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March 2002
As Good as It Gets
By Nan Bauroth
      Richard Aldridge’s office could double as a Hollywood prop closet. The haphazard accumulation of clutter includes a life-sized Marilyn Monroe cut out, pinball machine, 50’s-style hooded hairdryer, neon clock flashing “Hotel Flamingo,” poster listing the periodic table of elements, Britney Spears doll, airplane propeller and – oh, yes – an aging bullet hole in one window.
    It’s the perfect backdrop for Aldridge, whose corporate amalgam, Silver Hammer Studios, is set to gross $3 million this year. His business is, named “silver” for the artistic aspects and “hammer” for the practical aspects of the production business, a tripartite alloy: Silver Hammer Studio Rentals, Bridge Productions and Catwalk Digital Media.
     Aldridge’s box office bonanza is even more impressive when you consider that Silver Hammer, the only commercial production company in Charlotte with sound stages large enough to accommodate a major motion picture set, remains one of the best kept secrets around. But for Silver Hammer, “Shallow Hal” couldn’t have been shot in the Queen City. 
     “I’m not very good at promoting my company,” Aldridge confesses. In his view, Silver Hammer has prospered because his reputation precedes him. “We always pull it off. In this business you can make small stumbles and cover yourself for an occasional blip, but you can’t fail.”
     The reason is the high cost of shoots. “Everything comes together on that day,” he nods. “It is so expensive that if you drop the ball on your end, whether you’re a sound man, cameraman, set construction guy or director – and sometimes I am all four – word gets around fast.”
     Phil Greer, senior vice president at Lewis Advertising, with offices in Raleigh and Rocky Mount, has relied on Silver Hammer for 15 years for that very reason. “Silver Hammer is the most complete film, video and audio production facility I’ve had the pleasure to deal with anywhere in the country. It’s not just the incredibly creative solutions they provide, but also their service commitment. Nothing comes up where they can’t provide a creative and financially viable solution. They never stop thinking about how to maximize the impact of your work.”
     For Aldridge, that is the goal. “Part of our mandate is to give agencies more than they paid for. And they know it. Over the years we’ve developed partnerships with agencies where we get 90 percent of their work because they don’t want to risk someone who may let them down or give them an inferior product.” 
     Aldridge certainly looks the Hollywood part. He typically arrives on the office set in sweats and sneakers, the proverbial director’s cap perched atop his silver locks. 
     But this is no theatrical costume. An articulate and intelligent man who graduated from UNCC with a degree in motion pictures, Aldridge has walked the commercial production walk for more than 30 years, and in the process, built one of the most successful production companies in the southeast.
      In addition to reels of award-winning commercials, Silver Hammer has produced network specials and TV mini-series, and served as the production facility for five movies.  
Morphing into New Corporate Media

      For years, regional ad agencies have relied on Silver Hammer to help them produce memorable ads for clients, including Hardees, Time-Warner and Bi-Lo. Now companies are approaching Silver Hammer directly, seeking its film smarts for image videos, multimedia presentations and web casts. 
     This change began in the mid 90’s as a result of the Internet and proliferation of TV channel choices. For example, one of Aldridge’s clients only advertises on the golf channel.
    “Now you have a lot more niche marketing, so agencies are having to reinvent themselves. Subs - production companies like us - also have to reinvent themselves. We’ve always been nimble on our feet, and when agencies took a right hand turn, we took it with them.”
     That turn includes 3-D graphics capability and Web content. “We’re storytellers, so we try to cater to people, whether they need a set, virtual set, talking head or animated flying space machines to help tell their story.”
     Silver Hammer has also capitalized on the expanding market for corporate informational videos. Virginia-based MW Windows recently retained Silver Hammer to produce a video showing its suppliers how the revamp of their entire operation had made MW’s employees so happy they were producing a superior product.
    “The president was so tickled with the video that he had us come back to film him talking,” Aldridge reports. “They made thousands of copies and sent one to every distributor.” 

