How a Video Production Business Survived COVID-19: Looking Back a Year Later

As I sit down to write about my experiences as a small business owner trying to keep the “doors open” during a worldwide pandemic, vaccines are rolling out and spring is here. Finally, there seems to be a spirit of hope for the future, but it’s not lost on me the terrible toll COVID-19 has taken on so many, and the personal and professional losses individuals, families, and communities have endured.

What follows is my journey through the toughest year in business I’ve experienced. I learned a lot about myself, my team, and the world around me, and I hope that some of this is interesting, relatable, maybe even helpful to others.

A virtual graduation at Fontbonne Academy. Minutes after the last diploma was handed out, a storm hit. It was fitting for 2020.

First Signs of Trouble

“Has anyone canceled their gala?” was the question posed to me during a conference call with a client on March 9, 2020. At the time, it wasn’t something I even considered — although, we were all aware of news coverage of a new virus on the rise. Eight days later, restaurants closed, and soon after, Massachusetts was on lock down, per Governor Baker’s statewide mandate. The myriad video production projects we had in the pipeline, many related to spring events and galas, were suddenly on hold or canceled.

For background, I started Last Minute Productions (LMP) in my basement in 2005. Since those humble beginnings with crazy hours and sleepless nights, I’ve split the ownership three ways with longtime journalist/reporter Gary Gillis and seasoned national producer Jim Johnston.

Pre-Covid shoot with a client in studio.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, we were still small but mighty, with steady projects and a growing client list that we nimbly served as a company of six: three co-owners, two editors, and a client services/production manager.

The client that asked us about canceled galas informed us that they were “going virtual,” and invited us to bid for the project; the scope had changed. Traditionally, for a gala/fundraising event, nonprofits hire a company to run the audio/visual components, making sure the presenters are seen and heard. Then, they bring on a company like ours to produce documentary-style videos that inspire attendees to donate. That separation of duties was gone. Our client wanted us to produce the event, all the videos, and stream it via the web to their audience. We needed to pivot quickly and meet this moment.

In our office, we have more than 100 years of combined experiences working in television production, so our proposal positioned their gala event as a television program/special. It was a bold approach, but the client was unsure if we could deliver on the streaming of it. We lost the job.

Don’t Panic

To use a sports analogy, I knew we needed to be strong on both sides of the ball –both the creative content and streaming execution. I was just starting to understand how to use Zoom video conferencing, but I needed to become an expert in streaming equipment, procedures, and related platforms as quickly as possible.

It also became clear that because I had always been engrossed in working in our business instead of working on our business that LMP was now facing a new reality that we might not make payroll. We were owed over $100,000 to be billed over 45 days, and not sure, given the state of the world, how willing companies would be to pay a small vendor like us. We looked at where we could save costs quickly. Our website was old and was being redesigned. We stopped that process.

Around the same time, the governor declared non-essential companies needed to stay out of their offices. I realized I would need to lean on my staff more than I’d ever done before. Luckily, our team was already set up to work from home. Our editors have young children; a sick child or a snow day could mean they would need to stay home, so we had a long-standing practice of keeping their home computers up to par with the ones they use at work.

While our work-from-home technology was good (score one for us!), we needed to rethink our team meetings or lack thereof. Our impromptu lunch gatherings where we would grab sushi and talk wouldn’t work now, so we became a bit more formal.

Once a week we would hold a Zoom meeting. Gary, Jim, and I would discuss the agenda prior to the meeting with a goal of keeping everyone up to speed on what business was coming in, billing and payments, and our plans moving forward; PPP loan application and virtual events were also two hot topics.

Looking back, I remember how uncertain March and April were last year; little was known about COVID-19 and just going to the supermarket seemed like a strange, risk-taking experience. I felt like Lieutenant Dan in the film “Forrest Gump” when he and Gump are in the middle of a hurricane and he’s yelling at God, “You call this a storm!”

I wanted us to be the last shrimp boat in the bay.

Keeping Busy, Reaching Out, Staying Relevant

We kept paying everyone — employees and vendors — and praying for the PPP loan. With no new work coming in, we focused on collecting what was owed and providing help where we could.

