Career, Entrepreneurs, Slide Show — January 12, 2012 10:38 pm

Big Screen Dreams

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Young entrepreneurs launch a home-grown video-production company in Cincinnati and brew big plans for the future.

From left to right: Moonbeam Studios' Stephen Sargent, Dan Marque and Tim Neumann check a camera shot to determine the best placement for the extras. Photo by Danielle Koval.

Twenty-three miles north of his Cincinnati home, Stephen Sargent’s friends and Moonbeam Studios business partners are unloading tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment into a small tent on the right side of William Mason High School’s massive football field. The multimedia production company has only a couple of hours to set up their materials before marching bands from around the state take the field for competition. At 8:30 a.m., however, Sargent is still asleep.

In his defense, it is Saturday morning, and his Friday night was not exactly what you’d call “quiet.” Having barely made it home the night before, 21-year-old Sargent—a third-year University of Cincinnati student and Moonbeam Studios’ co-founder—is catching up on sleep, but not for the reasons you might expect.

Sargent finally went to sleep at 4:30 on Saturday morning. That night, he had not been up late doing homework and he had not been partying or living it up as college students tend to do. Instead, he’d been working at a local, non-profit concert venue called The Underground. In addition to being part of The Waking Point, one of the featured bands of the evening, Sargent had been in full Moonbeam mode: He was in charge of 30-40 high school student workers, nine digital SLR (single lens reflector) cameras, and a show streaming live on the club’s website, which focuses on the people and the performances of The Underground.

Moonbeam co-founder Stephen Sargent, pictured here in video-editing mode, has learned to function on very little sleep. Photo by Danielle Koval.

On the night before a job, Sargent and the Moonbeam crew spend endless hours preparing equipment and assembling materials, making sure everything is gathered and ready to go. That’s how every job has gone since the beginning, and today would be no different.

Sargent began making movies with his friends in eighth grade and started taking senior photographs with a professional-grade camera his junior year of high school. His technological interests expanded when friend and bandmate Dan Marque wanted to record their music with Marque’s family-owned sound equipment. Another of Sargent’s friends, Kyle Ebersole, expressed his interest in design and graphics. “Dan wanted to do recording for our band, On A Basic Thursday,” Sargent says. “Then we thought, ‘We should do this for other bands.’ I did video stuff as well. Kyle liked Photoshop and did that. He pursued it in college and began to make designs. Boom. Moonbeam.”

The three friends put their skills to use on the new endeavor in every way possible. Sargent, who started working at the Underground around this time, met Micah Simms and invited him to bring his video expertise to the company. Simms was already the owner of his own production company, Roaming Gnome Productions, and initially opted to continue to work on his own. But after a lot of convincing on Sargent’s part, Simms joined Moonbeam Studios. The foursome–all between the ages of 19 and 21–set out with very little startup cash; Sargent was still borrowing equipment and taking senior pictures of his friends to generate operating funds. But as the group’s reputation spread among Sargent’s photography clients, Moonbeam began getting more jobs and more opportunities to take professional senior photos. The group began to collaborate frequently on photography projects, videos and recordings, and soon Moonbeam Studios grew into a legitimate business entity. In summer 2010, the group acquired its LLC (limited liability company) status, and in fall of that year, received a federal tax ID. Moonbeam Studios was officially a professional organization.

But there’s nothing professional about being late. On this particular Saturday morning, Sargent’s business partners are frustrated that he has yet to arrive in Mason for the high-school marching band shoot. By 10:20 a.m., he appears, and nobody is happy to see him. The team members see no use in arguing, though, so the atmosphere calms. But not for long: This is a band competition, after all, and things move fast, so the Moonbeam team continues to prepare by mounting video cameras, getting batteries charged and setting up computers for the soon-to-be intense barrage of picture and video editing. It’s a cloudless November morning, and the temperature is hovering in the mid-40s. It’s chilly, but far from intolerable. The sun is rising, but Marque warns that there won’t be a reprieve from the cold. “It never gets warmer,” he says as he throws on a jacket over his sweater. “It just gets colder because your body dies a little bit as time goes on.”

One of the tables set up under their tent is covered with Starburst wrappers and taped-on signs, while the Moonbeam crew’s backpacks, computers and monitors are sprawled across both the table and the area surrounding it. It’s not the best working environment for an aspiring professional media organization, but it will do. “I hope to have a company one day that doesn’t duct-tape their prices to the table,” Ebersole says.

Dan Marque sets up a camera while Stephen Sargent observes, flashing his trademark smile. Photo by Danielle Koval.

Between fall 2009 and summer 2010, Moonbeam Studios made just under $1,000. In 2011, the group raked in more than $15,000. The goal is to make even more money in 2012, and even to get a price list that requires no duct tape. But there is little time for dreams today. Sargent is running up and down the bleachers, trying to set up his video cameras to get the perfect shot of the competing bands. The crew is used to setting up cameras for an event like this because they worked the same competition last year. They were not, however, prepared to run video on every band’s show. They got the gig after Mr. Video, Mason High School’s preferred videographer outfit, gave up the job.

Sargent looks calm and pleased with the work of his team. He’s somewhat imposing with his height and broad shoulders—he used to dive for his high school—but the smile on his face eliminates any threat. He doesn’t look like the head of a company: He wears worn-out jeans, a worn-out black pea coat and worn-out gray shoes. He also looks worn-out; the blond stubble on his face and disheveled, uncombed hair give testament to his late night. And his hair only gets messier every time he runs up and down the bleachers, but Sargent remains focused.

