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Aim Higher

Andrew Waite-Higher Definition Media

His company began with what sounded like a pie-in-the-sky start-up plan: A 17-year-old Stockdale High School student turned information technology entrepreneur, turned DJ, turned wedding cinematographer. It just didn’t add up in most people’s minds.

“Everybody kept telling me I was crazy,” said Andrew Waite, thinking back on that day in 2008 when he decided to start Higher Definition Media (a cinematic, artistic production company), leaving behind his lucrative IT company. And the fact that weddings, produced through Lovestruck Films (a separate entity under the HDM umbrella), were going to be the bread and butter of his livelihood had eyes rolling even more.

“People thought I was nuts not only because they thought that wedding videos weren’t a ‘necessity,’ like the dress, the invitations, or the cake, but because wedding videos had a pretty negative stigma. Back in the '80s, when they first gained popularity, the filming and tapes were of poor quality and standard shots of the bride and groom walking down the aisle, cutting the cake, etc., were pretty boring.”

Waite, with his cinematographer soul, felt he had the savvy to change all that.

“Our goal from day one has been to go beyond just the documentation of a couple’s wedding; we want to capture what it is that makes their love unique. We set out to create a timeless piece of art.”

Sure he was on to something big, Waite jumped in with both feet as he began his venture to put a fresh spin on the whole wedding video niche. It was to be cinematography at its best, leaving people feeling like they just watched a film about a special love story—not just two people getting married.

“I don’t even know how we made it through that first year, but we did,” Waite chuckled, remembering how he rented office space and bought expensive equipment before he had even one client. “I don’t know why I thought I had to have the office and expensive equipment right off the bat; I just had a gut feeling and went with it.”

His gut told him to aim high right from the get-go; So after calling eight of the biggest wedding videographers in town and asking about their prices, Waite set his price point at double the fee charged by the most expensive. Then he set out to build his clientele.

Waite took a huge risk in producing The Measure of a Man. He had to sink $300,000 into the movie with no guarantees that he would ever see one penny of it back

Marketing efforts were fairly minimal that first year, but Waite sensed a real opportunity using one avenue—bridal shows. He gathered his equipment, made a demo video, and grabbed booths at various bridal shows across the state.

“People would see our movies out of the corner of their eye as they passed by our booth and they’d stop and say, ‘Wow! That looks like a Hallmark movie!’ We really stood out because our work was so different from everything else that was out there.”

Bridal shows and word-of-mouth proved to be powerful marketing tools for the fledgling company, and it wasn’t long before they were boking weddings left and right. Revenues doubled between 2008 and 2009; then doubled again between 2009 and 2010. But Waite wanted more. “I’ve never been the kind of person who’s happy with where the business is at ‘right now.’ I look to see what people aren’t doing. I want to try new and exciting things. I want to take risks.”

Looking to take on a risk that would really set his business apart, Waite found a new technology that got his creative juices flowing. Aerial cinematography would take HDM and Lovestruck Films to new heights, but what a risk he would have to take.

“We are talking about a $20,000 investment just for the helicopter,” Waite said as he leaned forward, spreading his arms to illustrate the six foot long, radio controlled drone. “Then you have to put at least $20,000 worth of cinematography equipment on it. Then you have to find a great RC pilot. You can’t have just anybody flying the helicopter because if it crashes you’ve just lost everything you put into it. It’s like filling a briefcase up with $40,000 and setting it on fire.”

With no pilot, that kind of investment just didn’t make good business sense. So, with visions of drone helicopters dancing in his head, Waite put his dreams of aerial cinematography on hold. But not for long. Things fell into place when an employee came in and said, “Hey Andrew, check out this YouTube video.”

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing!” Waite exclaimed. “Here was this kid, this 17-year-old high school kid doing all these incredible things with an RC helicopter! This guy, Kyle Dahl, was flying the helicopter upside down and cutting the grass with the blades! Then I found out that not only was he a student at Centennial High, he went to my church. I immediately called him, talked with him and his dad, and brought him on board.”

