June 01--They didn't know it 10 years ago when they started making contacts out of a pickup truck in Durand, Wisconsin, but John Engel and Mike Zwilling were taking the first steps toward one of the biggest movie theater advertising companies in the nation.
Just as they presented a low profile then, they still do today. The company, 1 Better LLC, started in the home of its owners, John and Carol Engel, but within months moved to a concrete building at 124 Osseo Ave. N. They rented space from Rupp Printing, and 1 Better has been there ever since -- growing to more than 20 employees locally and more than 30 independent contractors across the nation.
Targeting small and medium-sized businesses in towns and cities where they have a contract with a theater, 1 Better has handled more than 11,000 ads in compiling its preshows -- the commercials interspersed with trivia and entertainment facts that give moviegoers something to watch as they wait for the previews and feature.
As of May, the company's product was on more than 600 screens in 24 states. In Minnesota, 1 Better serves 26 theaters, though many people in St. Cloud may be unaware what they're watching often originates here. That's because the area's biggest theater, Parkwood Cinema, is operated by Marcus Theatres, which has a long-term contract with another producer.
But, if you go to the Brickhouse Cinema in Foley, Falls Cinema in Little Falls, Koronis Cinema in Paynesville or Main Street Theatre in Sauk Centre, you've seen 1 Better's work.
"There's a lot of talent buried in this little building," John Engel said in his windowless office right in the middle of it. "We saw an opportunity a long time ago to provide business owners in small communities with 'big city' advertisements. That's how we went from four people working out of two rooms to 21 people using a majority of this space."
Engel didn't want to talk about revenues, but said they have grown in proportion to the employee count. The cost of advertising varies from market to market, based on screen size and population. Ads can cost less than $1 per audience seating, which is great when it's a weekend blockbuster and not as much if it's a long-run Tuesday matinee.
It's been a successful venture for Engel, who grew up in Cold Spring and was an art major at St. Cloud State University. He worked for a time as a camera salesman, and in 1999 joined USA Productions -- a Central Minnesota theater advertising company that produces silent still ads.
That's where he met Zwilling, who already had joined the company as a salesman.
Engel and Zwilling wanted to show the ads using projectors with full motion and synchronized sound.
" One of the things we wanted to do was try to cater to the small-town business. We knew we couldn't go after Volkswagen or Nike, but we could sure work with Joe Smith'sJohn Deere dealership."
So that's how it started in 2004 -- two guys in a truck going door to door in Durand, Wisconsin, convincing people to buy movie theater advertising. Their first contracts were duplicated with a drug store copier. They got discount business cards that came perforated -- they had to detach them one at a time.
Though that old one-screen theater in Durand has since closed, Engel and Zwilling combined to sell 21 spots totaling more than $25,000. Five more Wisconsin theaters and 12 in Florida quickly came on board.
Videographers film business clients, do voice-overs and, in conjunction with graphic designers and music specialists, produce a finished DVD ad the theaters can play.
Prior to signing up with 1 Better, many of the theaters only had slide projectors that projected silent still ads on screen. Engel invested in projection equipment that was supplied to each theater as part of the contract. Each screen required a projector, audio wiring, DVD equipment and a control center. 1 Better began to hire technicians to install the systems, and the preshow commercials were projected out of a side window next to the main movie projector.
"When we first started, the projectors we were working with were 50, 60, even 70 years old," said Zwilling, 55, who is from Avon and in charge of theater relations for 1 Better. "We were able to pick them up from bigger theaters as they upgraded, but it was still a big expense and required a lot of support."
Ned Domm is director of operations. He's responsible for all the videographers who produce new ads so a preshow can be changed quarterly. Much of the video is shot on location, although some is produced from 1 Better's studio.
Andy Johnson is the company's head technician and spends most of his time traveling across the country, making repairs and adjustments at each of 1 Better's screens. Julie Spanier is the creative director, who works with clients to take their video and materials to create ads. She oversees two designers who each work with as many as 75 clients to decide what to do in an ad and the direction the company wants to go with its advertising.
Carol Engel coordinates activity for many of the internal employees and works with companies who call to inquire about advertising.
"The theater industry has changed so much in just five years," said Carol Engel, 58. "The bottom line is you've got to have a good attorney, a good banking system and a good accountant. And you've got to treat these small-town business people happy. They're at the heart of what we do."
Growing the business
John Engel and Zwilling both hope to grow the business in other areas of advertising. Their first opportunity for that came in 2005, when a hospital in northern Minnesota contracted 1 Better to produce a recruiting video that could be sent to prospective doctors as a DVD. The company also is capable of producing cable TV ads, radio spots and billboard ads, though "99 percent" of the business is theater advertising, Zwilling said.
In 2006, 1 Better passed 100 theaters under contract. In 2010, the company tapped Rupert Boneham, who won $1 million on the "Survivor" reality series on CBS, to be a celebrity spokesman. By the following year, 1 Better had become the third-largest provider of on-screen cinema advertising in the U.S.
National CineMedia and Screenvision remain larger.
"Comparing us to them is like Lake George to Mille Lacs Lake," John Engel said. "There are hundreds of companies less than half our size."
Last year, 1 Better signed an agreement to partner with Screenvision in selling some national advertising. Out of a 10-minute preshow, perhaps four minutes might include national ads with the rest produced by 1 Better.
In the past couple of years, the move to digitization has challenged many owners of small theaters and 1 Better also made that jump. The company now produces commercials in high definition so they can be projected through the theater-owned digital projectors -- the same ones that show the movies.
"We've had a big investment in the software people use to create these ads, but it's turned out great because the final product looks great," John Engel said. "We're not afraid of working with big theaters anymore because we don't have to buy 30 (projectors)."
That means 1 Better could continue to grow by leaps and bounds.
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