First, we offered free crisis communication videos to all of our clients — we knew they were scrambling to find ways to reach their employees. We also created a series of free educational and timely videos that we pushed out on social media:

The videos received more than 1,000 views, and our local Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce office shared the content on their website.

Then, we turned to Boston’s medical community. We had always done a lot of work with area hospitals and had gotten to know many of the staff. We knew they were sacrificing a lot to care for COVID-19 patients, so we reached out to every hospital in the Boston area and offered to produce a video that would recognize their staff and help keep their spirits up. We used the photos they were posting on social media and cut them to music. Tufts Medical Center even reached out to musician Adam Ezra and received permission for us to use his song “I Believe” for their video.

A live presentation for a capital investment firm to an international audience, complete with remote guests and viewer questions. We used a Livestream box to “broadcast” it to the world.


A couple of months later, in May, paid projects started coming in again. Colleagues in our network reached out to us about virtual events. Former WCVB anchor Susan Wornick, who has been a dear friend for many years and has hosted many nonprofit galas, recommended us so much that it is not an exaggeration to say she was our “sales person of the year” in 2020. Ken London, a longtime area producer, teamed up with us to bring a number of graduations and events into the virtual world. Local public relations and event companies also introduced us to clients who needed video and streaming support.

A virtual “Walk for Hospice” — our first live stream with our oldest client — South Shore Health.

To help with incoming projects and workflow, we brought on a streaming consultant. In the first half of 2020 we made one-fourth of our annual gross sales. Thanks to Susan’s referrals, referrals from our network, and our expansion into virtual/live events, we surpassed our year-end budget goal by the end of 2020.

I cannot say enough about the LMP team during this challenging time. Their commitment to our clients and to each other to stay positive, creative, and productive was critical – not only to getting us through weeks of uncertainty, but in helping us to work smarter going forward.

As the forementioned Adam Ezra once wrote, “I’m nothing without everyone. Yeah I’ll be keepin’ on.”

Our “new normal” on location at Mirakl– masks and smaller crews.

Drones 101



By 2020 the Federal Aviation Administration projects that drone sales will grow from 2.5 million to 7 million.  That is a lot of things in the air.

Here at Last Minute Productions we have been flying a drone since the beginning of 2015.  We’ve flown it all over the country in a variety of geographies.  Launched over forests in Australia and New Zealand and documented harvests up and down California’s Central Valley. In urban areas, peering down on college campuses, major hospitals, and shopping centers drones can provide a stunning visual perspective. But even with all this experience I still approach every flight like I approach my table saw – always mindful of how powerful it is, and, if not careful, dangerous it can be.

So, if you just bought a drone, or looking at buying one here are some things I’ve learned along the way:

1.  Read the directions before flying.  Hope I don’t have to explain this one any further.

2.  Update the firmware.  Drones are flying computers.  Ours locks into six GPS satellites before it takes off.  There is a good chance that the firmware installed prior to packaging and shipping is dated.  When ours was delivered we took it to an open field (after reading the directions, of course), powered it up and….nothing. The display read, “Unable to fly.  Firmware up-dated needed.”  Be aware that both the Drone and the controller(s) will require firmware updates.

3.  Calibrate the compass.  Before each flight we calibrate the compass of the drone.  For ours, we pick it up and hold it parallel to the ground and spin counter-clockwise.  Then turn it so it is perpendicular to the ground and, again, spin counter-clockwise.  We do each action until the display tells us things are good.  If we don’t get a “clear for take-off” we never assume things will be OK.  We’ve repeated the above steps multiple times until we are positive that the compass has been correctly calibrated.

4.  Practice.  Head to an open field when no one is around and just practice.  Get a feel for the controls, and how responsive the drone is to your movements.

5.  Know your surroundings.  Obviously trees and power lines are bad for the life of your drone, but so are birds.  Search YouTube if you don’t believe me.  Is there a hospital near you?  Does it have a helipad? We shot for a hospital where that was the case.  Fifteen minutes prior to shooting we called Med-Flight to make sure no arrivals were on the way and to give them our contact number if the situation changed. Once our flight was complete we called them again to let them know all was clear.  Most drones will not take off if you are too close to an airport – that’s good to know before you bid out a job.