With Dahl at the controls, HDM and Lovestruck Films welcomed a new member of their corporate family, Airstrike Media, the aerial division of HDM. “We became (and still are) the only US production company using a drone helicopter aerial cinematography system, and that’s when the phones really started ringing.”

PROBLEM SOLVED: an expensive RC helicopter/camera was the edge this videography business wanted, but only if they found a great pilot. Enter Kyle Dahl (right)

From Jamaica to Mexico, Seven Oaks Country Club to Malibu, the gang of experts at Lovestruck Films (now totaling seven) use what has become their signature aerial shots to document the happiest day of a couple’s life. “But we set out to do it in a way that really captures the joy itself. The flowers die, the dress gets packed away, the emotional high slowly fades, but the couple can relive their day by watching our film. That, to me, is absolutely priceless.”

One of the most memorable weddings for Waite was for music recording mogul David Foster. “Celine Dion was there; Michael Buble, Josh Groban, Natalie Cole…it was just ridiculous the number of celebrities that were there,” he said. “I have to admit I was starstruck for about five minutes, but then got down to work. I felt someone bump into me from behind and turned to find myself looking at Oprah, who said, ‘I’m so sorry, honey.’ Wow.”

Weddings of the rich and famous aside (and Lovestruck Films does more than its fair share of those), Waite and the HDM team are no stranger to the glamour and glitz of the world of film.

“We [HDM] have shot commercials and feature films, including our latest film, The Measure of a Man. And it’s a story that was actually written by my mother [Elizabeth Waite],” he said, smiling as he thought about how differently things would have gone if he had to tell his mom, “Sorry; I’m just not that into the story,” after reading the script. “The story [a true account about a man who came to Kern County from Oklahoma during the Depression] was actually good, so we got everything in order, started filming, and premiered the film at the Fox Theater in March 2011.”

While this film has done well, winning numerous awards of excellence from film festivals around the country and receiving a distribution deal for stores nationwide and through venues such as Netflix and Pay-Per-View, Waite cautions that filmmaking is not for the faint-of-heart.

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“We took a huge risk in producing The Measure of a Man because we had to sink $300,000 into it and there was no guarantee that we would ever see one penny of it back. It was scary, and there were times my mom and I wanted to kill each other, but it was worth it.

“The premiere at the Fox was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. From that moment when we got out of the limo, stepped on to the red carpet as people stood along the sides clapping, to the experience of sitting in the theater with 1,100-1,200 people watching the film, laughing, crying...it was so emotional and wonderful. It got me excited about starting the next project.”

And yes, there is a “next” project. An even more ambitious undertaking. “We’re looking to sink about $600,000-plus into this project and are aiming to bring on board some serious A-list actors,” Waite reveals.

Though risks may be a part of Waite’s business plan when it comes to growing, he’s very careful when it comes to his employees.

“I’ve found there are two schools of thought when it comes to staffing your business: you can pay as little as possible and expect a high turnover, or you can pay as much as possible and spoil them rotten. I took the latter route and all my employees are incredibly loyal. We’ll close up and go to Knott’s Berry Farm for the day, make a vacation out of a wedding shoot we have in Jamaica, and have our Casual Fridays. Not casual in the sense of wearing jeans (we wear those everyday!), but in the sense we power down and jam. We have our own ‘casual Friday band.’

“Too many businesses fail because they don’t take care of their employees and because they don’t take risks. You’ve got to take risks, take advantage of new technology and innovation, or you’re just going to be like everyone else. If you fail, just get up, dust yourself off, and start over again. We’ve been there.”

A successful company is a work in progress; With a talented team that isn’t content just staying in the here and now, Waite continued, “We aren’t ever happy with where we’re at now; we look around to find things that people aren’t doing. We’re our own competition and we’re always finding something new and exciting.”

It’s a plan that works: a CEO willing to take risks with a team of talented artists continually looking to out-do themselves. And if they occasionally stop to bang the drum all day, it’s just good for business.

Article appeared in our 28-6 Issue - February 2012