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HomeCraftsPostproductionL.A. Studios Special: The Company

L.A. Studios Special: The Company

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Margarita Mix Hollywood looks more like an upscale restaurant than an audio-post facility. Hidden away behind a gated wall on Romaine Street, in an otherwise semi-industrial area, the facility boasts a colorful south-of-the-border décor. Its outer parking area is tiled and foliage-clustered, and its reception area and studios are laden with Mexican sculptures, paintings, columns and pre-Colombian artifacts—all of which give the operation a pleasant, museum-like vibe. The intention is to produce a shift in consciousness, allowing employees and clients to be more relaxed and creative than they might be in a cold office environment. The same is true at the company’s two other locations: Margarita Mix de Santa Monica has a similar Mexican décor, while L.A. Studios on Cahuenga Blvd. has an “island international” design.These are first-rate audio post facilities, among the best if not the best in the country, with a staff of veteran mixers and the latest in 5.1, 7.1, and hi-def technologies, and with a total of 18 studios capable of accommodating anything from voiceover talent to symphony orchestras. But visitors to Margarita Mix feel that they have entered something more than a mere technical facility. The décor, along with the company’s unique systems of management and employee ownership, give the impressing of a political collective, an art space, a celebrity clubhouse (major stars come in daily to record voiceovers and commentaries) and a radical enclave of the Religion of Sound—all rolled into one.The story of L.A. Studios/Margarita Mix begins almost 25 years ago when Sonny Blueskies and James Bunz Bredo, two hippie jingle writers from Northern California, arrived in Los Angeles and quickly discovered that there were no quality houses for postproduction sound for commercial spots. “Commercials, even in LA back in the late ’70s, were even more the bastard stepchild of the industry than they are now,” says Jesse Meli, CEO of L.A. Studios Inc. “There were a couple of small houses but nothing really big—just second-class joints with coffee machines in the hallway. So these guys said, you know, if we can figure out a way to elevate the status of commercial mixing, there might be a market out there we can capitalize on. So they set up one of the rooms at the place where they were writing jingles, which is now L.A. Studios. One room became two, which became six. And then they took a concept and really pushed the envelope, creating this over-the-top thematic environment. The first theme at L.A. Studios was the urban jungle, with zebra carpeting and giant giraffes.”Radio spots were the initial source of revenue, but as business evolved, clients asked about mixing television spots as well. Video and film editing equipment was added. In a few years the company developed a client base that required a whole new building. “And that’s where the idea came up for the Margarita Mix concept,” Meli explains. “They were going to take the concept of the ethereal environment and really push the envelope. They planned a Mexican hacienda, a mansion.”Designed by Liberty Blueskies, the wife of one of the co-founders, Margarita Mix Hollywood was nationally branded from day one, says Meli. “I’m from New York and I knew about it. Both coasts knew about it. There was nothing like it, and there still isn’t to this day. They opened up with three rooms; they had five rooms within six months, booked to capacity.”L.A. Studios opened in 1979, Margarita Mix Hollywood in 1989, and Margarita Mix de Santa Monica opened in 1999. (In company lore the dates are called “the three 9s”.) Though each location caters to all manner of productions, Meli points out that the industry is geographically divided in LA, with commercials centered in Santa Monica, and film production farther east. Hence, each facility has gained client bases corresponding to the prevalent form of production in its area.Meli runs through one day’s schedule: in Hollywood, work is being done on a DVD for the movie Sahara, commentaries for C.S.I.: Miami, a voiceover for a Kmart commercial, two McDonald’s commercials, the Rocking the Corps concert for the troops, an industrial for Marantz, and a spot for the Cartoon Network; in Santa Monica, Oliver Stone is in, and there are spots for Honda, Dodge, Verizon, McDonald’s, and Sit ’n Sleep. At L.A. Studios, two TV shows for Disney, two Disney home videos, the Mickey Mouse Club, a Duracell commercial with Jeff Bridges in for voiceover, Winnie the Pooh, and another animated feature. “And that’s the day before a holiday weekend,” Meli says.The company is well known for its internal promotion and long-term employee loyalty. Jane Curry, currently the general manager of L.A. Studios, was at the company at the very start, as the receptionist. One of the reasons for such employee spirit is the company’s ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) structure. As Meli explains, “In the mid-’90s, the founders of the company were slowly fazing themselves out. So they said, okay, we’ve made all this money, now we want to somehow diversify our investment, and reward the staff for making us wealthy. They didn’t want to sell the company because they were afraid that somebody else wouldn’t be able to maintain this very unique culture. So the concept of ESOP came along.”Creating an ESOP involved leveraging the company to obtain a large amount of cash, which was then converted into stock and given to the employees. “Since then, we’ve been grooming the staff to be not employees but employee owners. And it’s a whole different operation.”David Guerrero, CMR of L.A. Studios and holder of a chair on the company’s employee/owner culture committee, explains further: “The ESOP owns stock in the company, and each employee has an account in that ESOP, which is based directly on their compensation.” Percentage of ownership is based on a vesting schedule. The employees own 20 percent of their stock after three years, and the percentage rises until they own 100 percent after seven vesting years. Because the ESOP is structured as a retirement plan, the stocks cannot be sold on the open market, but instead are cashed in when the employee becomes eligible for retirement. “They can elect for early distribution at 55, sell the stocks back to the ESOP, and the money obtained is meant to be used as retirement income,” says Guerrero.The ESOP, along with regular meetings of the employee/owner culture committee, increases employees’ sense of pride and involvement with the company—a fact that is responsible for what Geoff Nathanson, general manager of marketing and strategy, calls the “special vibe” at Margarita Mix. “A client came in yesterday to do a show for Bravo in Studio C, and he said that the vibe he got in here was something he’d never felt before. It was his first time working here and he sensed something really different than what he’d felt at some of the other corporate companies. And I said, this company is owned by its employees; it’s a unique situation. It was built by the independent spirit of guys that had a real passion for doing what we do. Independent spirit plus passion equals what you see here. That’s why nobody can duplicate it.”Making the client feel at home is a top priority. Jonathan Whitehead, general manager of Margarita Mix de Santa Monica, points out that clients are contacted ahead of time regarding even what they want for lunch. On one occasion a client fell in love with a giant Aloe plant in the facility’s atrium, which was promptly dug up and given to her as a gift. “Collectively it’s about going the extra mile for clients, who just don’t get that kind of treatment elsewhere,” Whitehead says. And the Santa Monica facility itself, built in 1999, was actually de
signed and outfitted using information drawn from polls and questionnaires distributed among the clients.Of course, the greatest client service is the quality of the audio work. Jane Curry points out that clients often determine which facility to use based on the reputation and skills of a specific mixer. “They want our expertise. Often they have a project in mind and they know our mixers well enough to know which one is perfect for the project.”

Written by Henry Turner

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