6.  When in trouble go up.  Again, these are flying computers and sometimes things don’t go as planned.  I’ve had two occasions were the drone decided to listen to me just like my 17 year old does – slow to react and ignoring some commands.  You will know right away if the drone and you are “one.”  If not, go high with it.  The higher you go the less there is to crash into.  On both those mentioned occasions I was able to gain full control of the drone after a few minutes of uncertainty.

7.  Too much is too much.  I’ve seen videos where every other shot was a drone shot.  I remember the marketing manager beaming and say, “did you see those drone shots?”  Yes indeed. I also saw all the HVAC on the roof, and too much of the parking lot.  Aerial shots can add a lot to a production, but consider it a spice – too much and you ruin the meal.

8. Get to know the FAA.  The Federal Aviation Administration, I believe, took a while to get involve with drones and operators – but, now they are full speed ahead.  It’s good to check out their site ever six months or so – FAA Website.

9. Insurance.  We were asked to have a minimum of five million in liability coverage by a client (shopping center owner).  Normally all you will need is a one million.

10.  Safety first.  This should be the overriding theme to any drone outing.  Sure our drone is light, but it can travel over 55 mph in the air.  Lose control and crashing is easy.  If you only destroy your drone your lucky.  You can be on the hook for property damage.  If it lands in a crowd of people it can get much worse.  If you’re old enough to remember Hill Street Blues, live by the immortal words of Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, “Let’s be careful out there.”

Here are some examples of drone footage we have taken – LMP Drone Footage.

Thanks for reading – J


Will an iPhone work?

There I was one morning sipping my coffee and getting ready for the day.  I decided to scroll through Facebook.  There I saw a sponsored link that was liked by a couple of Facebook friends.  Normally I skip past these, not even noticing the content of the link.  This one caught my eye – How to Use and iPhone to Produce Professional Quality Video.

Being in the video business some might consider me biased towards more “professional” (i.e. – expensive) cameras.  Truly I am not.  I think cameras are tools.  We actually own 15 cameras, all are used for different functions.  What got me about this advertisement was when the spokesperson compared the the quality of the video to “those fancy DSLR cameras.”  Even claiming that when placed side-by-side no one could tell the difference.  Here is where he lost me.  Their example was a person against a white background … that’s it.  In this case it is very hard to tell the difference.  But again, cameras are tools.  Look at the product pictures below.  When the product is against a white background it is hard to distinguish between which camera took the shot (The iPhone 5s shot is on the left.  On the right is the Canon 5D).
IMG_4207Camera Blog_iphone4Y0A7209Camera Blog 1







Now look at this comparison.  When the product is placed against an interesting background, one with character, one’s camera choice really makes a difference.
IMG_4210Camera Blog 4Y0A7210Camera Blog







Not to get too technical, but a lot of it comes down to how the camera records the image.  If the camera records the image to a small sensor than everything is in focus.  Great for “selfie-videos” shot against a solid color background.  If the camera records to a large sensor  you can have your foreground in focus while your background will fall out of focus.  This is the basic idea of “depth of field.”

If you want to learn more you can go here:

In search of the best and brightest

All companies share the challenge of identifying and hiring talented employees. The team at Wolf Greenfield, an IP law firm with a 90 year history in Boston, updated their website and chose creative video as means to inform potential team members about their mission and culture.

WG - Career

The series of videos hosted on the colorful Careers page provides a fresh approach when many businesses utilize photos and prose to tell their story. Sharing employees insights, interactions, and personal career goals via video provides a unique view inside WG, allowing those on the outside a very real perspective.

Wolf Greenfield takes great pride in its training and mentoring programs. The fact their professionals are technical and legal specialists AND at the forefront of their fields is easy to see. Their passion and drive are difficult to miss. Messaging throughout the video series highlights employee spirit, purpose and a collegial culture which shine as bright as the page on which they are hosted.

