rest is history.

Back To My Roots

CM: So what prompted you to move back into production?
SW: Around 2007, we came to the conclusion we missed production, “So what can we do?”  We sort of sat down one day and said let’s do a web series.  This was sort of a new idea at the time.  We had all of the resources, and we had tons of cameras and guys to run them.  So we said we can pull this off.  And I just kinda remember that scene in Good Fellas where they’re sitting around the table, and I though that would be a great venue for creating sort of this interesting dialogue.  We could make it really filmic.   So then we said let’s just do it, and the cool part about it was it was really the first time in my whole life I could just do whatever I wanted.  I always had a client saying do this or do that, and it was actually hard at first.  We had to figure our what we wanted.  We were always kind of looking around for someone to tell us what to do.  And it took awhile…
CM: So the first series you did was “FilmFellas”?
SW: Yes, and then we did a shoot out when the 5D first came out.  Literally the day it came out, we had a pre-production model. We had a RED, a Vericam, a 35mm film camera, HVX200 and a 5D.  That was the very first Shootout.  We went to different cities both for screening and for shooting.
CM: What was your budget for the 2010 Great Camera Shootout?
SW: It almost reached six figures. Just flying all these people here and there and renting limos and different things.  We wanted it to be right.
CM: Do you feel like video production is a good marketing model for other businesses?  Why do you think more companies are not jumping on this?
SW: I don’t know WHY other people aren’t doing this. I’ll be really honest with you I don’t know anyone who is doing this on the level in which we are.   We brought two million people to our website, what the hell is that worth?  You have to look at it in sort of a dollar quotient.  I have so many people here get upset that we’re not enough in print magazines.  I just get this every day, “Look here’s so and so’s ad, and here’s everybody and they’re all in the magazines.” And I’m like we’re not in there because we don’t put the focus on those things.  The best magazine in our industry maybe has a circulation of 30 thousand, and an ad costs $4500.  Of that, maybe two thousand see your ad.  Maybe fifty of those people will react to that ad.  So you’re spending $400 per person. With our productions, I’ve bought two million people to our website.     In comparison, I’m spending pennies a person to get them to my website.


CM: Can you tell me what the budget is for FilmFellas?
SW: That’s a good question.  It’s hard to answer for me because we go through our rental department and we grab six dollies, we used to do it with all our own guys.   You’re looking at about a ten person crew. It’s a one day shoot, but they set it up about two days before.  It takes two days to set up the set.  Then we’ve got some food, and you’re feeding people for three days, then you’ve got the post production on five episodes could be some bucks, but I have these guys on staff anyway.  Again I don’t know what it would cost.  I would say you’re probably looking at 6 to 8  grand an episode.  That would be shot all at once.
CM: How did you schedule your production dates for FilmFellas?
SW: We bring the cast into Chicago the night before, sometimes more, for the AFC one, we brought Rodney in two days before so he can get rested so they’re all fresh and rested. They come in about 10AM we do a little meet and greet, but we specifically try not to talk about anything because…you just constantly want to start talking about shit and then what happens is people are on the show and they say, “Just like we were saying before the show…” We do a photo shoot for the poster we sit down and usually the crew has our caterer does our food for the show and the entire crew.
Then we have lunch and when we have lunch we sit down and do the eighty minute shoot.  After we yell cut, the entire crew and the cast ensues in the conversation.  That lasts another our.  It just never ends because everyone wants to react to what has been said, and then people start flying home.
CM: I have to ask, are you guys really eating that food and drinking all that wine when your filming?
SW: Oh yea! Our chef, he does a lot of parties for us down here and he’s amazing. With some casts, you never eat because the conversation is so intense.  You just forget that there’s food there.  But I noticed on the first cast everyone cleaned their plate!  In order for the dolly shot and everything to work, you’d be shocked at how small the table is your sitting at.  It looks infinitely bigger.  We purposely used a small table because when the dolly is moving around there’s a lot of dead space on the corners.  It’s almost uncomfortably close to be eating for someone like me…Jens, when he’s hosted these he’s perfectly fine with it.
CM: How long do you plan on continuing the FilmFellas series?
SW: Technically we’ve done our final episode, we haven’t released them all yet, but they’re shot.  We come back and do a special with an outstanding type of show like all directors, but these series are an outstanding amount of time.  Basically we have sort of wrapped that series.  Because I think we’ve asked all the questions that can be asked. We’ve done 8 casts.

The Emmys & The Great Camera Shootout 2010

CM: In regards to the Emmy how did all that happen?  Did you guys have Academy members that you guys spoke to about a possible nomination or was this a total surprise.
SW: So here’s how it all went down.  In 2009 we made the first cut where you’re accepted but not nominated.  So we went to the nomination party.  Boom!  We didn’t get nominated.  We were bummed.  I’m an Academy member from all the work I’ve done in TV, and I sent a letter to the Academy saying it would be nice if we had a web-series category in the Emmys because people are watching it on a television.  I didn’t hear anything back, but I did get a little letter that said in 2010, they were going to let web content compete in any category you want.  Which still kinda blows because now you gotta go up against television.  But we were like alright let’s go for it.  We entered FilmFellas, Critics and the Great Camera Shoot Out 2010, but we didn’t even bother to go to the nomination party.  I got an email from a friend of mine actually on Facebook, and  he’s like dude – you know you got nominated for two Emmys’ last night?
So we started looking at the competition, and I did not think we really had a chance because they were up against a Holocaust piece; it would be tough to beat.  But we just said what the fuck we went to the awards.  The way it works there’s four different categories you can enter.  If it’s for national broadcast it’s in Hollywood.  Then there’s the national and regional. There’s the western region and Midwestern and eastern for the local shows.  So the one we entered was the one in Chicago because that’s where I’m from.  The way the nominations go, is that the people in California and New York do all the voting on the Midwest, and the Midwest votes on CA and NY.  So no one in your zone votes for you.  That’s how it’s done.
CM: So what category we’re you guys in?
SW: Informational programing, and I was shocked that there was a tie between the piece on the Holocaust and the Great Camera Shootout of 2010.
CM: Do you see think the Academy will breakout a new category for webseries?
SW: I don’t know, but probably not.  The reality is when you look at what you are getting the award says, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences – a web series is not a television show.  I think their thing is television.  I don’t know why people are making these films when they should be making some kind of webisotic programing where they can be eligible for awards like Emmys.  They could have TV calling them and wanting to buy these shows from them.  That’s the cool thing with these cameras like the 5D, you can make stuff if you got skills and writing talent.  You could make something that kicks for low dough.  They don’t want to do it because they got this idea in their head that a darkened theater is the only cool thing.  That’s really what I want people to get out of this thing.  The door is wide open for the indie television market which is not even a word you’ve ever heard yet.  That’s should be what the kids are talking about – indie television.

The Future

CM: So what’s the next thing for you and Zacuto?
SW: I have two new shows in production right now:  “bts” which we’re shooting right now in Rwanda.  It’s a five part show which is a documentary about making documentaries.  We’re actually telling the story of this guy TC Johnson who’s making this documentary in Rwanda about them trying to get their cycling team qualified for the Olympics.  So our story is really about TC’s journey, and I’m documenting all of the pain and all of the cycling he’s going through.  And I’m also working on a Great Camera Shootout in 2011.
CM: What cameras are we going to see in this year’s shootout?
SW: The one we’re going to do now is going to be a large sensor comparison with film.  So it’s going to be 35mm film, Alexa, Red, Sony F3, and a HDSLR.  It’s really going to let you see all the options besides film.  That’s the purpose of this shoot out.  We’re shooting it in multiple locations as well.

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Written by Clint Milby

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