From The Super Bowl Comes A Survival Story
If you blinked or looked away from your TV, you might have missed it, but a slice of Traverse City flashed across the screen during last month’s Super Bowl broadcast. But take a look back at Ford’s minute-long Super Bowl ad titled “Finish Strong,” and you’ll see: At the 47-second mark, there is a group of ballet dancers on the floor of Cathedral Barn in Traverse Historic Barn Park City.
How did this excerpt from the local film find a place in Ford’s ad about life beyond the pandemic? The story begins with Practical Films, a Traverse City-based film production studio that shot the footage long before the pandemic. A similar take – also of dancers in the cathedral barn – can be found in Practical’s short film Find Me Up North, a love letter to northern Michigan that premiered in 2018 at the City Opera House.
As a studio with both a commercial side (Practical has worked with clients such as Traverse City Tourism, Short’s Brewing Company and the NBA) as well as a creative studio (alongside Find Me Up North, one of the missions of the founder of Practical Films, John Paul Morris), feature-length films in Northern Michigan), the company should have a banner year in 2020. Practically started with a long list of commercial projects in the pipeline and had just completed production for his first feature film – an upcoming – of-age “bromantic comedy” called Quicksand – in the fall of 2019.
“We had a lot of projects in the pipeline and it looked like it was going to be our biggest year ever by a considerable margin,” says Morris. “Then all of our projects canceled or did not manifest, except for one, and even the budget for this project was cut in half. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we basically made 10 percent [in 2020 revenue] of what we would have because the shutdowns and the coronavirus are just wreaking havoc. “
Morris adds, “If we were just a commercial production company – which we actually were a few years ago – I wouldn’t be talking to you about my company now because I wouldn’t have one anymore.”
Fortunately, there was grace to save – and it wasn’t a feature film, as film festivals and theaters were also pending.
Instead, Practical survived thanks to a company called Filmsupply, a licensing agency whose business model Morris describes as a high-profile twist in the stock footage market. Instead of producing and selling stock footage that is used solely as stock footage, Filmsupply works with several hundred top film studios and licenses footage “from their passion projects” to create a curated catalog of cinema-quality stock video. Practical’s library on Filmsupply currently contains 2,176 clips from 80 recordings – including footage from Find Me Up North and other projects.
Practical Films has been part of the Filmsupply family for several years. But it wasn’t until the pandemic broke out that the full importance of this involvement became apparent. At the same time that Practical’s clients were canceling projects, countless other companies and advertisers around the world were doing the same. This relocation left Practical without most of the expected revenue for 2020, but also provided Filmsupply with the ability to meet massive industry needs.
“Production is ceasing across the country and around the world,” Morris told The Ticker. “Advertisers still want to advertise, but they cannot put the film production together due to restrictions. So suddenly it becomes clear that anyone with access to pre-recorded footage will win the promotional game. It found that people who can’t take photos are looking for footage that they can use. We’ve been able to share a lot of it with a wide variety of companies, and the income from licensing our footage kept my company going with flying colors last year. “
In addition to the Ford Super Bowl ad, Practical Films also released footage of Jeep, Mazda, and the Biden / Harris presidential campaign last year – to name a few.
For his part, Morris believes Practical Films has been granted a lifeline. When Filmsupply launched its ambitious licensing strategy a few years ago, only an exclusive number of studios worldwide were invited to join. Morris recalls feeling humble at the time, but he never thought the invitation would be what saved his business.
The storm is not over yet: while film production has resumed in many places around the world, the commercial market has not yet recovered. And while Practical has more commercial projects planned for 2021 than realized last year, the pipeline is drier than Morris would like.
Nevertheless, the filmmaker strives to make the most of his company’s second chance. Practical’s follow-up to Find Me Up North, a short film called Winter that was produced over the past three months and was officially released on Friday. The company is also in the post-production of Quicksand, which Morris will hopefully have completed and ready to submit to film festivals by June. Ideally, the film would be sold to a studio or streaming service, which would give Practical the means to begin preproduction on a more ambitious project: a futuristic science fiction epic called Future Kings.
Most of the time, however, Morris is just happy to stand still. “I’m optimistic,” he says. “I think we got through the worst.”