Being in business successfully for 25 years is a milestone few companies reach. But for the past quarter century, a relatively small, eclectic entertainment company has flourished here in the shadows of our nation's historic freedom landmarks.
Tucked away in cramped offices on busy Market Street — just a few blocks from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall — TLA Entertainment Group built an internationally renowned empire fueled by a passion for film and an earnest desire to please their customers.
"In this business, just like in any business, it's about satisfying customers? needs," said Rich Wolff, co-owner of privately held TLA, and VP of acquisitions and marketing. "We are continuously working on customer service, faster shipping, better pricing, and nicer catalog designs. As long as you run it like a business, you have a good chance of success."
Director of Marketing Brian Sokel agreed that customer service is business critical, and cites the fact that TLA staffs its own 24/7 customer service in a building nearby. But, Sokel emphasized it's the owners? continued love affair with film that has kept TLA at the forefront of its industry.
"The people who work here are from every genre of film," said Sokel, "and it's the idea that film, in itself, is an art form and is valuable and truly worthy of being documented."
From its beginning, TLA has focused on entertainment that is "hip, foreign, alternative and otherwise not in the mainstream." In the early ?60s, the Theatre of the Living Arts (TLA) was an experimental theater group, featuring then-unknown stars like Danny DeVito, Judd Hirsch, Sally Kirkland and Ron Leibman. In the late ?60s, financial pressures forced the theater to change into a movie house, and under the direction of the current owners quickly became one of the nation's leading repertoire theaters known for its eclectic combination of classic, foreign and offbeat films.
"TLA was one of the first places in America to play Rocky Horror Picture Show," said Erik E. Schut, managing editor of the gay adult division, adding that the house was at the forefront of the "midnight movie" trend. "The film Pink Flamingos, for it's 10th anniversary, Devine and John Waters jumped out of a birthday cake."
Spurred by dwindling attendance at the theater and the burgeoning video market, the partners opened their first video store in 1985 right next door to the theater, Schut said, so people could leave the theater and buy movies. Over the next 12 years, TLA would open more stores, and today operates five in Philadelphia and one in New York City.
TLA launched tlavideo.com in 1997, with the goal of providing worldwide Internet access to the wide mix of films associated with the theater. Wolff said the site has over 1,000,000 unique visitors each month, and has become one of the largest Websites in the country to offer gay, lesbian, American independent, international, mainstream Hollywood and straight adult DVD and VHS.
Video on Demand services were launched in April 2005, and Sokel said this is just another means of providing customers easy access to product.
"Unlike the other companies out there that are entrenched in one delivery brand or another," Sokel said, "TLA has always looked at it as DVD is not dead. There are people out there who would argue this forever, but DVDs are not dead. People still enjoy owning DVDs. The delivery and experience (of VOD) is not the same as having a DVD, the collectibility, the physical piece of it. We look at on demand as an extension of the customer experience."
"We still have hundreds of pieces of mail that come in (daily)," said Vanessa Keegan, managing editor of the straight adult division. "People with money orders and cash. There are tons of people who aren't even online, let alone who want to watch a movie on their computer."
Sokel said, "You can't forget about all the people who, it?s not because they haven't learned, they many not want to learn, or they just like getting a catalog in the mail and ordering via the phone."
Wolff agreed, saying that Internet delivery, mail order catalogs and the actual stores all compliment each other as means of distribution.
"When we were printing the catalogs, the Internet people said the catalogs were obsolete, that the retail stores will be obsolete, that the catalogs are not going to need to exist," Wolff said. "I'm amazed when I go over to our CSR center, that we still get a stack (of direct mail orders), sometimes a foot or two high, for the day."
"We already had this business model, and we just kept putting one foot in front of the other," Wolff said. "Who would open a chain of video stores (today)? But if you already have them and they are established, it's kind of easier to grow organically that way."
The newest division of TLA — TLA Releasing (tlareleasing.com) — is an international film distribution company with specialties in international, independent and gay and lesbian cinema, which, Wolff said, released 50 DVDs and eight theatricals last year.
Schut said TLA Releasing was a natural extension of the company's film festivals, "because people were showing up in droves to see the festivals, but they couldn't buy the films anywhere."
Those festivals — The Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and the Philadelphia Film Festival — saw attendance of 28,000 and 57,000 respectively last year. Spearheaded by CEO/President Raymond Murray, the two expensive and expansive fetes fall under the newly created Philadelphia Film Society (phillyfests.com), a not-for-profit corporation that TLA established in 2001 to organize the events. The gay and lesbian festival is the third largest in the U.S., and, at press time, Laurence Fishbourne and Susan Sarandon were scheduled to attend this year's straight film festival in late March and early April.
