Finding ideas that float

Entrepreneurs mine niches of Miami's diverse entertainment sector

THE BEACH CHANNEL

With thousands of tourists visiting Miami Beach annually, Onboard Media is working to get their attention in a unique format — a 24-hour cable net dubbed the Beach Channel.

The Miami Beach custom-media company started out in 1989 by publishing in-cabin/in-room magazines for cruise ship lines and hotel properties.

Before expanding to in-room, closed-circuit programming, it produced destination videos. Its client base includes Royal Caribbean Intl. and Disney Cruise Lines, plus hotel properties in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and the Caribbean.

Moving to a leased-access cable model with the Beach Channel, which bowed Jan. 31, was a logical next step, says Onboard general manager Robert Eichner. The Beach Channel is available only in the Miami area, with carriage on Charter Cable, which reaches 80,000 households in the metro region, plus 12,000 hotel rooms in the oceanfront city of Miami Beach.

Onboard aims to air a three-hour programming loop; so far, it’s about halfway there, according to Eichner. “We have a backlog in production, but as time goes on, the loop is getting longer and longer.”

Styled after the Travel Channel and similar feevees, Onboard produces a mix of editorial shows and programs developed in close cooperation with advertisers and sponsors.

Eichner says they are steering clear of hard-sell segments in those shows. “We felt (it) was very important that the programs have a strong editorial content … to keep the viewer engaged.”

In that vein, sponsored shows include “Paradise Gourmet,” which profiles a hot local eatery (and advertiser) while also including footage of a chef preparing a restaurant’s signature dish.

Also on air are “Tropical Playground,” a travelogue show, and “Real Estate Showcase.”

On the editorial side, Beach Channel has “Location Miami,” highlights film, TV and video production, and “Deco Dreams,” an exploration of the area’s distinctive art deco and MiMo (Miami modern) architecture.

“Advertiser response has been very strong,” Eichner says. Onboard doesn’t disclose financials; since 2000, it has been a wholly owned division of luxury retail conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy.

Longer-term, Onboard’s goal is to export the dedicated-channel concept to other destination cities. Las Vegas, where its clients include Caesars Palace, Bally’s and the Venetian, is a likely candidate. “We know the market, we know the advertisers and we have the relationships,” Eichner says.

For now, the outfit is looking closer to home — up the coast to Broward County and opulent Palm Beach, and south to the Florida Keys. “We are looking to leverage what we have in the region — it’s an easier move,” he says.

— Mary Sutter

A3: ALTERNATIVE TV

When friends and fellow nightlife mavens Justin Altshuler (known as Buster when DJ’ing) and David Mardini decided to launch a dance musicvideo channel, they had only $1,000 between them to invest.

But they parlayed that sum into leased time on a Charter Cable slot that previously had aired advertorials, and pre-sold the channel by calling in favors and relying on the goodwill of friends and acquaintances. “We were lucky so many people believed in us,” Altshuler says.

Alternative TV, branded as A3, bowed in September 2002 in just 100,000 homes and hotel rooms in Miami Beach, targeting nightcrawlers with an airtime from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Within a month, it was making money, claims Altshuler. He declined to disclose revenue, but says, “Everything is going back into the business.”

Less than two years out, A3 has added carriage on Comcast, and now reaches some 1 million households and hotel rooms stretching from neighboring Broward County on down to the Keys. (On the mainland, the party starts earlier at 10 p.m.)

A3 airs dance and electronica musicvideos, culled from submissions and solicited from labels in Europe, where the genre and the DJs who drive it are far more mainstream. “We’re showing videos never seen before in the U.S.,” says Altshuler.

Stateside, outside the club scene, “the biggest exposure people get to this music is via commercials,” he notes, referring to Dodge, Mitsubishi and Motorola ads that use the music to target youthful consumers.

Altshuler and Mardini, with production director Luciano Alexander, created promos and interstitials, plus a half-hour show they call “Wildlife,” in which they roam the night with a camera crew to showcase “parties you couldn’t get into,” plus club action and Miami restaurants.

One seg, called “VIP For a Night,” involves taking a club patron from the end of the waiting line and escorting him past the doorman for a night to remember.

The pair hit multiple venues in a single night, then edit the footage on computers.

“Wildlife,” updated more or less monthly, is showcasing events that took place during the teeming dance world convention known as the Winter Music Conference & M3 Summit, held in Miami Beach in March. Focus includes the DanceStar Awards, whose founder-CEO Andy Ruffel came onboard at A3 as a partner in December.

A3’s trio of owners are at work on expanding the concept for export to other cities. “We’re putting plans together to bring A3 to New York and Los Angeles within the year,” Altshuler says.

— Mary Sutter

MAVERICK ENTERTAINMENT

They’re cheap, plentiful and come wrapped in colorful, albeit cheesy, packages.

New urban and Latino-themed direct-to-video pics from Maverick Entertainment hit the rental shelves around twice a month. The Deerfield Beach-based homevideo distrib-producer has reaped some tidy earnings from its emphasis on volume sales. It may not be churning out Oscar-winning material, but it posted $8 million in gross sales last year.

In a bid to capture both the U.S. Hispanic and international markets, Maverick’s fledgling production arm Breakaway Films will start shooting low-budget Latino pics in English and Spanish. As always, Breakaway will mainly cast its net on the talent pool in Florida for its director, thesps and crew.

For acting talent, it sometimes looks further afield to Spain and Latin America.

According to Maverick president Doug Schwab, separate shoots mean a 20%-30% increase over pic budgets that he says average $500,000.

“This is an experiment of sorts,” says Schwab. “This way, we won’t need to dub or subtitle our English-language films.”

The trial run will begin with “Grand Opening,” a Latino comedy set in a grocery store with a shoot skedded to kick off in Florida in late May. Plans include lensing in high-definition, as Breakaway has with its latest Latino pic, “La migra,” and urban comedy “My Big Phat Hip-Hop Family.”

Some of its titles are loosely based on classics, such as “Carlita’s Secret,” a Latino “Les Miserables.”

The company often taps rappers and Latino artists eager to make it onto the big screen. Platinum rapper Kurupt starred in “I Accidentally Domed Your Son” while platinum hip-hop diva Trina made her film debut in “A Miami Tail,” a “Girls in the Hood” version of ancient Greek play “Lysistrata.” Tito Puente Jr., a recording artist like his father, starred in Breakaway’s first Latino-themed pic, “Senorita Justice.” A number of telenovela thesps also star in Breakaway’s pics.

Since its launch in October 2002, Breakaway has made a dozen urban and three Latino-themed pics. Schwab sees a shift to more Latino pics in the near future to feed what he sees as an underserved market. “Out of the 10 films we plan to make this year, five to six will be Latino,” he says.

A 25-year veteran of the homevideo business, Schwab was a senior buyer for Blockbuster Entertainment for 10 years. In 1997, he founded Maverick Entertainment, which has since created other labels, Maverick Latino and premium brand Maverick Platinum. Schwab plans to launch a horror genre label in the near future.

Last year, Schwab struck a six-pic worldwide distribution deal with Lions Gate Home Entertainment, which has a first-look option for the next six titles.

“I’ve shopped my titles with majors and mini-majors, but even if they don’t pick them up, Maverick Entertainment will release them,” he says. “Either way, our filmmakers should never have to worry about the distribution of their films.”

— Anna Marie de la Fuente

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