Whether it is the sweet reggae music, spicy food or record-breaking athletes that define Jamaica’s culture, for more than three decades, one company has been instrumental in conveying this culture to its citizens and the rest of the world.
Phase 3 Productions started thirty years ago not as a business, but as a hobby, as Richard Forbes nurtured his love of video production in his Kingston home. Since then, it has grown into a multi-million dollar company that has broadcast some of the nation’s most important events. Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Desmond Tutu, Fidel Castro and the Queen of England were just some of the state visits Phase 3 produced. And then there are the landmark cultural events such as Summerfest, Rebel Salute, Jamaica Jazz and Blues Fest and sports such as the Jamaica Athletics Association’s World Championship, the ISSA Boys’ and Girls’ Championships and the CONCACAF Under-17 Women’s soccer competition.
This year marks three decades that the Forbes family, consisting of Marcia, Richard and son Delano, have owned and operated Phase 3 Productions in Jamaica. It now employs 100 freelancers and a full-time staff of 25 people.
Phase 3’s roots originate from Richard’s love of technology and his dabbling as a DJ. “It very, very quickly grew into a real business,” says Marcia Forbes during an interview in her colourful office.
Its first ventures included three JBC television shows (Sports Spotlight, to mention one) and music videos for Lady G, JC Lodge and Lovindeer. And Phase 3, through Delano’s work on music videos, also produced Voice winner Tessanne Chin’s video for Hideaway. Delano also won the Caribbean Broadcasting Union’s Best Video of the year for three years straight.
In the early years, business started to take off as the government-run public broadcaster Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) began to rely on Phase 3 to transmit events. “The JBC’s outside broadcast unit broke down, so they commissioned us to do national events,” says Forbes of one of the company’s first challenges. Forbes recalls another particularly difficult day, when Phase 3 had two outdoor events at opposite ends of Kingston scheduled, and only one mobile broadcasting unit. “All our vans had flashers, and we were driving from downtown with our flashers on with someone hanging out the van and a police escort. We managed to set up before the JBC,” she recalls with a laugh.
Fast forward to present-day. In 2012, Phase 3 produced 323 hours of local content, almost half of which was carried on live television, and 2013 exceeded 500 hours. Phase 3 has also worked with other international channels (NBC’s Telemundo, Televisa, TV Azteca, beIN Sport and Traffic Sport) and has broadcast the live stream to Brazil, Japan, the USA, the UK and other countries in Europe and Africa. The company’s clients include Sagicor, Sandals, the Jamaica Observer LIME, Flow, BET, MTV, Viacom and the Bank of Jamaica. Phase 3 was also the official broadcaster for Jamaica 50’s celebrations at the Jubilee Village.
But of course, growing a business over three decades is not without a steep learning curve, Forbes admits. However, these challenges over the years have translated into wisdom and skills that are now relayed to Phase 3 staff and dozens of university students, who pass through as interns. In the past year alone, Phase 3 took on eight interns and hired three. And in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Phase 3, the company plans to formalize this training with a structure program for interns and newcomers eager to learn more about the industry.
Jamaica’s university students are not the only ones who learn on-the-job at Phase 3. Son Delano, who is now the Creative Director and CEO, got his start in the industry as early as age 5, when he acted in television commercials. By age 12, he was working with his parents at the company, rolling up cables and cleaning equipment, and at 16, slowly took on more and more responsibility as his father Richard lost his sight. In addition to this practical experience, Delano has academic qualifications to back it up; he has a BFA from New York University in Film Directing (with a minor in Economics) and an MBA from Florida International University.
“In terms of our field, without blowing our own trumpet, we act as a resource,” says Delano. “We are not just an equipment resource. It is not uncommon for us, even for jobs that we’re not working on, that producers will call us. Some people refer to us as a university because a lot of companies have come out of Phase 3. We have no issues at all with that kind of scenario. People who come here, we are all learning from each other. Lot of people know us for reinvesting heavily, for our hard work and for keeping up to date. Us being able to transition through the decades does speak to us in a good light.”