"Ray and the partners have always been the saving grace for a lot of these things," said Sokel. "The film festivals are a natural extension of that idea. Ray always liked bringing films to Philadelphia that can't be seen anywhere else."
"The great thing about the company is that adult is treated the same way as any other film," said Sokel. "We believe our customers should be allowed to choose for themselves what they are interested in purchasing for themselves as entertainment, and give them the opportunity to buy those things. We never pass judgment, saying we won't carry this or we won't carry that, like a (mainstream video store) might. They're imposing rules upon merchandise and thus limiting what a consumer in the middle of the country can find. TLA has never done that."
As a member of the Free Speech Coalition, Sokel and Schut said TLA is a strong opponent of censorship, but emphasize that the company is very careful how and where it markets its products to avoid any possible legal ramifications.
"We have some pretty extreme stuff," said Schut, referring to items such as the gay adult uncensored director's cuts. "But we keep it away from kids and the people who just don?t want to see it."
Still, accidents do happen. In one instance, a mistake at the data house addressing the direct mail pieces resulted in gay adult catalogs being shipped to a video game manufacturer's mailing list. The primarily adolescent recipients were definitely not TLA's intended audience, but Wolff said TLA was very upfront when confronted by parents who apparently appreciated the company's forthright handling of the matter.
"We had a fair amount of phone calls, which I took personally, for two or three weeks," said Wolff. "I just had nothing but these irate parents. I took each call, because I thought it was important that the parents knew it was a computer error, and it was not done intentionally. In this business there are enough customers that you just want to do what's right and legal."
Sokel said the company employs an attorney on staff to aid in such situations, as well as the various legal questions that arise from other areas of the business.
"It's not just for the adult stuff," said Sokel, explaining that for TLA Releasing there are always contracts that need to be worked out, overseas rights, running contests on the Website, etc. "If you're a company making any sort of money, you're crazy if you don't have a lawyer in the office."
While the lawyers help keep the product transversing national and international locations, Wolff is quite content to keep his company grounded in the City of Brotherly Love.
"The Internet has allowed us to have an international presence," said Wolff. "We're a strong IT-based company, we invested heavily in IT, and we can work nationally from Philadelphia."
"There's no glamour or glitz here, but it's hard to uproot a large number of people," said Wolff, adding that the company does have a presence in New York, London and Santa Monica, Calif. "We also travel quite a bit. It's great to go to the other places, but we come back to Philadelphia, and it's home to us."
Wolff said this has been an important factor in building and maintaining an excellent staff.
"Our employee retention is one of our greatest attributes," said Wolff, explaining that many of the 200 people on staff at TLA have been with the company for 10-15 years. "We've had a lot of entry level positions in the art and editorial departments, but if someone is bright and shows promise, they can rise quickly. We empower them."
Keegan is a prime example. As managing editor of the straight division, Keegan oversees catalog programming, Website programming, promotion and marketing.
"I started at TLA at 21 years old doing data entry of the adult," said Keegan. "At 23 they said we need someone to run the straight adult division. I said give me a shot, and it took me a really long time to get the vendors comfortable having this 23-year-old girl calling about product."
"The first thing I realized coming into this company is how much it's run like a family organization," said Sokel. "They are very open to new ideas. If you bring something to the table, they get very excited about the new people coming in, and they want to see what they can do."
Schut, who has been at TLA since 1992, said the "family" feel at the company stems largely from the fact that ownership has remained intact since the beginning.
"It's the same four partners," Schut said, referring to Claire Brown Kohler (COO), Eric Moore (CTO), Murray and Wolff. "They're all very intelligent, but such different people, personality wise. And they do take care of their employees. They sink all the money back in to the company, and they always have."
Sokel said, "We sell adult, we do a very good business in adult, and it does drive a lot of our other initiatives because it directs revenue into our company," adding that TLA had just received an Outstanding Achievement Award at this year's GayVN Awards. "But we are not solely an adult company. We have employees here who do all types of different things."
"We're still involved with the community," said Keegan. For instance, Sokel noted, in Pennsylvania this year, everyone who adopts a dog through the ASPCA will receive a DVD courtesy of TLA Video on how to train their new pet.
Sokel, a relative newcomer with nearly three years at TLA, has quickly become entrenched in TLA's past, present and future.
"People have a way of perpetuating through the company," he said, "being with the company at the changes, and as we're going through this 25 anniversary milestone, it's interesting to look over the history of how the company has changed from a repertoire theater on South Street, to then having to adjust to the VCR (the corner stone of the adult industry), then going to video stores, then going to direct mail catalog, then to the Internet, to releasing our own films, and now into the digital age."
"It's amazing to be with a company that's 25 years old," said Sokel, "but is still nimble enough to be able to move as times move."
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