When John Evans began creating a video to document the heroism of the Dutch resistance during WWII, he knew it had to be more than just a historical or academic lesson. His mother and other members of his Jewish family living in the Netherlands lived through horrendous events under a Nazi regime.
There was an important story to tell before memories faded and history lost. Evans was on a mission.
"My mother was taken from her family and put into hiding and her family was one of the few to totally survive (the concentration camps)," says Evans. "There were so many involved in the resistance, even as young children, and I wanted to tell their stories. It was my way of saying if these unselfish acts hadn't happened, I wouldn't be here today; my kids wouldn't be here today."
Directed by Evans, "The Reckoning: Remembering the Dutch Resistance," has had widespread distribution and many accolades since its release in 2006. The 90-minute documentary placed second in the 2007 New York City Film Festival and has been featured at several other festivals. The film also is part of the Holocaust Museum's library in Washington D.C.
The Soul of Story
Presenting visual images a viewer will long remember is a life's passion for Evans, 46, and his business partner Corey Niemchick, 45, a longtime friend. They own Storytelling Pictures, a Grand Rapids company that produces everything from music videos and TV/web spots to biographies, documentaries and public service announcements for clients around the world.
"We work with large companies and non-profits, but we particularly like storytelling when it comes to issues," Niemchick says. "It works both ways for us. We can impact lives, but bring a storytelling approach to commercial projects, too."
Evans started the company in his home in 1997 after he lost the job he held for 10 years as a result of cutbacks in Amway Corp.'s audio-visual department. He jumped at the chance to pursue a desire to use his video skills on interesting stories. In the first 14 months after losing his job, Evans made 8 trips to Africa to film in the Saharawi refugee camps for some foundations.
"I wanted to show (a voice) not just in words, but with pictures, and that's where the name of the company came from," Evans recalls. "I went into this blind, but after Africa, I started getting more clients, both corporate and non-profit."
That included the Peter Cook Foundation, Meijer Inc. and Amway.
Finding a Partner
As Storytelling Pictures grew, Evans persuaded Niemchick in 2003 to leave his vice president's position at Lumbermens Inc., a $150 million building materials wholesaler, to provide the marketing and administrative skills the company needed.
"I had always admired John's work because he is an extremely gifted and talented cinematographer," Niemchick says. "John says: 'Let's do something crazy and form this partnership,' and this was all about my doing something different that would impact lives and help affect change. It was very appealing to me, so we put together a business plan and six years later here we are."
The company at 801 Broadway Ave. NW now consists of four additional employees involved in the consultation, development, writing, directing and production of each piece. Niemchick now is involved in the creative side of the business as well. Clients include the city of Grand Rapids, Doritos brand tortilla chips, Bissell, GFS (Gordon's Food Service), Kuyper College, Children's Hospital of Michigan, The Grand Rapids Diocese and several foundations.
One of the latest projects is Dove Spotlight, a collaboration between The Dove Foundation, Zondervan Corp. and Storytelling Pictures. The program will provide family-friendly DVD, video game and movie reviews nationwide, once funding is established through the foundation. The pilot aired locally in October on WOTV-Channel 4 and sister station WXSP-Channel 15. Hosts are Rachael Ruiz, who also hosts parent company WOOD TV-Channel 8's new daytime program eightWest, along with Terri DeBoer.
In addition to Ruiz, other local talent for Dove Spotlight includes Brian Burch and Derek Emerson, with their take on what families need to consider in entertainment content and ratings.
"The pilot was very successful and was broadcast in 30 million homes on a host of channels," says Niemchick. "There appears to be a lot of national broadcast interest."
Ruiz, who previously served as a reporter and anchor for WOOD, says she covered some of the projects produced by Storytelling Pictures, including The Reckoning, and has always admired the work. She auditioned for Dove Spotlight and was impressed with the sincerity and attention to detail by Evans and Niemchick.
"They are very intricate and perfectionists (who) strive for the highest quality product," she adds. "They have amazing ideas and the sky's the limit. They get very excited about something that hasn't been done and that was great to be a part of."
If the program gets picked up, WOTV possibly could be the local host station, Ruiz says. "Corey and John have an amazing product and the pilot had great reviews," she says. "We already have talked about ideas that will take it one step beyond."
The Creative Class
A year ago, the city of Grand Rapids hired Storytelling Pictures to come up with a video narrative to address "the creative class" of residents , new arrivals and people moving back to Grand Rapids. The idea is help get them involved or re-engaged in activities viewed as essential toward the health of the community.
"It's not about any specific demographic, but rather a psychographic and people who embrace a certain mindset," Niemchick says. "We're looking at how to appeal to these people in ways that the EDC (Economic Development Corporation) cannot."
Evans says the company will be working with Family Life Today, a non-profit based in Little Rock, Ark. to produce six, 40-minute films related to marriage and family. He and Niemchick last week returned from a motorcycle trip (another of their passions) to Little Rock, where they ironed out details for the production. Another work-in-progress is a video in honor of local philanthropist and businessman Peter Wege's 90th birthday, to be celebrated on Feb. 20.
In the developmental stages is a public education documentary with a working title of "Disparity of Health Care." The discussions involve physicians and experts from the University of Michigan Medical Center and other prestigious health care facilities around the country, as well as federal government health care commissions. Evans and Niemchick will weave the information into a compelling visual narrative.
For any project, "we go in and we want to hear what they want, while in the process we let them know what we do and tell them what they need," Evans says. "It's extremely important to hit the mark and tell their story."
Going to News Lengths
The two men are interested in full length feature film making and have "rubbed shoulders" with other production companies to share creative juices. Storytelling Pictures in August hosted the first Grand Rapids Film Festival, which focused film industry workshops and about 30 films of all genres from around the world.
"That went very well and we will do it again, even bigger and better," Niemchick says. "We love movies and the recent tax incentives for film makers makes West Michigan an important place. We're trying to raise our hand in the back of the class and say 'consider us.' "
The company seeks out local talent for much of its work, Evans says. That includes school children who may not have a clue why they're in front of a camera, but fit the bill when it comes to telling the story. There might even be an unexpected perk or two.
"Most of our first graders were involved in a couple of promotional pieces, and John and Corey gave them a free tour of the (Van Andel) public museum," says Marita DeJong, director of development for Northpointe Christian Schools. "They are so flexible with the kids and relate to them very well. And that's because they took the time to learn about the school and its faith focus."
Northpointe hired Storytelling Pictures to produce a promotional DVD included in information packets for interested families. "They are great at communicating, and utilize everything," DeJonge adds. "They spend a great deal of time learning about you and your background and create the narrative and stories around the verbiage you give them."
DeJonge says Evans and Niemchick made the school feel like it was the only client they had, despite other valuable customers on the schedule.
"They weren't the least expensive of what we chose, but the quality of their work pays for itself 10 times over," she says. "We wanted some staying power in the promotion so we wouldn't have to create something completely new every year, and they did that perfectly. We've already started working on the next promotional piece."
A veteran journalist formerly of The Grand Rapids Press, Mary Radigan is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids. She has written for Rapid Growth on subjects as far ranging as being a movie extra to the practice of calligraphy.
John Evans and Corey Niemchick, Owners of Storytelling Pictures (2)
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved