IT & Communication Solutions for Movie Productions: Inside Exchange with CEO Dave Thomas and GA’s Scott Nickelson

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By Mollee Harper, Senior Editor

Georgia Entertainment News gets a special behind-the-scenes look at Exchange and its role in the entertainment industry supporting thousands of movie productions over the past 20 years. Through our one-on-one with founder and CEO Dave Thomas, we learn how Exchange has been customizing and equipping companies with communications and IT solutions needed while filming on location, at production sets all over the world. Thomas also shares the latest IT trends in entertainment in increased security and cloud-based applications, while highlighting memorable experiences on “moving sets”.

We also travel to Atlanta to spend time with Scott Nickelson in Exchange’s Georgia office and gain insights into their local presence and the depth of their work on Georgia productions.

Inside Exchange

Exchange was established in 1996 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Its founder and CEO Dave Thomas started out in the industry by supplying 20 cell phones for the local movie production, Hi-Lo Country. Over the past two decades, Exchange has evolved and adapted the latest technology and communications platforms to serve motion picture and television productions all over the U.S., and abroad. The company is headquartered in New Mexico, with satellite offices in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Honolulu, and New Orleans.

Thomas shared, “We have 15 employees spread out across the country. In Albuquerque,  we have a Level II IT facility. In New York, we have an office that services the tri-state areas with a couple of technical employees. Illinois is our main back office, just outside of Chicago, where our customer service, accounting and admin are handled. We also have a large network of sub-contractors we work with across the country extending our reach from Honolulu to Boston.”

“Our first production was the Hi-Lo Country in New Mexico in 1997. There was a need in the entertainment industry. Since then, we have been managing custom communications and IT solutions for production companies in the office and on set.”

Thomas described, “We create an information technology foundation for productions. There is so much data moving around a production – accounting, creative, content, all of this data is captured and shared within the organization, often spread out across the world. The stuff that they are shooting in Atlanta quickly gets shared globally with other aspects of the production such as marketing, visual effects, and other departments. Everything flows through the network that we build for them, allowing them to collaborate throughout their organization, wherever they are.”

“When I started in this business, productions were usually in one location. Now it’s completely different. You may have a production with a writer in Hong Kong, 10 digital effects companies spread out all over the world, Accounting and Payroll in Los Angeles and NY. There are so many individuals and groups that get involved in modern productions. This collaboration is possible with network and cloud technology we are deploying for our clients.”

Thomas added, “This is obviously a big burden on us. It has to work. It’s been fascinating to see that evolve over time. When we started out, it was just phones. Most everything else was done face-to-face. With the integration of Internet technology that brought us emails, texts and everything else, now most everything is done online.”

Finding a Niche in Entertainment Services

Thomas described his start, “I live in Santa Fe, but our headquarters are actually in Albuquerque. It was basically me for the first 3-4 years renting cell phones for production companies. This was way before high speed Internet.” 

“We made a name for ourselves providing production support outside Los Angeles and New York.  The movie ‘Traffic’ with Michael Douglas shot all over the country from LA to Chicago to Washington, DC, and other locations all over the country. That was when we found our first real niche and realized there was a real need in the industry at the time for the services we provided. Los Angeles was well covered. Everything outside of LA was not. That was our entrance into the business, providing consistent service to productions anywhere they were needed. There were times I would get on a plane with a box of phones and fly all over. ‘Castaway’ was another film where I loaded up my car and drove to Memphis to set up their production office.”  

Thomas shared, “That’s one of the reasons I love the production business. You never know where it’s going to take you. I’ve seen so many interesting things and been to so many interesting places in my line of work. Most of all, I love working with the people in this business.”

“One of most interesting productions of my career was ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. It was shot in the Bahamas. They needed to shoot a scene on a sandbar in the ocean. They rented three huge ships and tied them together near a tiny island crawling with native iguanas. My job was to supply all of the communications they would need. We installed a special satellite system on the beach and ran a connection back to the three ships. That allowed everyone on the ships to make calls, send faxes and get online.  That was one of the craziest jobs we have ever done.”

“With production, everything is usually last minute. You have to be able to respond quickly. Failure really isn’t an option.”  

“There has been amazing technological progress like high speed Internet and Smart phones that have radically changed our business. We pride ourselves on taking new technology and applying that to productions. We were the first to apply Satellite to productions on set.”

