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Your entree to Web ad fame: Just $300

A start-up films minidocumentaries that serve as Web ads. No formal scripts are used, and static shots are not allowed. Photos: TurnHere shoots video

Everyone's got a story. Now, for $300, you can turn it into a video ad for the Web.

Hoping to capitalize on the booming popularity of Internet video and online advertising, TurnHere, an Emeryville, Calif.-based start-up, has come up with a formula for producing professional video ads to slot into Web sites.

The company will film, edit and package a minidocumentary 45 seconds to 2-plus minutes in length. The minimum price is $300. The company will also then place the ad on search engines and other Web properties for an additional $50 a month.

"It's dirt cheap," said Colin McAuliffe, a freelance filmmaker, during a break while shooting a piece for Kitchen on Fire, a cooking school.

TurnHere shoots video

Customers seem to like the price as well. TurnHere shoots the ads without a commitment to get paid, but approximately 90 percent of the people buy the finished video, according to TurnHere's chief executive, Brad Inman. Most also sign up for ad placement.

The company's business plan can roughly be described as artsy on a budget. Each of the films is supposed to look and feel like a documentary or independent film, said Inman. There are no scripts or head shots. Sometimes, there is a narrator--sounding like radio personality Mal Sharpe--asking questions, but most of the time the speakers are the business owners or the customers.

One of the rules of the film: the subjects have to move around so it's not a static shot.

The ad for Sammy's Roumanian Restaurant in New York City, for instance, revolves around the owners, some dancing patrons, and an enthusiastic and slightly buzzed guy in the alley who loves the place. For Dining in the Dark, a Los Angeles restaurant, you see people eat with their hands in the dark and hear from some of the employees, who are blind.

"They convey a sense of place and location," said Inman. "It's short-form. It's personal. It's authentic."

That ethos of authenticity also brings down the cost. Without a script, you don't need to hire a writer. Similarly, without dialog to memorize, most people get through their scenes with relatively few takes. An experienced filmmaker can probably do five or six ads a day, Inman said. TurnHere also likes to film ads from businesses in the same area on the same day to cut down on travel costs.

By contrast, Spot Runner, which specializes in finding cheap ad slots on cable networks for local businesses, offers a library of canned B-roll film footage that clients can use to help illustrate their ads.

While independent businesses constitute the core of TurnHere's client list, it has also signed contracts to do documentary-style ads for the InterContinental Hotels Group. In these pieces, the concierges at various hotels in the chain describe the neighborhood and things to do. A major online travel site is also contracting with the firm to put together videos on various destinations.

"A lot of these people have paid hundreds of thousands for complex shoots," Inman said.

After a while, you notice a definite pattern to the TurnHere films, but they remain fairly interesting. (I didn't know that someone goes to Burma seven times a year to get special tea leaves for a salad served at Burma Superstar, a restaurant near my home.)

Although the films ultimately sell for a cut-rate price, the videographers get paid pretty well, according to both Inman and freelancer McAuliffe.

A videographer's life is still pretty tough, though, despite the growing popularity of video. Several thousand students graduate every year from film programs, which keeps the price of their services low. Large agencies might hire a person to shoot video, but then hire someone else to edit it. Under the TurnHere contract, the same person does everything on the ad. In fact, the film crew typically consists of a single person.

Many applicants and would-be filmmakers come to TurnHere in response to ads on Craigslist. The freelancers get paid around $1,000 a day, said Inman, who used to be a freelance journalist himself.

TurnHere's minimalist approach is one reason that Inman says he does not fear immediate competition from the big ad shops.

"A lot of the agencies are tied to their high creative costs. They are stuck on a model that is tough to walk away from," he said. "Agencies can't do local anyway."

McAuliffe added that the work is fairly interesting. It turns out that one of the owners of Kitchen on Fire is a cookbook author while the other has been an itinerant cooking instructor. A little while ago, McAuliffe met two football fans who had a knife sharpening business.

"The other day I did one for therapeutic hula hoops," he said.