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Déjà View

Moving pictures: Kevin Schaff is CEO of Thought Equity Motion.
Mark Manger

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."

There's a lot more to find these days. In March, Thought Equity, in conjunction with CBS Sports and the NCAA, created NCAAOnDemand.com, where fans can access just shy of 5,000 games in a variety of sports. Some can be screened for free, others are downloadable for a fee, and many have been put on DVD. And last month, Thought Equity announced a pact with NBC News to digitally master and distribute footage from more than a half-century of broadcasts and reports.

Some of Thought Equity's store will likely wind up in highbrow documentaries, but plenty of other stuff is apt to be seen in everything from commercials like the aforementioned Dr Pepper spot to TV programs such as CSI: Miami, which has used establishing shots of the city purchased from Thought Equity. As Schaff asks, "Why go to all the trouble of shooting new footage as the sun's going down when you can type in 'Miami at dusk' and save yourself a lot of time and money?"

Capitulation — sort of: As reported in the August 2 Message, Canyon Courier scribe Heath Urie joined his paper in suing Jefferson County over a July gathering attended by county commissioners Kathy Hartman, Jim Congrove and Kevin McCasky that Urie's crew saw as a violation of state open-meetings laws. On August 21, the commissioners blinked, and two days later, based on a stipulation by the opposing parties, District Court Judge Tamara Russell found that the get-together in question — an employee chat at which budgetary items were discussed — should have been open to the public. Jeffco agreed to comply with the open-meetings law for future meetings and pledged to pay the Courier's $3,500 attorneys fees.

Not that the commissioners have shown much contrition. Prior to settling, they twice discussed the lawsuit in executive session, thereby excluding the press and public. In addition, a Hartman newsletter provided constituents with a private e-mail address they could use if they didn't want their comments to become part of the public record; Congrove, who'd earlier conceded that the July meeting had been mishandled, voted against the settlement, laughing at Urie when the reporter asked why; and McCasky sent a letter to county employees essentially claiming that the commissioners had done nothing wrong and asserting that a legislator has promised to "examine this matter in detail in preparation of legislative action in the 2008 session." When Urie confronted the commissioner about the letter, he says McCasky told him he'd voted to settle only because taking the matter to court could have cost the county in the range of $50,000, and the ruling could have gone either way. Then, after the conversation ended, Urie adds, McCasky tried to make their exchange off the record retroactively — a basic violation of the entire process. In Urie's view, "He's public-relations illiterate."

Lucky for McCasky, Urie is no longer on his tail. On August 28, Urie started a new gig at the Boulder Daily Camera. Still, he notes, "I'm hopeful my replacement will continue to stoke the fires under the commissioners."

Burn, baby, burn.


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