By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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To date, Brad Pitt hasn't agreed to be a celebrity endorser for Dr Pepper — but there are far fewer than six degrees of separation between the mega-hunk and a job as a Pepper pitchman. Not long ago, the beverage company needed some rugged mountain scenery for a commercial. Rather than spend big bucks to create these visuals, however, the firm contracted with Denver's Thought Equity Motion to borrow what was needed from Seven Years in Tibet, a 1997 film in which Pitt played an Austrian mountain climber who befriended the Dalai Lama during the mid-1900s. As a result, imagery originally intended to convey spiritual enlightenment was transformed into a way to peddle soft drinks.
In today's media environment, such unlikely juxtapositions are becoming more and more common. Much as hip-hop producers sample old songs to create new hits, filmmakers and videographers of every stripe are using snippets from the planet's now-vast visual library as building blocks for their own projects — and Thought Equity Motion has become the nation's fastest-growing supplier of such material, thanks to strategic partnerships with a slew of major media corporations. NBC, HBO, National Geographic, the NCAA and Sony Pictures Entertainment, which holds the rights to Seven Years in Tibet, are among the firms in business with Thought Equity, giving the enterprise a catalogue of tremendous width and breadth.
"We represent over $4 billion in media rights," notes Thought Equity chief executive officer Kevin Schaff, "and we've aggregated four million hours of content from the most exclusive collections in the world. That's about 40 percent of all licensable motion-based content available online."
As Thought Equity's stockpile has grown, so has its operation in general. The venture initially consisted of a Denver headquarters, located in a LoDo office that bears the marks of rapid expansion, and a plant in Laramie, Wyoming, that specializes in hands-on technical matters such as digitizing celluloid. In early 2005, Schaff and his crew opened another office in Indianapolis — and over the course of the past twelve months, they've added branches in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Tokyo and Sydney. "We wanted to make our services as accessible as possible," Schaff says. "We feel like we're in all the right places."
Schaff, a fast-talking, hyper-energetic firebrand in his early thirties, founded Thought Equity in 2002 with the idea of helping out the little guy. "When major advertising agencies pitch businesses on a commercial, they'll fully develop five or six concepts, but the company will only buy one," he explains. "So we'd buy the other four or five, aggregate them and sell them to medium-level businesses. That way, they could get top-level production value at a much lower cost."
Problem was, finding Internet-accessible visuals to supplement or personalize the ad-agency leftovers proved more challenging than Schaff anticipated. "There was very little video to license online — less than 100,000 clips, as opposed to 50 million stock photographs," he says.
To Schaff, this situation smacked of opportunity, but he couldn't exploit it without convincing repositories of moving images to let Thought Equity serve as their agent. HBO Archives, a service with lots of first-rate footage from various sports (especially boxing), is among those that signed up — but Max Segal, HBO's director of licensing, concedes that it took a lot of persuading. "We looked at some pretty big players," he says, mentioning Corbis Images, founded by Microsoft's Bill Gates, and Getty Images, "but most of them were 95 percent focused on stills, and we were afraid we'd get lost in the shuffle. And meanwhile, bubbling underneath it all, was this unknown company in Colorado, and as people got to meet Kevin and learn more about his vision, it seemed they were the best complementary mix for us. So we just sort of closed our eyes, rolled the dice and hoped for the best." More than a year later, Segal continues, "The things they have promised and our expectations are totally in sync." As a result, Thought Equity recently began handling an enormous HBO Archives acquisition: the March of Time collection, composed of film (nearly 70 million feet worth) depicting cultural and historical events, most of which was originally seen by pre-1967 movie-goers in the form of newsreels that ran in theaters.
Jocelyn Shearer, vice president of video licensing and archives management for National Geographic Digital Motion, oversees a similarly sprawling range of content: nature footage that dates back as far as nine decades, not to mention television specials that have been produced for 35 years. For her, Thought Equity's concentration on video was a significant draw. "There aren't square-peg, round-hole issues you run into with other companies," she maintains. But she also touts the ease with which users can explore Thought Equity's stockpiles. Back in the day, a producer looking for a shot of, say, a prowling tiger would have to explain what he wanted to a librarian, who would pull together and send off multiple shots that might or might not fill the bill. At ThoughtEquity.com, however, customers, and just plain folks, can instantly view the actual visuals using a technically superior platform. (Two broadcast-quality prowling tigers are available for $249.) The footage rolls as soon as the cursor is placed over the window; no clicking is required. According to Shearer, "Their speed views are excellent, and their search and retrieval is the best in the business."