Jeff Ostenson (he/him) is invested in Wenatchee. Born and raised nearby on a fruit orchard, he left to get his education in Tacoma and spent time in Bellingham before returning home in 1997. For the past twenty-plus years, Ostenson has turned his community-building skills, and his camera lens, to helping tell (and shape) the stories impacting the communities around him. He founded North 40 Productions, a digital media production house that works on TV commercials, animations, motion graphics, documentary shorts, narrative shorts, and feature documentary films.
He also co-founded Mercantile, a coworking space in Wenatchee for entrepreneurs, creatives and small businesses. We asked him about his secret to storytelling success, how North 40 Productions engages new clients, and how Mercantile helps drive the creative economy in Wenatchee.
And if you need some doc-related inspiration or even just something to stream on a cozy Friday night, he also told us about five of his top docs that are streaming right now—they may make you laugh or cry, but they all tell a story worth watching.
How do you make documentary films commercially attractive?
Just like investing, diversification is important to being successful in the business of filmmaking. We are consistently balancing many different types of projects at various stages of development and production. This is both by design and also based on the opportunities presented to us at any given time.
We typically have a mix of several “work-for-hire" documentaries (and other types of commercial projects) along with one or two of our own “passion projects.” We also have half a dozen concepts for future docs or narratives that we’re kicking around.
Case in point, the “Era of Megafires” or EOM, was something we were toying around with for the better part of three years until we finally saw a way to “take it to market.” In order to fund EOM (or pretty much any doc project), you have to partner with other like-minded organizations and people that are also interested in getting the story out to the audience. On the funding for EOM, we had a lot of local folks give personally and we received grants from US Forest Service, Washington State Department of Commerce, State Farm Insurance, and Vaagen Brothers Lumber. We worked extensively with the US Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Lab on the content though they contributed no funding.
How do you decide on a narrative when you're dealing with an issue-based concept?
A lot of people, and often clients, instinctually lead with explaining the issue or topic. They explain and explain and explain, hoping to convince us of thinking a certain way about the issue through understanding.
We find this approach to be ineffective, for the most part. At North 40, we’re firm believers that human stories are the most effective way to engage an audience. If we can get the audience to empathize with our main character, share their desires and frustrations and celebrate their victories, and keep the issue secondary, the audience will emotionally come along for the ride AND also learn everything we hoped they would about the issue. This isn’t always easy or even possible due to project constraints, but we drive towards character over facts every time.
Frankly, it's our ability to empathize and care with others that makes documentary films so important as an art form. Simply put, through film, if we can connect and learn about people that are different from us, it makes us better people.
You’ve worked with so many brands and nonprofits as well as educational institutions. How does North 40 Productions engage new clientele?
There really isn’t just one way that this happens for us. We’re going on 15+ years of doing this so we have many fantastic return clients who hire us for their production needs year after year. We also go after jobs posted on sites like the Washington State Job Listings, but there’s a lot of tough competition out there. Probably the most effective marketing strategy for gaining new clients is word of mouth. Happy clients lead to more work.
Also, pretty much any project we deliver we think of as our calling card, and it might just lead to that next project. That’s why it's so important to always do the best possible job on each project. You never know who will see your work especially given the proliferation potential on social media.
The important point here is that filmmaking is a craft. We strive to hone and improve our craft with every project. Yes, we creatively solve challenges that arise in the process, however, creativity doesn’t make movies. I think (and hope) that this practice and perspective drives future business.
In addition to your film work at North 40 Productions, you are co-owner of Mercantile, a coworking space in Wenatchee. What are the benefits of working in a coworking space? And how has Mercantile helped drive economic growth in your community, especially in the creative sector?
The Mercantile coworking space was born out of many different interests and perceived demands in Wenatchee. One personal financial goal was to own the building where North 40 has its offices and studio. My wife and I are also heavily invested in the downtown core of Wenatchee (we’ve both lived, worked, played and volunteered there since we moved back to the Wenatchee Valley in 1997), and we felt that a coworking space was desperately needed in the downtown area because there wasn’t a place where entrepreneurs could connect, besides the local coffee shop.
Also, due to the quality of life and outdoor recreational opportunities, Wenatchee is becoming a home base for tons of people that e-commute to their jobs outside the valley. These people need a place to work as well as to connect with others. Coworking spaces are ideal for this.
It’s fun to sit back in the space and watch people connect personally as well as for business. I know people that get day passes so they can just hang around to see who comes through the space any given day. The Mercantile is mostly focused on small business and e-commuters but the same model would work well for artists and other creatives.
At Mercantile, you work in a partnership. What is your best advice for people who are interested in working in this business structure?
Partnerships can be both highly successful and massive failures. I think the way for a partnership to succeed is two-fold: first, it’s important to create an environment where disagreement and differing opinions are seen as positive things and part of a normal process of doing business (because they totally are).
In fact, especially for North 40, creative disagreement is a critical part of our process. Through disagreement and further discussion, a better answer, almost always, will present itself. The second part is the willingness to compromise. Once everyone has had the opportunity to have a voice and share their point of view on a topic, compromise must come next or you simply get stuck. The phrase “defend your position and then run to the middle” is said often in our shop.
In the case of the Mercantile, much of our success is based on the different skill sets of the partners. We have a bean counter, project manager, an engineer and a marketer. If we were all accountants, it might not be as good a fit. Finding partners that compliment your own skill set is definitely a good idea.