Sound of Success

Studio Center may be Virginia’s best-kept secret, but the production company is about to start making some noise.

Woody Prettyman at Studio Center’s production facility in Virginia Beach.

Photo by Mark Edward Atkinson

You’ve definitely either seen or heard Studio Center’s work, you just didn’t know it at the time. “I call it ‘Hollywood in your backyard,’” says Chris Wilson, Studio Center’s marketing director. “Who knew?”

The full-service audio and video production company, headquartered in Virginia Beach and with offices in Richmond, Washington, D.C., New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, delivers 15,000 projects per year for clients both local and national, making it the most prolific commercial media production house in the nation.

With a roster of crack copywriters and jingle composers, velvety-voiced microphone talent and detail-obsessed sound engineers, Studio Center has created radio commercials for companies like BMW, Lowe’s and McDonald’s, while its crew of onscreen talent, behind-the-camera technicians and visual effects teams have crafted TV commercials for the likes of Audi, Comcast and Barbasol—the latter including a Jurassic World movie tie-in that was given the thumbs up by Steven Spielberg. (In total, Studio Center can call on 700 full and part-time employees.) And if you’ve somehow avoided radio and TV, you may still have heard some of Studio Center’s audio emanating from your GPS or your kids’ Marvel toys.

Founded in 1966, when beach band singer and radio program director Warren Miller, who passed away at 78 in November 2015, opened a small studio above a restaurant in Norfolk so he could produce music for bands, Studio Center soon bagged Hardee’s as its first commercial client, and enjoyed incredible success in the commercial audio space for the next 50 years.

But when current owner William “Woody” Prettyman, 53, bought the company from Miller in 2004, he was thinking even bigger. “When I looked at Studio Center, they already had a lot of voice talent, they had a lot of talented people,” says Prettyman, who was Clear Channel Communication’s vice president of sales for all of Virginia until 2002. “But they didn’t have a sales and marketing division. They were able to grow without doing any traditional sales and marketing, and I thought, well, since I’ve been doing that for 20 years, if I could add that element to what they already have, then we could grow 500 or 600 percent—which we have.” One of his first moves was to expand into video production, which they did in 2007. In 2015, they opened a new studio in Washington, D.C., to capitalize on the huge need for political commercials in 2016.

But the Arlington native’s vision for Studio Center’s future goes beyond producing content for other people. “With seven locations and 32 production rooms and 60,000 square feet of space and wonderful people, we’ve proven that we can create really good content. If you’ve seen some of our reels, they’re as good as anything you’ll see in the country. But now we want to own. We want to be creators and owners of our own content, too.”

The Studio Center Entertainment Division (SCED), launched in December 2014 to produce unscripted (better known as reality) television, has already scored a co-production deal with LoudTV, a division of ITV America, the largest independent producer of non-scripted television in the U.S. Prettyman says SCED has six shows in the works, including the LoudTV co-production that is “a travelogue about Alaska with this really interesting lady. She’s terrific, very talented, and the show has to do with food and the lifestyle of Alaska from a woman’s standpoint.” (He won’t reveal any more—no matter how many different ways I phrase the question.) But Prettyman will allow what may underpin his company’s improbably smooth transition into entertainment: “We laid out our plan three or four years ago,” he says. “What we wanted to do was be a boutique and focus on nurturing the talent. Without giving too much detail, we pay our talent. We’re not going to sign 300 talent and then ignore you. We sign five or 10 talent and we develop shows around you. We learned: don’t chase a space, don’t chase a franchise, don’t chase a type of show—just find interesting people and focus on the talent.”

This people-first approach may be the secret to all of Studio Center’s recent success. (Its Employee of the Moment system recognizes employees who go “above and beyond” explains Wilson, and rewards them with an on-the-spot $100 bonus.) For the past four years, workplace research organization Best Companies Group has named Studio Center one of the Best Places to Work in Virginia, a designation which seems to stem from Prettyman’s belief that he’s the ideas and marketing man and his employees are the experts. “I don’t go on set or into sessions,” he says. “I hire good people and let them do what they’re best at.” Still, surely it’s difficult to attract the best of the best to work in Virginia, when the glamour of Hollywood and New York City dominate the production industry?

Absolutely not, Prettyman insists, and points to the talents of motion graphic designer and compositor Bill Eyler, a Prince William County-native who has worked on big-budget movies like The Avengers and the Star Wars prequels, and to Alejandro Brubaker, a motion graphics designer responsible for 3-D animation of the ESPN and HBO logos. “These guys choose to live in Virginia,” he says. “I always think, ‘What an untapped state.’” But, it seems, Studio Center is beginning to change that.

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