If successful documentary filmmaking requires the ability to think fast while on the fly, Spokane native Marie Marx Strohm has the right background – eight years as a flight attendant.
“I’d see 400 or 500 passengers a day, starting in Phoenix and ending up in Canada,” Strohm recalled. “It was fun, but also serious – people’s lives were at stake. So when passengers boarded, I’d scope out who I could count on in an emergency.”
For the past 22 years, she has relied on those skills – and others honed as a special-ed teacher – to grow Hummingbird Productions, Strohm’s one-person videography company.
Her 13-minute video advocating for an initiative to protect Napa County’s watershed was named best documentary short at last month’s Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards.
During a recent interview, Strohm discussed Raggedy Ann dolls, gratitude and guilty pleasures.
S-R: Where did you go to school?
Strohm: Holy Names Academy, then Gonzaga University for three years before transferring to Seattle University.
S-R: What were your interests in high school?
Strohm: English, arts and sports.
S-R: What was your first job?
Strohm: I worked at Spudnuts, a doughnut shop on North Division.
S-R: What career did you envision?
Strohm: I thought I was going to teach English. But when I graduated in 1974, the only job I could get in Seattle Public Schools was teaching sewing to developmentally disabled kids – and I didn’t know how to sew! I took a few night classes to learn, then organized the kids on an assembly line making Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls – each student doing whatever they did best. They had fun, and we sold the dolls at a Christmas bazaar.
S-R: How long did you have that job?
Strohm: Three years. When the district decided to mainstream my students into regular public schools, I switched careers and got a job as a Las Vegas-based flight attendant for Hughes Airwest. I did that for eight years and loved it. But then Hughes switched our hub to Detroit, so I applied for a job at an AM radio station as a talk-show producer, and did that for three years. Next, I became news director for KOOL-FM in Phoenix. I also did restaurant reviews for the NBC affiliate, which worked into a reporting job. Three years later, I was hired as PR/marketing director for the Phoenix Symphony. The last job I had before starting my own company in Scottsdale was writing, producing and directing promotional videos for Motorola.
S-R: What brought you back to Spokane?
Strohm: In 2010 – two years after my husband and I divorced – I went on a cruise with 20 of my high school classmates, and realized it was time to come home. So I moved to Seattle for a year, then returned to Spokane to help care for my mom.
S-R: When you launched your business in 1995, did it gain traction fairly quickly?
Strohm: Yes, because a couple of my former Motorola divisions hired me as an independent contractor.
S-R: What were your startup costs?
Strohm: I had to buy a fax machine, a Mac and a cellphone. I didn’t have any employees or own any video equipment. I don’t want the cost of insuring and maintaining equipment, because it changes every few months. And I can hire a crew with equipment for $150 an hour, sometimes less.
S-R: What skills from your teaching background have proved useful?
Strohm: Working with developmentally disabled students taught me empathy, compassion and patience.
S-R: How has the business evolved since 1995?
Strohm: When I started, the professional-quality video format – called D-2 – was more expensive and less flexible than what we have now. And everything is smaller. Once, I hired a helicopter and rented a special camera to film aerial footage for a documentary about tar sands mining in Alberta. Now you might be able to shoot that with a drone. We just did a video for the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy, and we used a GoPro camera that’s very light and relatively inexpensive.
S-R: What else has changed?
Strohm: When I started, I was doing mostly TV commercials, fundraising videos and capital campaigns. I worked with (singer-songwriter) Alice Cooper when he was a spokesperson for Jeep, and (Mariners pitcher) Randy Johnson on some Chevrolet ads. The turning point was in the late ’90s, when I did my first environmental video, because I felt really passionate about it. Now, most of the things I do are issues I feel strongly about.
S-R: Why were you chosen to make a video promoting a Napa County watershed protection initiative?
Strohm: I’d done a documentary on Jungian philosophy for a Mendocino (California) man who thought he wouldn’t live long enough to write the book he’d planned. Based on the success of that film, I got the Napa County job.
S-R: What was the budget for the watershed film?
S-R: How long did it take?
Strohm: Two months. We only shot for two days. The rest of my time went into pre-production – brainstorming about content, doing research, lining up people to be in the documentary, writing the script – and post-production.
S-R: Who typically comprises your team?
Strohm: I’m the writer-producer-director, and I select all the music. I rely on freelance film crews based in Spokane, Seattle and Phoenix – in some cases people I’ve worked with for 20 years. That way I can hire the best crew for a particular project.
S-R: What are you working on now?
Strohm: A fundraising video for Partners with Families and Children.
S-R: Before signing on to a project, do you have to agree with its premise?
Strohm: Yes, which is the nice thing about owning my own business. And the better the relationship I have with the client, the better the film. I helped with Spokane Transit’s “Yes For Buses!” campaign and last fall’s YWCA’s Women of Achievement Impact Luncheon. But not everything I do is advocacy.
S-R: How do you approach a fundraising or capital-campaign video?
Strohm: My goal is to make the most compelling case I can for support. So I approach it like a lawyer might when making a final argument on behalf of a client in a life-or-death situation.
S-R: Where do you find creative inspiration?
Strohm: YouTube, HBO, Frontline. My hero is Ken Burns. But I’m completely self-taught. I came from radio.
S-R: What’s the best business advice you’ve gotten?
Strohm: Be realistic about costs upfront. I can be very flexible with my pricing, because I wear so many hats. But if the budget is too small, they’re not going to like the product and I’m not going to want to put my name on it.
S-R: Do you have a mantra?
Strohm: Yes. “Be grateful.”
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Strohm: The creativity.
S-R: What do you like least?
Strohm: Paying bills.
S-R: What’s been your best idea?
Strohm: Working for myself. Some people need to get up, shower, get dressed and drive to an office to feel motivated. Not me. By 8:30, I’m in my chair at home, taking calls and answering emails.
S-R: What’s your greatest virtue?
Strohm: Storytelling. People have seen movies and television all their lives, so they decide in the first 10 seconds whether something is worth sticking with.
S-R: Any guilty pleasures?
Strohm: Binge-watching “Game of Thrones.”
S-R: You aspired to be an English teacher. What has this career taught you about yourself?
Strohm: That I’ll always land on my feet.
This interview has been condensed. Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at email@example.com
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