Creating on Budget

     Aldridge takes particular pride in producing great creative within budget. “When people ask how much it costs to do a commercial, I tell them it’s like asking how much it costs to build a house. We’re in the construction business. I need to know how many bathrooms, how many windows, and then we have to figure out what it will take to build that.And while we have a reputation for being expensive, we are not. Our big budget jobs, like Western Auto ($500,000) tend to get the most attention but we can send out a guy and a camera for as little as $500.”
     Aldridge maintains that Silver Hammer’s bids have thousands of categories, and clients can see where every one of their dollars is going. “People often come on the set and ask why people are standing around. I reply, ‘How come the guy in the symphony with the cymbals is standing around? You want to hear that clash. It’s the same thing. When their time comes, they will be performing.’”
    As he points out, a TV commercial usually costs more per second than many major motion pictures. “If a company spends $100,000, that’s $3,000 per second. Think of the nuances, too. It’s more difficult to tell a story in 30 seconds. You’ve got to get it in there and make your point.”
     John Goodson, president of John Goodson Productions in Tallahassee, who has worked with Silver Hammer for 15 years, says there’s a definite difference between Bridge Productions and other production companies. “Everybody at Bridge goes the extra mile to see you get the product you’re looking for within your budget.”
    A big part of film production is directorial talent. “It’s like ordering a painting,” explains Aldridge. “We have enough different directors so we can give them a Picasso or van Gogh.”
    These days, though, traditional agency loyalty to one director is fragmenting. Instead, agencies want to hand pick a director. Perhaps they saw the reel of a director in LA. They love his work, and want Silver Hammer to produce the spot with that particular director.
     Aldridge says that presents an enormous challenge because these directors are pricey, so Silver Hammer has to figure a way of getting that director and still producing the job on budget. Naturally, Aldridge’s own passion lies in directing. “There’s nothing better than to be up before sunrise and out there. When you’re directing, you don’t think about lunch. You don’t even get hungry, you’re so focused on making your work great.”
    Dick Bennett, creative director of BKV in Atlanta, has worked with Aldridge for years on the Save the Children campaign. “We’ve been around the world a few times, in very uncomfortable situations. Richard is not afraid of going into dangerous areas. It takes a very special person to shoot under the cover of fear.”  

Wrong Side is the Right Side

     Today, Silver Hammer sits on the “wrong side” of the uptown tracks off Hamilton Street (near 10th street). The massive facility, originally built by Southern Manufacturing, is the ideal home for Aldridge’s lifelong dream.
      “I wanted to build these sound stages to attract feature films to the Charlotte film community. This has been a vision I’ve had for 25 years as I worked myself up from my front porch, to a fire station, to this building.”
      Aldridge is quick to thank local and regional ad agencies, as well as his biggest Charlotte competitors, Oasis Films and Boulevard Films, for continued patronage of his rental and post-production facilities. “I can’t tell you how much that means. Look at the overhead we have. I could never support these stages or 18 full-time employees without their support.”
     Silver Hammer’s gain, however, is also theirs. “It’s symbiotic, because agencies often need a sound stage. If we weren’t here, they’d be working in a barn or warehouse or traveling to Wilmington, which is expensive. Most understand that and support us when they can.”
     Aldridge says that, ultimately, the secret of his success is hiring people smarter than he is. Example: Kathleen Stapleton, longtime VP and head of operations, runs the rental division. “We are always 100 percent behind our product,” Stapleton insists. “If, during production, the client doesn’t like something, we work harder to give them what they want.”
     Aldridge’s second right arm is Mark de Castrique, a top producer who also serves as VP of production. “Our biggest asset is the experience base we have, from production management to directorial skills,” claims de Castrique. “We’re able to envision a project and come up with cost-efficient options to get it done. We want everything to be fresh, not cookie cutter.”
     When in need of inspiration, Aldridge heads to Wrightsville Beach to read. “I just finished ‘The History of Mathematics.’ I also just finished the first book of Samuel in the Bible. I’m not religious, but interested in many things, so my reading also includes cheesy pulp novels, which I need to break up the science stuff.”
     Ultimately, Aldridge believes Silver Hammer’s location will prove the right side of the tracks. “I’m pushing that whitewater park, which is supposed to be right out our windows. It would be a great marriage to have a film studio here and whitewater park over there. I also have a business colleague, Rick Lazes, who wants to turn some nearby property into a band shell for concerts.”
     Now, that’s entertainment. 

Ready, Set, Action! Silver Hammer Studios Does It in One Take 

    Silver Hammer Studios can provide an agency, business or movie production company with everything they need from start to finish:
    - Silver Hammer Studio Rentals offers equipment (cameras, grips, lights, dollies), three sound stages (5000, 8000 and 12,000 square feet) and production offices.
    - Bridge Productions is a creative film production company with a roster of award-winning directors.
   - Catwalk Digital Media, a full-service film and video production and post-production company, combines state-of-the-art editing, graphics and sound design.
    “A lot has changed in the world of communications,” says Richard Aldridge, founder and president of Silver Hammer, which has evolved to adapt to the current media environment.     
    “From Gutenberg’s movable press to Thomas Edison’s movie machine to the Internet, the tools by which stories are told have evolved in revolutionary ways. But the art of storytelling has not – and we understand that.”

Nan Bauroth is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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