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Monday, August 27, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Strategies

Miramar Productions -- Company Brings Environment Home With `Video Album'

Imagine coasting high above snow-covered Mount Baker, trekking through the dark-green glades of the Hoh rain forest or staring pensively into the rippling surf at Rialto Beach. All without moving from your Stratolounger.

Thanks to Jan Nickman and the vision of the three other men who started Miramar Productions five years ago, that trip is as close as the nearest videocassette recorder.

Since the first video ``Natural States,'' Miramar's music videos have become increasingly popular as consumer tastes for environmental products have escalated. They are a favorite entertainment of what Miramar President Paul Sullivan sometimes calls ``armchair conservationists.''

But it was simple coincidence that America's collective consciousness paralleled Nickman's vision of coupling America's majestic wilderness with original music.

Miramar's financial success has been more a byproduct of vision and creativity than any marketing plan based on what some see as the country's faddish love of the environment.

``At a very base level, Miramar is product-driven vs. profit-driven. We don't determine what the market will buy but produce what we want to, which is opposite of how most in the entertainment industry operate,'' Nickman said.

Although Nickman, a former KING-TV producer, takes partial credit for creating the concept of the video album, he said he had no idea the environment would turn into the major economic movement of the decade.

``I'd love to take credit for knowing the environmental trend was going to take off, but I've never operated that way. My idea was simply to bring the magic of nature into a new art form and infuse that with music,'' said Nickman, now Miramar's vice president.

Sullivan said: ``We're not on an environmental mission. But our underlying idea by reproducing the beauty of nature is to stimulate interest in the environment. The current awareness has given our videos a certain appeal.''

This is often how a Miramar video is created. Nickman sits back in his gray and green office near Elliott Bay and dreams up an idea.

Then, out he goes with his high-tech filming equipment. Nickman photographs magnificent landscapes such as the Grand Canyon with a Steadicam, a hand-held camera that results in lifelike walking sequences. The film also produces pictures of stark clarity and bold color far more dramatic than even Technicolor.

Nickman does a rough edit so the composer can create music specifically for that film.

This sets Miramar apart from other music-video makers. Unlike Windham Hill, a recording company that carries composers such as George Winston, or other video-album makers, the music does not come first at Miramar.

A viewer can skim above the dusky green belt of a river at a hang-gliding pace, bank against a stand of Douglas fir and slowly rise to catch the first yellow ray of dawn, while a music score, often composed by founding partners David Lanz and Paul Speer, dramatically plays up the visual swoops and dives of the film.

Then Miramar tries to sell it. And for now, that strategy seems to work.

With its videos making best-seller lists, Miramar's revenues topped $2.2 million in 1990, doubling 1989 revenues. Sullivan expects 1991 sales in the company's video division to grow by 80 percent this year. Its audio-division sales are expected to grow by 260 percent. All this should result in $3.5 million in sales for the next year, Sullivan said.

Sullivan hints the company's future challenge will not be to create more best-selling videos. The challenge will come from reining in the company's growth, without compromising Miramar's ``idealistic and iconoclastic'' tradition.

``Natural States'' has gone double platinum - selling more than 100,000 copies at $29.95. Four other videos, including a visual trip through the Grand Canyon with music by Tangerine Dream, have sold close to 25,000 copies. More than a dozen employees have been added to the core group of Nickman, Sullivan, recording engineer Speer and pianist/composer Lanz over the past five years.

Miramar began when Nickman pitched his idea for a nine-minute music video of the Hoh rain forest to Sullivan, who was then working for the company that would become Muzak. They were joined by Speer, who worked with Nickman on television programs at KING. Lanz offered his services as a pianist and composer.

The show Nickman and Speer produced at KING had just been canceled. After filming the Pacific Northwest for nine years as a news photographer, Nickman was ready to pursue more artistic avenues.

Sullivan asked Nickman to put together a demo tape. ``When I saw it, I said, `God, this is beautiful. What do we do with it?' '' They made it into the first nine minutes of the 45-minute ``Natural States.''

With no marketing study, the four men just sold the videos wherever they thought an audience would be.

``We went where we thought hikers and backpackers would be,'' Sullivan said. REI, which was one of the first outdoor retailers to carry the videos, said it dropped the product line only because it was redefining its video section.

``We have a lot more how-to, instructional videos now. Our people tend to be going places instead of watching places,'' said Mike Collins, a spokesperson for the company. But before REI stopped selling the videos, Collins said the video were selling well.

Miramar also is part of the Hospital Satellite Network, a program broadcast in hospitals nationwide. It uses the videos as part of its wellness programs.

Most couch conservationists, shy of hiking blisters and dried-out trail mix, will be swept away by Miramar's videos.

With colors reminiscent of the 19th century impressionist J.W.M Turner and landscapes that unconsciously mimic English landscape artist John Constable, Nickman takes viewers on rides that are virtually impossible to recreate in reality.

If viewers ever tire of actively watching videos, Sullivan said some have suggested using them as moving art.

Although the nature videos are immensely popular, Miramar's visionaries are always looking for something else to occupy their minds.

Nickman is editing a video called ``The Mind's Eye,'' a computer-simulated journey through time. ``It truly digresses from the theme of fusing nature and video,'' Nickman said during the final stages of editing the computer-animation film. From the creation of life to dinosaurs to architecture and into the future, Nickman sees the video as a metaphor of the evolution of consciousness.

But that stretch of the imagination doesn't compare with the partners' costliest and most innovative project, a multimillion dollar film called ``Third Stone from the Sun,'' named after a Jimi Hendrix song. Guardian Films, owned by the Miramar partners, produced ``Third Stone'' for close to $5 million. A video album costs $100,000 to $150,000 to produce.

Sullivan estimates the film should bring at least $1 million in revenues for the next several years. The film premiered at the 1990 Houston Film Festival and took top honors.

The plot of the film, which was produced just weeks before the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, focuses on a young boy and how he learns to appreciate nature with the help of the imaginary soul of a red-sailed sailing ship.

Like the boy in ``Third Stone,'' Miramar seems set on a course of continual discovery. And despite the real-world worries of controlling million-dollar growth and the pressures of breaking into feature films, Sullivan, who controls the business side of Miramar, seems set for the challenge.

Stretching back in his chair, looking out over Elliott Bay, Sullivan says Miramar could be a microcosm of film giants such as Walt Disney, ``but without the theme parks.''

Strategies appears weekly in the Business Monday section of The Seattle Times.

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MIRAMAR PRODUCTIONS

-- Employees: 17.

-- Headquarters: 200 Second Ave. W.

-- Business: Video and film production company specializing in video albums.

-- President: G. Paul Sullivan.

-- 1990 revenue: $2.2 million.

-- 1991 projected revenue: $3.5 million.

-- Major customers: National Park gift shops, catalog sales, bookstores, hospitals and video-rental stores. Miramar videos also are carried on the Hospital Satellite Network.

-- Major competitors: Windham Hill video division, indirectly all music videos.

-- Strategy: Continue to create video albums, which sell primarily to an environmentally conscious audience, and diversify into full-length feature films about environmental and conservation issues.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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