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Entering the sports and entertainment market for printed fabric projects

January 1st, 2009 / By: / Feature, Graphics

Entertainment and sports offer opportunities for those on top of their game.

Tapping the entertainment and sports market for printed fabric projects is less about who you know and more about having a can-do attitude that delivers quality product on time. Backdrops, stage drapery, large banners and building wraps for film, theater and sports events can offer a profitable niche for those entrenched in it, but the market is wide open to anyone who can rise to the occasion.

The can-do niche

The Flag Shop, International Flag & Banner Inc., in Vancouver, B.C., is well known as a flag retailer, but about 25 percent of its business comes from the film industry. The company stumbled into the market by taking on a project for an advertiser that everyone else said couldn’t be done: printing banners on prepillowed fabric. When the Flag Shop successfully delivered the banners on time, it earned a reputation as a company that would at least “give it a try,” says Susan Braverman, general manager. Word of their willing attitude and swift delivery spread to Vancouver’s burgeoning film industry.

“People come into town to work on a film and then leave to go work on another, so it’s always word of mouth,” Braverman says. “As the film industry increased in Vancouver, we realized our niche was, ‘Oh you need it in a couple of days? We’ll do it.’ It’s often not about the money, it’s about having the products on time and made properly.”

The company has provided printed fabric for most film projects in the city, including four major motion pictures and conventions that provide A-list entertainment. With plenty of fabric, computer power and digital printing equipment in-house, the Flag Shop is always ready to take on a project. It subcontracts wide format printing required of many of its projects to suppliers that it knows are reliable.

“We make sure our partnerships are established before quoting for the first time,” Braverman says. “When you’re selling to the entertainment industry, the focus has to be really fast turnaround and you have to go the extra mile in service because the people you’re dealing with are multitasking. They care about the end result, not about the details. The onus is on us to make sure we fill in the gaps and are proactive, not reactive.”

Wide open wide format

Jennifer Tankleff, vice president at I. Weiss, Long Island City, N.Y., says the entertainment industry has opened up to more printers because of wide format capabilities. I. Weiss provides painted and printed stage drapery and digitally printed backdrops for television and film productions. Some production companies will hire a printer directly, she says, but projects more often come through a company such as I. Weiss because it can do the finishing work and manage the project through all phases, which in theater can sometimes take six to eight months.

“We have printers that we’ve worked with for a long time and most of them are on the larger scale,” Tankleff says. “It’s pretty wide open now. There are many different printers out there that can do this work or are looking to do more of this work. In our industry, turnaround time, quality of work and price are important.”

Tankleff adds that opportunities are increasing for the use of digital printing in theater projects. “The hand-painted backdrop is still preferred for a lot of stage applications, but there is more and more involvement between painters and printers. There are more digital printed scenes and there are some that are printed first and painted over.”

Concert tours learn from theater

Sew What? Inc. in Rancho Dominguez, Calif., specializes in providing custom-sewn drapes, backdrops and scrims for stage productions and concert tours, serving such big names as Maroon 5, Sting, Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift, James Taylor, Madonna, Rod Stewart and Don Henley. Owner and president Megan Duckett worked in the concert touring industry and knows the specific needs of this marketplace, which she says is small compared to the corporate signage market. “Every business needs signage, but there are only so many tours that go out each year and of those, only so many are looking for digitally printed solutions,” Duckett says. “I have clients that will take a print [backdrop] on tour one year and the next year will not go for printing at all, just traditional fabric and focus on lighting equipment.”

Duckett works most often through a reseller, such as a tour coordinator or the company handling the stage and lighting equipment. “We work hand in hand with a lot of the Los Angeles resellers and work nationwide,” she says. “You don’t see a lot in this market where it’s sold from a printer directly to the tour.”

Sew What? uses a variety of substrates, print methods and durable sewn finishes to provide the right product for each tour. Many of its clients are looking for unusual treatments, says Duckett. One project for an annual seasonal production involved printing a graphic on five separate panels of varying sizes that spanned 70 feet across the stage. Duckett used a 50 percent vinyl coated mesh that, when lit from the front or behind appears opaque or translucent as the scene required.

“This type of special effect with mesh-type fabrics is one that is frequently used in traditional theatre, known to theater lighting technicians as a scrim effect,” Duckett says. “It is less commonly known in the event and architectural marketplace. We now offer a direct print to traditional cotton sharkstooth scrim, which allows us to offer digitally printed traditional scrim to our theater and concert clients.”

The substrate depends on how it will be used, for how long, whether it will be exposed to moisture and how it will be stored. Duckett says that a big concern for a concert tour is durability: will the product last through the entire tour? “We’re better off sacrificing a little on the output and making sure it lasts, as opposed to a permanent installation in a theater where durability isn’t as important,” she says. “Then we’ll turn our attention to the substrate that provides the best output and the best ink for that substrate.”

Sew What? provided a 40-foot by 120-foot wide drapery for a Kenny Chesney concert tour designed as a traditional Austrian lift that was raised when Chesney came out on stage. Duckett chose a 16-foot wide woven coated polyester called PES Banner 240 made by Neschen that was lightweight for easier handling during setup and takedown and durable to last the length of the tour. When lit from behind, the fabric became translucent and glowing, which showed the vibrant orange and red graphics beautifully.

The market is not necessarily about price point, she says, but you must have expertise in wide format printing, 10 feet wide or wider. More importantly, it’s being able to deliver premium quality product in a timely manner. “We look for print suppliers that have an understanding of color matching and color correction, and very high quality control standards,” Duckett says. “If you’re seaming up multiple pieces, the color has to be consistent across the entire piece.”

Standing out in the crowd

Given the plethora of printers with wide and grand format expertise today, David Kerchman, president of Flying Colors in Berkeley, Calif., believes the industry has become commoditized, but there is still money to be made. Flying Colors produces banner and wide format printed fabrics for the National Football League and National Basketball Association, among other clients. Having a can-do and inventive attitude can give you a competitive advantage.

“For me, it’s as simple as being able to follow directions and give us what we want because we’re responsible for all the elements,” Kerchman says. “Especially with events, there are a lot of unforeseen requirements, so being able to turn things quickly, keep consistency of color and quality is paramount to our effort. We challenge folks we subcontract to push their technology: how can you make it deliver something you haven’t done before? One of the benefits is it gives them a new market platform that they can grow in the future because they’ve discovered a new frontier.”

Kerchman says his company was fortunate to get its break decades ago with the professional sports industry, but even with its longstanding associations it needs to prove itself.

“One thing I tell my staff is that we need to earn the business every year because there’s always someone out there who wants that business,” he says. “If anything, that keeps us at the top of our game, to be very creative and inventive and bring fresh ideas to the table, lest we become stale in their eyes.”

Barb Ernster is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

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