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Front & Center: Spokane native oversees videography company Hummingbird Productions

Marie Marx Strohm, of Spokane, has had a career as a flight attendant, then in radio, television, advertising, corporate communications and filmmaking. Her film about environmental issues in California’s Napa Valley recently won an award at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Strohm has won many awards in the corporate and advertising world. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Marie Marx Strohm, of Spokane, has had a career as a flight attendant, then in radio, television, advertising, corporate communications and filmmaking. Her film about environmental issues in California’s Napa Valley recently won an award at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Strohm has won many awards in the corporate and advertising world. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil Correspondent

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?

Strohm: $15,000.

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 mguilfoil@comcast.net

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