MCAI’s Cunningham tells how corporate changes affect the way members must do business today

Back in the day, the center of the known video universe was the Chicago Chapter of ITVA (International Teleproduction Association). With 500-plus members, it was the ITVA’s biggest chapter.

At ITVA’s hub were major Chicago-based corporations?such as Amoco, McDonald’s, Abbott Labs, Allstate, CNA Insurance, Sears, Montgomery Ward’s, Ameritech, and dozens more.

These corporate members boasted in-house audio/video departments that each employed scores of permanent video professionals, hired perhaps a hundred freelancers, and produced dozens of titles a year for internal purposes.

Fast forward to today. Big corporations have merged, purged, downsized or gone under. The surviving firms have transferred their internal communications to the Web or their Intranets.

ITVA is no more. It segued into MCAI (Media Communications Assn. International) to reflect industry changes. Chicago chapter membership is just under 200.

To learn how changes in corporate video have affected MCAI members, we talked to MCAI president Jim Cunningham.

RC: Jim, you’ve been involved with ITVA/MCAI for a record amount of time. How did you first get involved?
Cunningham: I joined ITVA in the ?80s when I was based in New York, shooting oil rigs for Exxon. When Exxon moved its operations to Chicago, I moved, too, and found an environment where I could grow.

RC: And corporations were at the heart of ITVA.
Cunningham: And that made it a great place to network, share information and improve skills. I even bought a lifetime membership in ITVA because I felt it was an organization I could commit to. Corporations also paid their employees’ membership, too. Now that’s all gone.

RC: Corporate has certainly changed. How has MCAI changed in response?
Cunningham: At our ITVA meetings you could count on learning about new technology and new equipment. You could network with people in the industry, mostly from the corporate world. Today most MCAI members are freelancers, or they own their own two- to three-person businesses.

RC: Does that mean MCAI’s focus has changed?
Cunningham: Sure. Now we focus on helping our members grow their business by marketing and selling their services, although skill-building is still important. They define membership value as whatever helps them grow their business.

RC: I assume the change in corporate video has affected how your members do business.
Cunningham: It has put tremendous pressure on them to reduce their costs for shooting and editing, so production budgets and profit margins are much smaller than ever.

At the same time, the investment in equipment has come down substantially. Ten years ago a simple edit suite cost about a quarter of a million dollars; now it could cost as little as $30,000.

Although a high-end broadcast camera costs about the same as it did before, your overall investment in equipment has been reduced to about a quarter of what it was five to 10 years ago.

RC: Any thoughts about MCAI’s future?
Cunningham: We’re working through that right now. The original premise of ITVA/MCAI was for video professionals to share information and know-how. That’s far less likely today because many of the members feel they’re giving away their competitive edge.

RC: In what ways has shooting corporate changed?
Cunningham: I haven’t seen a script in years. Now I get a list of topics my client wants me to cover in the interviews I shoot. It’s very much like documentary filmmaking.

RC: You say you don’t consider yourself a director of business TV anymore. How do you position yourself?
Cunningham: I have to think of the multiple venues for which I can produce. Anything I shoot can be ported into, say, interactive CD, interactive DVDs, streamed on a Website or an Intranet, or incorporated into a PowerPoint presentation for speaker support.

I need to spend the time to keep up my chops in each of those areas. And I have to show my clients the multiple ways of using the same image. “Let’s think of offering this in five different languages on a DVD. Let’s think about compressing this, or streaming it on your intranet.”

RC: What are your secrets of survival?
Cunningham: I own my own equipment, which I buy with cash. Since I don’t carry debt, my margins can be narrower. And I’m willing to spend the time to learn and keep up.

RC: Any advice for others in the business?
Cunningham: Number one is to study technology, become comfortable with a Mac and a PC, and understand rudimentary programming. I’m astonished at the amount of computer code it takes to do even the simplest things.

Second, get comfortable with moving furniture; it takes a lot of moving to set up a shot.

Third, learn to trust the people you work with. These are good creative people with a lot of heart. The worst part of downsizing is that they’re no longer able to do the thing they love to do.

Jim Cunningham and Cunningham Productions can be reached at 630/789-9614. See mcaichicago.com.

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