BY KEVIN MANAHAN
Portland is a town chock full of creative folks, as our booming music and art scenes can attest to. And after posting a record year in 2009 for filming activity, Oregon is even becoming more popular as a shooting location for movies and television series. But Portland still has a long way to go before Hollywood needs to worry, and Hinge Digital hopes to get the ball rolling.
The Hinge founders spoke at the Pearl District’s Gerding Theater at the Armory last night, as part of The Art Institute of Portland’s “Community by Design Speaker Series.” With more than four decades of experience between them at studios such as Laika and Disney, Roland Gauthier, Michael Kuehn and Alex Tysowsky shared with the intimate audience of students and industry members why they decided to start their animation and visual effects studio in Portland last year, and how the city could tap into its creative potential to become a go-to source for digital content.
What first attracted the Hinge founders to Portland – after spending years working in Los Angeles and the Bay Area – were the same things that have drawn many people looking to get out of the rat race: the fresh air, friendly people and overall quality of life. But perhaps more important to their business was the strong sense of community they found among Portlanders, who were instrumental in helping Hinge get off the ground. “It’s a lot different in L.A., much more competitive, much more ‘dog eat dog,’” Kuehn says. “You don’t get the same sort of genuine help that you do here.” And while it’s true that Portland is not exactly a hot spot for the digital content business, that fact was another selling point for the Hinge founders. “If you look at a place like Los Angeles or other industry hubs, they’re pretty well-saturated,” Kuehn says. “Oregon is very much untapped, so there’s a lot of potential here.”
But the positive community energy that helped them get started has actually presented an interesting challenge for Hinge: There is an overwhelming number of communities and associations scattered throughout the city, instead of a single, united industry where they can quickly find all the resources and connections they need. And starting up a creative company in the middle of a downturn was a gutsy move; clients had less money to throw around for services like Hinge’s and even made cuts to their own creative divisions.
But there was a flip side: With many turning to outsourcing for their marketing content, they needed studios like Hinge to get the job done. And with companies going out of business, unneeded equipment could be acquired at reduced prices, which was advantageous for a fresh startup like Hinge. Their logic behind it all? “If we established ourselves during a downturn, then we’d be ready when things [picked up],” Gauthier says.
Oregon has certainly done its part to grow its entertainment presence by offering incentives to attract business from out-of-state. But Kuehn says there is always more that can be done by the government to get local businesses flourishing. “It kind of falls on us to make them realize how many of us there are here,” Kuehn says, adding that entertainment tends to be an afterthought in the government’s eyes – even when it plays a key role in tourism by spreading worldwide awareness of the state.
Yet so far, Hinge is getting along fine. Among Hinge’s recent projects are TV spots for electronics retailer hhgregg and Portland’s Fright Town event, as well as web work for Target. The founders agreed that there is no shortage of talent in Portland, and they know plenty of people back in L.A. who would love to move to the Rose City; it’s just a matter of local companies finding ways to collaborate with each other to build a successful industry. “It’s definitely not going to happen overnight,” Tysowsky says. “We’re taking small steps.”
Kevin Manahan is the online editor for Oregon Business.