Just like it prompted millions of workers nationwide to take a long, hard look at their career choices, the pandemic also led many executives to reimagine their company's business models.
Tampa marketing and advertising firm PPK is a pitch perfect example of a company that not only shifted gears, but took its entire vehicle to the mod shop for some serious, high-performance upgrades that, if not for the COVID-19 crisis, might never have been considered.
“We didn’t, luckily, face a reckoning,” says Joe Martin, PPK’s senior director of strategic partnerships. With a stable of long-term clients such as the Florida Lottery, credit union GTE Financial and tire manufacturer Bridgestone, “we were pretty well insulated … we let go of exactly zero people during the pandemic. But at the same time, new business came to an absolute standstill.”
Not content to tread water, the team at PPK, keenly aware of pandemic-drive changes in how entertainment is consumed, launched a film production subsidiary called Shoplifter Studios, of which Martin, 46, serves as president.
“Documentaries and true crime became such a big thing,” he says. “We said to ourselves, ‘We could do this.’”
Shoplifter Studios recently completed production of its first feature-length documentary film, “Nowhere Man and a Whiskey Girl,” and submitted it to film festivals. The documentary received accolades from the Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa, as well as the Arizona International Film Festival, and the plaudits have Martin and his team hopeful of a sale to Netflix, Amazon Video, HBO Max or one of the other myriad streaming services that have launched in recent years.
But with no additional significant investments in equipment and personnel, how did they pull it off? How did they make such a sudden, dramatic pivot to filmmaking?
“Hollywood was completely shut down, so we learned, more than ever, that geographic barriers are more mental than anything else,” Martin says. "People can work from anywhere. Content can be produced from anywhere.”
Similarly to the Writers Guild of America strike in late 2007 and early 2008, the pandemic left many film industry professionals with time on their hands and open to projects outside the Hollywood studio system. Martin connected with Chris Charles Scott III, a Las Vegas-based director who had already shot much of the footage for “Nowhere Man and a Whiskey Girl” but sought a partner to help complete the project. Martin says Scott’s previous film — a 2020 documentary called “Class Action Park” that tells the story of a “dangerously legendary water park and its slew of injuries and crimes,” as its tagline reads — was shot for around $75,000 and sold to HBO Max for $1.2 million.
“That’s the plan with these things,” Martin says. “We invested in it and have done all of the editing, production, graphic design, animation and sound design. We could be all in at $200,000 and sell it for a couple million bucks. The numbers work.”
To be fair, though, PPK was set up well for an expansion into film. Its expansive office in downtown Tampa brims with high-tech gear and dedicated production spaces for still photography and video and sound production. It’s the firm’s staff, Martin says, that made the difference.
“We’ve got great talent,” he says. “We’ve got people who have Hollywood production and editing on their resumes. One of our guys was in New York working on shows for TruTV, like ‘Impractical Jokers.’ The pandemic showed us we can get into this game, even from Tampa.”
Shoplifter Studios has three more films — including “Baylor: Ode to Joy,” a documentary about the national championship-winning 2021 Baylor University men’s basketball team — in the pipeline, but Martin says the ultimate goal is make movies in Florida. Doing so, he says, will help raise the profile of both Shoplifter Studios and PPK.
“At some point,” he Martin says, “we want to start telling our own stories that capitalize on our location. There’s no shortage of stories around here, … but there’s no Florida tax benefit, no film commission, and that stinks. If we had a little more wind in our sails, we’d be able to shoot more [locally].”
In the meantime, he adds, PPK’s foray into the movie business has “enabled us to take more control of our own destiny and not rely so much on new business for growth. Our hope is that if we win more awards, or sell a documentary that ends up on a streaming platform, more people will go, ‘Hey, call me.’”