Screen Player

A movie man’s odyssey, from renting videos to streaming Hollywood to the world.

By Manny Frishberg November 17, 2009 Published in the December 2009 issue of Seattle Met

IF YOU WERE to make a movie of his life, the pitch might begin: Mark Vrieling acts locally, learns to think globally, and turns the result into a successful business model. The scene would open on Vrieling launching his first Rain City Video store in Ballard in 1988. As the calendar pages flip, Rain City adds a second store in Sunset Hill in 1990 and a third in Fremont in 1995. It survives as an independent in the age of Blockbuster and Netflix by paying close attention to what customers in each neighborhood want.

Cut to a montage of video clips playing on a projection–TV screen in Nordstrom’s young women’s section. Black–and–white images of happy, youthful couples—shot on the street with a handheld camera—roll across the giant screen with captions to introduce them. That’s followed by street and club scenes of New York rappers segueing into a recent Mos Def video.

This is ScreenPlay, a hipper video analogue to the in–store music service Muzak (which was also based in Fremont). Vrieling launched ScreenPlay in 1990; today it feeds video over the Internet to thousands of hi–def screens in stores around the country.

For ScreenPlay, as for Rain City, the key is customizing the mix. ScreenPlay’s staff producers know the music scene; they know just who is listening to whom. The result: a site–specific, customer–friendly variation on MTV, with movie trailers rounding out the recipe. The stores supply branding and commercials, which ScreenPlay inserts into the programs.

Each package is designed for a particular store’s ideal customer. ScreenPlay supplies “young women’s programs” to both J. C. Penney and Nordstrom, “but the content we put in them is actually very different,” says Vrieling. “One is trying to get the top end—a little more sophisticated, a little more fashion–forward—whereas the other skews more towards the younger and mainstream.”

ScreenPlay also streams Internet content from major Hollywood studios; Vrieling says it provides links to live streams of virtually all videos on Disney’s various websites. Because the studios send ScreenPlay actual films and audio tapes, it’s had to become expert at “encoding and transcoding”—turning these into digital bytes and compressing the gigantic raw files into Internet-ready videos, a process Vrieling describes as somewhere “between an art and a science.” ScreenPlay now delivers customized content to 19 countries in a dozen different languages. It recently announced it will begin streaming full–length movies.

With 40 employees, ScreenPlay is Vrieling’s largest business by far, but it’s not his last. In 2007 he launched ThirdPlanet Productions, to make what Vrieling calls “portraits of life in balance…field trips for mind, body, and soul that, like a healing tonic, you reach for again and again.” The first, Living Temples, uses stunning nature cinematography and original music to encourage viewers to relax and appreciate their place in the natural world. A second, Sacred Beauty, is due soon.

Jump to the present. Vrieling sits in a downtown Starbucks, recalling his 20 years in the video business. “I’m a serial entrepreneur, only I build and keep rather than build and sell.” He stays on top of three widely diverse businesses by focusing on the bigger picture: “Being CEO, I try to stay at the 30,000–foot level.” At the same time, each effort informs the next one. “Whatever I do on one is teaching me better about the others.”

Final close–up of Vrieling, panning over his shoulder to the city beyond as he ponders the one film sector he hasn’t yet tackled: “I’d like to own a theater, too. Then I’d really understand the chain, all the way around.” That’s a wrap. Roll credits.

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