in PLSN Interview
PLSN: How did you begin your career in the entertainment industry?Mitch Kaplan: My entry into the visual arts started in 1978. A schoolmate and I secured the rights to sell the print services for 3M brand Scanamural, the first large format, ink jet printer. This was the beginning of digital printing. It eventually evolved into billboard size, photo quality print vinyl graphics that you see everywhere. In 1988, Large Format Digital video display evolved from the technology of pixel manipulation. We were pioneers and the times were very exciting. Our very first sales call netted a $250,000 rush order for a sports marketing company. That was our catalyst into the digital world.
What was the defining moment that
made you want to be part of the industry?
I remember visiting a tradeshow called TS2, a tradeshow for tradeshow people. There I met Arthur Milanese from Philadelphia PA. He was representing a video wall product from Europe. The Gunderman 4x4 CRT monitor wall system sold for about $180,000 at the time. I explained that I might have a customer who would be interested to purchase one, and I needed a resellers’ agreement. I went back to the very same customer that bought the digital print (10 years earlier), and they loved the system so much, they bought two of them. After that sale, I don’t recall selling print graphics again. I was hooked on the digital age of video display. Arthur passed away in March 2009, but his family still operates the business, now called Video Visions, in Philadelphia. The technology evolved from CRT monitors to CRT projectors, then LED rental and staging, permanent LED installation design, then mobile and architectural and creative displays for broadcast.
What was your next step in bringing
this technology into the entertainment business?
My next sales call was just outside Philadelphia, Pro Video. The GM of the company loved the system and agreed to buy one, but only if I joined the team. He would provide labor, a showroom and a sales force to market the technology. Back then, the monitors were 27-inch CRTs in a simple metal box for airport displays and Pac-Man games. There were no labels, certifications, top or bottom stacking hardware.
The young men setting it up were like kids at Christmas. Once stacked, cabled and powered up, the picture was completely upside down. They called me in have a look, and I see about 10 guys all bent over at the waist, with their heads upside down watching a video from a Laser Disc player. (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, I recall.) They had set the entire kit upside down.
How did you get involved or start
The general manager of the Hi Fi store wasn’t 100 percent honest with his boss. He told the owner that I brought in the video wall system, and they were just renting me a demonstration space. It was a great gig until the year end, when the big boss came in to reconcile the checkbook. He quickly learned that his general manager had actually purchased the system outright, and gave me a job. When the truth came out, the GM thought it best I leave (immediately). We worked out a deal that I keep the demo kit and pay it off in installments.
I moved the system to Select Audio Visual, in New York City, where they introduced me to the folks at Viacom. Viacom was renovating seven or eight floors at 1515 Broadway. I helped to integrate video wall systems for all the reception areas. From there, I met a lot of the players with MTV networks, VHI, Nickelodeon and other networks.
We also provided displays for ABC and NBC for shows like SNL, Good Morning America and ABC News. New York was the best thing going for our small company in the 1990s. I commuted to New York for about five years, taking the train from Philadelphia each morning and returning at night.
What are some other projects that Video WallTronics has worked on?
My first tour was with Paul McCartney in 1991. I provided the Electrosonic Picbloc digitizers kit for the 60-foot-tall rear projection screens. The PJ-5055 projectors were triple-stacked on scaff towers doing stadium tours.
With that experience, we were soon doing lots of television sets, special events and trade show booths. The 1990s were great, business-wise. The biggest change was when LED hit the market in 1998. Going outdoors, with daylight-viewable LED screens, changed everything. Since then, resolution improvements, high refresh rates and amazing grayscale capabilities have chased us full circle, into television sets, trade shows and permanent installations — efficiency, brightness and reliability.
All the experience we gained from rigging, power, time and labor efficiency has been instrumental in how things are implemented in our design of the LED panels. Parx Casino (in Philadelphia) has installed a lot of our products, and are more than satisfied with the power. We now sell to the rental and staging market, as well as make purchases for our own inventory.
Having done business with Lighthouse Technologies, Toshiba Techno Rainbow, and several Asian-produced LED screens, we entered into a North American distribution arrangement with digiLED. Our custom-designed modules are selling and renting very well. Our certifications for RoHS, FCC, TUV and CE are legitimate, and engineered stamps for electrical and metalwork are increasingly important. I am pleased to say that our industry safety standards are strictly adhered to.
Our 500mm square, curving modules allow unsurpassed creative opportunity. Everyone is raving about the image quality, reliability and ease of use. The number of modules built so far surpass 5,000. We have rental kit in Europe, South Africa and North America.
Any general words of business advice?
A lot of people ask me who my competitors are. I don’t think of anyone in our industry as competitors. I see them as colleagues and associates. First, they are my friends. My advice to anyone trying to be successful in this industry, or any endeavor, is to look at the money last. I am not saying ‘money isn’t important,’ it is. Sounds crazy, but if you put the cost of things aside and determine what people need, give it to them. Be fair in your profit margins, live up to all your promises, and, most important, do a good job. Do all these things and the money will come in. It’s your name and your reputation that must come first. In the end, that’s all you have.
Any other thoughts to share
with our readers?
The industry is changing quickly. Safety consciousness is finally taking a front seat. The venues are seeing the light and demanding electrical certifications, rigging and hanging calculations, FCC certifications and engineering stamps. We have set aside the cost to do things right. Developing a new product line takes a lot of follow-through to make the perfect LED screen. It’s important to deal with reputable companies, designers and factories that can deliver what you ask for.
I think we are living in interesting times. The recession has taken its toll on small businesses, weeding out the weak ones, and strengthening the ones that have been able to make it this far. The future looks bright; business is really strong, and bookings for 2013 are quickly filling our calendar.