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Hitting the Music-Video Big Time

Blackball Films/Founder Bitsy Biron and producer David Agosto



Hitsville first met Bitsy Biron at the video shoot for the Anthrax-Public Enemy metal-rap summit, "Bring the Noise." Producing the video was H-Gun, a local company then riding a high off the hot Nine Inch Nails "Head Like a Hole" clip. First at a west-side warehouse and then a south-side park, Biron lugged light rigs around as she enthusiastically detailed plans for her own video production company.

Two years later Blackball Films, the company Biron went on to found, is an industry comer. Blackball did Soul Asylum's "Black Gold," which was a recent MTV "Buzz Bin" hit, and the company's currently in postproduction on a new Jayhawks clip for the song "Settled Down Like Rain." When reminded of the "Bring the Noise" shoot, Biron laughs. "I was conniving way back then, huh?"

The 32-year-old Biron attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, spent three years in LA, and then came to the School of the Art Institute, where she met up with the founders of H-Gun. She started Blackball with two friends, Chris Ball and C.W. Hayes, in January 1992. "All you need is a phone and this book right here," she says, pointing to The Yellow Pages of Rock, a music-industry directory. "I just started working out of my apartment."

Biron isn't a filmmaker: her job is to "rep" Blackball's small contingent of directors to record companies. She uses personal contacts, record-release schedules, and chutzpah, to finagle Blackball the chance to bid on upcoming projects. Besides somewhat routine heavy-metal stuff for bands like Dream Theater (which helps pay the bills), the company's also done more adventurous work on Babes in Toyland's "Won't Tell" for Warner Brothers and the Reverend Horton Heat's "Wiggle Stick" for Sub Pop.

Blackball's gone through some changes in its 18 months; founder Ball left earlier this year, and Biron and the company are still recovering from the abrupt death--by heart attack--of the multifaceted Hayes, who was the company's computer whiz and had his own band and audio postproduction house. (The forthright Biron says there were no pharmaceutical explanations for the 31-year-old's death.) Biron's new partner is director and fellow Minneapolitan David Roth.

Marvin Gleicher, head of Chicago's Smash Records, was an early supporter, channeling the group such business as M-Doc's "Whatever You Need" and former Replacements drummer Chris Mars's first solo video, "Popular Creeps," which earned a few plays on MTV's 120 Minutes. The company's talent roster currently includes producer David Agosto; Roth, whose Minneapolis connections helped Blackball get contracts with Soul Asylum, Babes in Toyland, and the Jayhawks; Bradley Sellers, who directed the gritty Jesus Lizards video "Nub"; and the company's newest sign, the director-producer team of George Tillman Jr. and Bob Teitel.

While the company still does low-budget "charity videos" for friends and local bands, major-label contracts--which run from $30,000 to more than $100,000--are what they're searching for. It's harder and harder to do low-budget work these days: Agosto explains that film and developing cost a shade less than $2,000 for any video; camera and light rentals are another thousand. There are crew, location, and catering costs, plus postproduction work, which can run thousands more. On top of it all Blackball pays eight grand a year for insurance. But part of the Zen of video is putting every dollar on the screen. "You can actually do a lot with a limited amount of money," Agosto says. "In a feature film when you have lengthy shots you can see the production values; in video, shots are shorter, and they tend to be tighter."

The downside is that videos are commercials, and the concerns of the people paying for them tend to center on how many records they'll sell. The decisions that affect Blackball's livelihood are made haphazardly, based on everything from the desires, perceptions, or prejudices of the band or the label to logistics. "You can put in a lot of time and effort on bidding for something and then lose it," notes Agosto. "The band might not be touring through Chicago, they want another director, or maybe the budget gets cut in half at the last minute."

On the other hand, spurred by MTV's challenging aesthetics and the modicum of power wielded in the industry by some offbeat sensibilities (R.E.M., Nirvana), video remains an intense opportunity for creative types to strut their stuff. Blackball, along with H-Gun and such other increasingly successful locals as TV Eye, which did the new Urge Overkill clip, "Sister Havana," are benefiting from MTV's hunger for novelty. It's the video makers, not the record companies, who propose treatments for the songs, and they're given a surprising amount of leeway. "[The record company] might want you to highlight a certain member of a band, or they might give you a genre, like 'slice of life on tour,' but it's not like they're hiring you to film a treatment they've come up with," says Agosto.

"Every record company wants to see something new," Biron says. "They want you to adhere to a certain type of formula, but they want it to look different."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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