This series of videos are a great example for those employers in search of the best and brightest.

– Jim Johnston

Casting a promotional line

When you really get down to it, creating and presenting promotional material is like fishing. I’m no expert angler, but I know this, if I want to catch your ‘choice’ fish, you need the proper bait. So I guess the real questions is . . . who are you trying to attract and why?

Last Minute Production promotional video

Relevance promotional video

Spending some time wrestling with that question can help create promotional content to make people curious enough to want to know more.

In earlier posts we’ve written about understanding your audience when creating and presenting a video and the same holds true for a promotional video. The main objective is to give your viewer a sample of your service and entice them to act, which may be visiting your web page, learning more about your product or service, really any call to action.

Many promotional videos are short and snappy, with an upbeat pace while getting to your message quickly while conveying some emotion, as that is what will make your audience react and take action.  The end game is always to create some form of action, even its only to learn more.

As a videographer I always think images first but you would be doing yourself a huge disservice if you didn’t lock in a solid script before working on the visuals. As always, the visual images should mesh with the script. Develop the script from viewers’ (potential client’s) perspective, thinking about what will entice them to want to learn more about you . . .  show them, entice them and make them want more.

For a few examples check out our Promotional Video page.

Thank you for reading.

-Jim Johnston

Why be thankful?

I can confidently state, on behalf of the Last Minute Production’s team, we are extremely grateful for each and everyone of our clients. And not for the obvious reason of keeping us in business, but for the collaboration and partnership we share and the relationships we’ve created and fostered over the years. Those relationships are the pillars that keep LMP standing tall and have helped us grow into the thriving business we are today.

We often joke that we are an island of misfits, and while that may be true, we have a strong common bond: a desire to create great content for our clients and to exceed their expectations. That ideal motivates us and I believe keeps our clients coming back. Carrying out that credo and mixing in some fun, has allowed those relationships we cherish to grow stronger and stronger over time. And we hope for many more years to come.

To all of our clients and friends of Last Minute Productions, we are thankful for you and the relationships we’ve created … and look forward to working with you soon.

– Jim Johnston

My Morning Perspective

Chair_smallOne of the great things about my job is that it gives me perspective.  We have been working with a Boston medical center on a video featuring the writings of cancer patients.  This morning, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, I spent some time shooting cover video for one of the stories – a poem actually.  Being in an Oncology unit before patients arrive is humbling.

So this weekend the forecasted rain, over-cooked hamburgers, and loud, talkative guests will be looked at as welcomed sights.

Have a great weekend – Jay Dobek

Gratifying and powerful

I find it so gratifying in the age of instant analytics in our immediate results-based world, LMP clients really do benefit from our services long after we wrap up a project. One recent example happened this week while watching the NHL playoffs and seeing commercials that we produced over a month ago still delivering a poignant and powerful message. Video has that effect and will hold up over time.

And video marketing is no different. Companies and organizations are regularly updating their website content and more and more are using video on their homepage due to the fact search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo prefer video on the landing page and rank pages higher for that reason. One bonus to the boost in search ranking is once your highly ranked site is visited, that person will be spending more time on your site because of that same video. An average website visit on a non-video homepage is 43 seconds while a visit to a homepage with video is almost 6 minutes, 5 minutes and 50 second to be exact! Simply put, people will stay on your site more than 8 times longer if you have video on your homepage. Those two reasons are convincing enough until you learn that those same website visitors will use your site more, visiting more pages, to the tune of 80% engagement. Those are powerful numbers to consider for people looking to add a little zest and color to their marketing.

One fact we’ve known for a long time is that people really do remember what they watch and the stats bear that out too. Researchers have proven that 72 hours after people who watch a video they will retain 68% of the information versus 10% retention for those who read text or hear audio of that same material. For those of us looking to create a message that will stay with your viewer, those are very compelling numbers.

If you’re creating content in a selling process, promotional or recruiting campaign or looking to create a lasting memory for an event, using a well-produced video should provide the solution. The numbers back me up.