Thomas added, “Over time, we want to expand more internationally. We had a job in Malaysia earlier this year. We are working on that gradually. We are a service company – managing, maintaining and servicing our clients in the field. We are also always evaluating new technologies to see what we can put in front of productions to make their lives easier.”

Security for Movie Productions

Thomas offered on security, “We have a multi-pronged approach to security. We monitor our services and networks. We also have a physical aspect like video surveillance and access control so bad actors can’t gain access to the networks we build.”

“In the last couple of years, a number of big studios have been hacked. There is definitely an increased focus on security in the business.” 

“The question is do clients want to spend the resources required to be secure? That has really shifted over the past few years. Production companies are really taking security seriously now. It’s becoming more and more important them.”

IT Trends in Entertainment

Thomas explained, “We are seeing trends in the development of cloud-based production management applications. A lot of companies are moving to the cloud because it’s a safer and more efficient way to collaborate. Amazon Cloud is a huge part of the industry now. A production may have 100-200 people running around. All of the data needs to be shared among everyone and cloud-based apps make it a lot easier to do that. I don’t see that slowing anytime soon. It just makes sense.”

“A lot of the energy right now is focused on content and how content is captured and shared. We build out the network to support that workflow and those sharing processes. The processes of creating content have really come a long way. There are a lot of companies out there that are making advances in that arena. A lot of time, energy and money are being put into that. If you can shave off of a day of production, you save a lot of money. There are a lot of financial benefits there. That’s where a lot of the heavy lifting is taking place from my perspective.”

Inside Exchange in Georgia

Thomas shared, “I love Georgia. I think it’s great. We’ve worked in many states over the years. Obviously we have a presence in Louisiana, Hawaii, and other states….Georgia just stands out. It’s been a great environment. They’ve put all of the pieces together and they support it, especially on the government side. There was some back and forth that damaged the industry in New Mexico and those issues have all been resolved. Georgia has been able to put it all together and support it completely. There is a massive crew base here now in Georgia. They incentivized and created an environment where studios like Blackhall, Pinewood and Tyler Perry came in and invested in the State. Nowhere else have I seen that kind of result. I think Georgia has done a fabulous job in making that happen. I don’t see any end in sight there.“ 

Thomas continued, “Other states have had things go wrong. If the State’s not behind it 100% it’s a problem. In Michigan, they went too far with it and couldn’t afford it. It kind of imploded. You can see where other states have taken a shot at it and stumbled. Georgia has done a fantastic job.” 

Thomas offered, “Scott Nickelson leads our Atlanta office. He’s a local and he’s been on the ground for us since day one. Scott supports all of our productions in Georgia. He is in the thick of it in Atlanta, Savannah and Brunswick.”

Nickelson described, “It was obvious Georgia was about to explode. I already had family in Georgia. We decided to launch a satellite office out of Atlanta. I drove out here and have been here ever since.”

Nickelson offered, “In the first 5-6 years, I was Exchange Atlanta. Now we have a couple of field technicians and an Atlanta Area Field Service Supervisor, Jeff Grabarkewitz.”  

Nickelson continued, “A lot of our technicians started their career in this industry with Exchange. We got them fresh out of school. We mold them into what we need for our customers. I’m unique in that I have 10 years of experience in the real IT world. I came from the normal world of corporate IT, servicing doctor’s offices, hospitals, etc. What’s really impressed me about Exchange is our ability to adapt and overcome. We can get a call today and hear that someone needs communications for a shoot on Monday in Puerto Rico. I will have a technician on a plane today.”  

Nickelson shared, “Dave has a strong ‘failure is not an option’ attitude. I’ve jumped on a lot of planes to make sure things get done. We not only do it, we do it quickly. It’s very challenging, but that is also what makes it so rewarding.” 

“I spent four months following the crew for ‘Unstoppable’ with a satellite system on a trailer to make sure they had Internet and phones available while on set. Before iphones, we did a lot to provide Internet and phone service to productions anywhere they went. It’s fostered and created an attitude with all Exchange employees, ‘yes, we can make that happen’.”

Nickelson concluded, “I am a builder. I like to see a finished product. That’s what motivates me, building something. I believe Exchange was one of the first companies to embrace Georgia’s tax credit. To watch it grow from 1-2 productions to 5-6 to 10 and more. For me, I look back and say hey, I helped build that. Today, we manage IT solutions for Blackhall Studios in Atlanta, a $70 million dollar facility. It’s incredible, the evolution of life in a company; it’s been a fun ride.”

To learn more about Exchange, visit their company website at: http://exchangecom.net/.

 

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