As does the company’s resourcefulness. “We have learned how to make do with very little,” Mrs. Forbes says, touching on the difficulties of doing business in Jamaica. “We have also learned that you are only as good as your last job. If you don’t deliver then you are chopped liver. Everybody wants to be the best, and entertainers are not always easy to deal with,” she says, adding that while the entertainment industry aspect seems “sexy” to outsiders, it is anything but. In fact, it is long hours, coping with the unexpected and accommodating many demands from clients.
(Read another good piece about the Forbes family and Phase 3 here.)
Perhaps the most substantial experience came with the live broadcast of Sting, which is an annual “clash” of words between dancehall artists. This year marked the first time that it was streamed live via pay-per-view to the North American market (93 million homes, to be exact). In a series of logistics way too confusing for those not in the industry to understand, four signals were broadcast to Las Vegas, where they were then picked up and relayed to American and Canadian homes.
While the event had a few glitches, it was deemed a huge success, and other businesses have come calling for Phase 3’s recipe. “From our end, in terms of the signal, it was highly successful,” says Forbes, adding that the live nature of the broadcast was relatively unprecedented.
The company plans to apply this method to other events such as major sports competitions, and they are even planning to provide the capability to stream them live to people’s tablets or phones. This level of innovation is not without sacrifices, however, Forbes adds. “We lost our shirt but not our pants,” she says of live streaming events, especially sports, but this takes a lot of resources. “There is a tremendous interest in live streaming athletics, but then you need customer service departments, you have to purchase the bandwidth, you have to guess or plan for the right amount of subscribers. There are many, many issues related to live streaming.”
It is, however, the way of the future, as is high definition television, Forbes adds. To this end, Phase 3 keeps its technology as up-to-date as possible. “We see our role as pioneers in content export,” Forbes says, adding that production is now mainly based on software. In the bigger picture, Forbes says Phase 3 is committed to remaining a foundational company in Jamaica. “We are committed to reinvesting and offering jobs to Jamaicans. There is a lot wrong with Jamaica, that is true, with crime and corruption being a double-headed monster, but despite the negatives, every cloud has a silver lining and we choose to look for the silver lining…We have been here for 30 years and we have some level of investment, so we are still relevant. We are proud of our longevity and we have not stood in the same place, while we have watched other companies come and go…We are totally committed to Jamaica. We don’t have one foot somewhere else. This is where we work and where we choose to live.”
Phase 3 now has eight high definition cameras and a $20 million (JMD) high definition field production truck. The company has also invested more than $300 million (JMD) in equipment and in 2012, acquired assets worth $55 million. Unfortunately, none of this infrastructure can be locally sourced, as it is not manufactured in Jamaica, Forbes adds, which is a “real opportunity cost. When we buy equipment, nothing we use is produced locally.”
All this acquisition is taking place in the midst of a dramatically changing market that is being shaped by social media and new technology, Forbes adds.
“The market has been revolutionized. You had big production houses and now everybody is a producer or content creator. The business model has evolved and we have embraced social media,” she says. Indeed, Forbes is considered a social media expert and has two books to back it up: Streaming: Social Media, Mobile Lifestyles and Music Media and Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica. She also completed a Fullbright Fellowship at Emerson College in Boston some years ago, where she completed a Master’s degree in Global Media, Communications and Advertising. Forbes continued this education and is actually known formally as Dr. Forbes, as she completed her Phd in Communications at the University of West Indies.
So what is next for Phase 3? There have been rumblings about taking the company public, Forbes says, and in fact, some major financial firms have indicated interest in this prospect. “But we like the autonomy. We will expand and that’s the thrust of where we are going.”
(Full disclosure: Phase 3 provided complimentary passes to the 2014 Jazz and Blues Festival so I could get a sense of the scope of the company’s activities.)