-Jim Johnston

Budget conscious video planning

Sitting down and planning out a video project can seem challenging, especially if you know the budget is smaller than you’d like. One idea to consider is re-purposing the video. Most event videos, which are created to be played one-time before a large audience, will be posted to an organization’s web site or given out on DVDs, so they usually have a productive second life. Other content can be more challenging to place.
About Us videos are great for home page web content and can be played at trade shows and at job or career fairs. With the low-cost of LCD/LED monitors, I’m betting more companies will add screens in lobbies and waiting rooms, which adds another playback (and marketing) option as well.

Walkin' small picWhen we work with our clients during the planning phase we often remind them to think about the future … we suggest they think about what extra video content that can be recorded while our crew is on site. We have our gear, we’re going to be on location, what b-roll or cover video can we capture during our visit? Shooting additional outside or exterior footage during the visually stimulating summer months really makes sense. Why not  take full advantage of the green grass, leafy trees and the flowers when they’re in full bloom. That video can be used when putting together a project during the not so picturesque months. What may take a little extra time to shoot in the summer (possibly using our jib) can be a big time and cost savings in the future. That extra b-roll helps build out a healthy library of content every editor dreams of having.

And for the producers creating educational content, don’t forget about the interviews. If schedules allow and you have a sense of the content and script direction, spend an extra 30-45 minutes to set-up and record an interview with your expert. The timing may not be appropriate, but if it is, the time and budget savings could make it worthwhile and you’ll have the benefit of some extra content.

So the next time you sit down to think about a video project be sure to think about the future  … consider your next project and let us help  you save time and money!

– Jim Johnston

Five easy tips for using a teleprompter

I am not a public speaker but enjoy speaking to small groups and have found it’s much easier to speak to a larger group when I have a crutch, like a PowerPoint presentation to follow along. But relying on the crutch can have its pitfalls. The same is true for using a teleprompter.

A teleprompter is a great tool for making presentations to camera, but as the topic expert, you need to acts like it and not just read like it. Here are 5 tips to help improve your performance with a teleprompter.

1.  Writing Your Script 

Most importantly, write your script to be spoken as you would normally speak and NOT as you would write. Keep in mind that your audience will hear your words and not see them, so it’s important to write in a conversational way. And use real world examples you feel your audience will identify with … it will make you more comfortable too.

2. Practice, practice and practice but don’t memorize

It’s important to have a very good handle on the content and flow of your address and know what your keys points are so you can emphasize those but you don’t want it to sound rehearsed. Re-read and rehearse to the point of knowing but not memorizing the presentation. Feeling comfortable with the content will allow you to focus on #3 …

3. Show passion, energy and warmth

By now we’ll assume you have a solid handle on the content and flow of your presentation, its time to focus on passion! It may feel odd but most people need to add a like extra energy to their delivery to camera to really show the passion and warmth your audience will respond to. If its appropriate, show a genuine smile as you start and end of your recording. And try to keep the energy high throughout, which can be a challenge. Use bold,  CAPITALIZED or underlined text in the script to help emphasize key words and remind you to keep the energy up!

4. Be yourself – use non verbal communication

What sets you apart from others is your personality so let it shine through during the presentation. You’ve written a conversational script, you’re feeling comfortable with the content and are ready to deliver it with passion and warmth. Act as you would when talking with a small group of friends, be animated, move your hands and feel comfortable enough to show facial expressions. And always remember to look your audience in the eyes, which in this case is the lens on the other side of the teleprompter screen … all of this will make your message more believable and you’ll connect with your audience.

5. You’re the expert, relax and enjoy the experience!

If you make presentations regularly then using a teleprompter should be a very useful tool, enjoy it! Allow your personality and knowledge of the content to shine through. The words on the screen will guide you through your message – have fun with it. You’re audience will feed off your energy and find you more believable.

If you are not used to addressing an audience, live or recorded, remember you are making this presentation because you are the expert.  And this presentation will prove it! Take a relaxing deep breath  just before you begin, focus your eyes on the teleprompter screen and enjoy the ride.

Good luck!

-Jim Johnston