Each D-SLR has only 12 minutes on every clip, so two cameras have to be prepared so each show can be captured in its entirety. While he’s in charge of these two video cameras today, Sargent prefers to take photographs—a job taken over today by Ebersole and Simms, who are snapping images for an on-site slideshow of band members in action.

It takes a lot of high-end equipment to get the job done, and the crew that launched Moonbeam had meager startup funds. Photo by Danielle Koval.

The camera that sparked Sargent’s interest in photography was one owned by his girlfriend’s mom. Four years later, Sargent’s girlfriend might not have changed, but his gear has. A short time after that initial experience, he bought his own camera, a Canon 7D, and after working with the equipment and starting to take senior pictures for his friends, Sargent realized that there was a part of him that wanted to start a company. “I’m a perfectionist; I like perfecting images,” he says. “I wanted to start this company just because of the entrepreneur in me. [I liked] the idea of working for myself and doing my own work and getting paid for it. You really feel ownership. You create yourself.”

Suddenly, Sargent decides he wants to get Starbucks coffee for the crew as an apology for being late. He darts downstairs and out of sight.

One performance later, Sargent reappears without coffee and slowly walks to the center of the stands, where his video cameras are set up. Marque and Ebersole didn’t want him to leave, he says. “We had a crisis down there,” he says with a sigh. But there’s a smile on his face, too. His relaxed demeanor sets him apart. Everyone else is stressed, angry and frustrated with this new environment and new set of challenges, but Sargent seems to relish in the pressure and in the novelty of shooting a marching-band competition. “To communicate with administrators, heading a project sometimes is exciting for me because…I don’t know how to explain it,” Sargent says. “It’s exciting to be in charge of a bigger thing, especially if it’s something new.”

Although running Moonbeam Studios is hardly something new for Sargent, his formal education as an entrepreneur began only this year. Sargent came to the University of Cincinnati as an engineering major and switched to business with a focus in entrepreneurship at the beginning of his junior year. “I liked engineering but it didn’t hold my attention,” Sargent says. “I knew I liked business because I had been running Moonbeam for a year and a half. It’s a pretty laid-back program. I’m probably going to be in school longer than necessary, but I don’t mind.”

Kyle Ebersole holds up a piece of tissue paper to help diffuse the light in the scene. Photo by Danielle Koval.

While the nature of school may remain constant, the environment and attitude of Moonbeam changes every day. And although Sargent is the managing partner and producer of Moonbeam Studios (as well as a co-founder), conflict sometimes bubbles up over who is in charge of what. “A lot of the learning process in Moonbeam is learning to work together,” he says. “Once you learn to do that, you can move forward. Kyle and I are similar. Naturally, we butt heads a lot. If we arrange a project, usually I’m in charge, and usually Dan and Tim [Neumann, the fifth member of Moonbeam] are second in charge. We’ve learned to define roles before we do a film. If there’s ambiguity, there’s fighting. We like to be clear [about] who is in charge of what. You can’t have multiple people in charge of the same thing. It works out really well once you learn to do what you do, because there’s a lot of potential.”

That potential shows when the bands take a break and Sargent and the other Moonbeam members load their videos and photographs into their MacBook Pros. The crowd that has been slowing gathering around the tent starts to hum with energy. Murmurs turn to chatter, and the chatter turns into full-blown conversations.

“Where am I? Where am I?” a short blond girl yells.

“I just want to see our photos!” another girl screams.

Luckily, Moonbeam is operating like a well-oiled machine. Ebersole and Marque are uploading the pictures to flat-screen monitors outside the tent, while Neumann handles pre-orders of videos and Simms sits for a quick break. Sargent is overseeing the operation, smiling again. This is his element. By the end of the day, Moonbeam will have collected $700 in video pre-orders; more money will roll in later in the week from the high-school bands’ picture pre-orders.

The business cards and coupons set out on the table at the beginning of the day are almost gone now, and the crowd has died down to only a handful of people. The crew is laughing, reminiscing over a time Sargent threw a Starburst at a young boy looking at pictures.

“He was looking right at me!” Sargent yells in his defense as he and the group roar with laughter.

The team works together best, Sargent says, when everyone is clear about who's in charge of what aspects of the shoot. Photo by Danielle Koval.

Prospects are looking good for Moonbeam: It won’t always be band competitions and senior pictures, Starburst fights and duct-taped signs, D-SLR video cameras and late-arrival Starbucks. Sargent and the crew hope to make enough money to live off this company’s income and make an imprint in this media-oriented world. “Our long term goal is to make enough money to hire people to take pictures and to do jobs that we don’t want to do,” Sargent says. “We want to make music videos and movies with storylines. We enjoy the creative aspects, which sometimes don’t come out in senior pictures. We like to create as a team, but we have to make money, build our business. We do our best to be creative but our goal is to create our own stuff.”

But right now, Sargent and the Moonbeam team still have work left to do as another band takes the field. Two Mason faculty members approach the crew and inform them that Mr. Video ended its contract with Mason and will not be doing any of the school’s future band competitions. This is good news for Moonbeam Studios, which could become Mason’s go-to all-purpose media production company.

In the background, Olentangy High School’s marching band takes the field and appears on one of the flat-screen monitors the Moonbeam team has set up on the table. “It is said that every great journey starts with a single step,” echoes the monitor in the tent as a precursor to Olentangy’s show.

Sargent smiles again. Boom: Moonbeam Studios just got a little bigger. 

 

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