Exceptional, July - December 2014
Eakin Films & Publishing
The creative impulse
The Oscar-winning movie 12 Years a Slave came about thanks in part to Frank Eakin and the life’s work of his mother, Sue. But there’s more to this serial entrepreneur than film: his interests also encompass shipbuilding, energy – and Cajun food. He tells us what ties it all together.
Growing up, half of Frank Eakin’s family were artists, the other half were business people. It’s a combination that has truly left its mark.
Eakin, founder and CEO of Eakin Films & Publishing and utility retailer Electricity Club, doesn’t identify himself as a creative, but has recently enjoyed success in film and publishing by applying the same analytical process that allowed him to build thriving businesses in industries as diverse as food, shipbuilding and energy.
“I get my thrills from business,” he says. “I liked the challenge of assembling something that could beat the odds.”
Eakin grew up in a small town in central Louisiana, one of five children raised by an accountant father and a mother, Sue Eakin, who taught university history and was a local newspaper journalist. Her passion was the story of Solomon Northup, a freed black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and whose story became the bestselling Twelve Years a Slave when it was published in 1853.
She discovered his book at age 12 and spent her life researching his story and the places and history around it. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Northup,” says Frank Eakin.
His mother was a prolific writer, but is best known for her annotated version of Twelve Years a Slave, first published in 1968. Her research on Northup was the foundation of her civil rights activism.
Both Eakin’s parents were publicly passionate about equality in 1960s Bunkie, Louisiana, and race riots define Eakin’s memories of the time.
“I remember escaping out a classroom window when a riot broke out,” he says. “My family was considered oddballs. I didn’t have many dates.”
The family’s home was burned down twice. Eakin left to attend an arts high school in Baton Rouge, where he was active in the school radio station.
As a college student, he launched a Cajun food distributor on a whim, which prompted a professor to reach out. “He knew I was someone who could raise money, and his son was a recent high-school graduate trying to produce an independent film he wrote.”
Eakin was intrigued that this gifted, floppy haired kid with zero credentials was optimistically pursuing moviemaking. He passed and the project did not find funding, but the kid’s next project raised US$1.2m and became the cult indie flick Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
That kid, of course, was Steven Soderbergh. “That planted the seed for what I understood could be done in film,” Eakin says.
But first, Eakin became a powerhouse entrepreneur. He sold the Cajun food distributor and got involved in the turnaround of distressed oilfield operations, working with his brother, who owned a boutique investment firm.
In 1993, Eakin bought Newpark Shipbuilding for US$13m and grew it into the fourth-largest commercial ship and rig repair operation in the nation. It was doing US$100m in sales by the time he sold his interest in it in 1999.
Next, he moved on to the energy sector in Texas, which was deregulating electricity. “I like to research the heck out of a topic, and when I learned there were 20 million [utility] meters in Texas, I saw an opportunity,” he says.
Electricity Club markets electricity directly to consumers at a 20% to 45% discount off the legacy utility’s rates. But potential customers can be resistant to switch, so to address this pain point, Eakin has gotten creative with marketing.
One example: approaching large companies with package deals that include discounted residential electricity services for the customer’s workers. “That really embeds me in the company because now I’m servicing their employees,” Eakin says.
But Eakin never forgot his brush with Soderbergh. Channeling his passionate dedication to research and marketing strategy, he embarked on his next venture: the very risky business of film.
By the early 2000s, digital technology had revolutionized the movie business. To learn about the economics of filmmaking, Eakin devoured independent filmmaker John Pierson’s book Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema.
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“Less than 1% of movies made ever see distribution,” Eakin says. “I saw it as an intriguing challenge to try to figure this thing out.”
While creative expression had been honored in his family as a child, it was the business challenge that motivated Eakin to explore film further. When his daughter was a tween, he noticed the selection of G- and PG-rated movies at the local Blockbuster was woefully scant.
Around the same time, the Wall Street Journal reported a lack of family-rated live-action movies. To Eakin, that signaled an obvious gap in the market.
Meanwhile, he was involved in the family theater in his Houston suburb, the Woodlands, and set out to apply the economics of community productions to film. And so, in 2009, Eakin released the feature film that he wrote and produced, The Bracelet of Bordeaux, a family sci-fi caper made with the help of 200 local children, 17 animals, a teenage director of photography and US$80,000 of Eakin’s money.
“It had a lot of elements that appeal to kids: cute animals and one of the few examples of a girl buddy mystery adventure,” Eakin says. “But still we weren’t making a Disney-quality film, and so we had to differentiate.”
The Bracelet of Bordeaux mini DVD was packaged with a children’s book, which snagged a distributor’s attention. The film was shown in 100 theaters nationally and has since been picked up by every major American movie rental outlet, including Blockbuster, iTunes and Netflix.
Last quarter, five years in, the movie was downloaded 10,000 times.
The same year, a university press published Sue Eakin’s final edition of Twelve Years a Slave in a run of 500 copies. She passed away two years later in 2009. Not long after, Eakin heard Brad Pitt’s production company was making a movie based on the story and offered to share some of his mother’s research materials.
Eakin then applied his methodical approach to a new industry: publishing. New York publishing giant Penguin had exclusive movie tie-in book rights to Twelve Years a Slave.
Eakin secured the audiobook tie-in rights. He also had rights to his mother’s version of the title, which was edited down to a consumer-friendly length.
”My mother was a historian through and through. Now she is finally getting the recognition she deserves.” Frank Eakin
Eakin hired famed Roots actor Louis Gossett, Jr. as the voiceover talent and set out to beat the big boys in e-book sales. From the moment the books hit Amazon, Eakin’s e-book outsold Penguin’s by a landslide.
On 3 April 2013, nearly five months after the movie opened, Eakin’s version of the e-book ranked No. 898 in Amazon’s Kindle sales, while Penguin’s version was No. 310,362. “It just shows you that the little guy can do it,” he says.
Eakin’s audiobook hit No.1 on Audible’s historical title list. The key to this success was a simple yet ingenious market positioning. Eakin’s e-book was priced at 99 cents to compete with all the other Twelve Years e-books (there were many, since the original book is now in the public domain), but he then made high margins on the audiobook, which syncs with the e-book and cost US$19.95.
“It’s like giving away the razor to sell the blades,” he says. But the biggest advantage was that traditional publishers with hundreds of titles in their catalog do not dedicate significant resources to promoting a single title — which an independent publisher like Eakin Films & Publishing can.
“You have to be very strategic about it and live and breathe the book like we do,” Eakin says. “But the little guy can beat the big guy. We proved it.”
The victory was also personal, of course. When the movie won an Academy Award for best picture, director Steve McQueen in his acceptance speech said: “I wish to thank this amazing historian, Sue Eakin, who gave her life’s work to preserving Solomon’s story.”
“When I heard that, it was so meaningful,” Eakin says. “My mother was a historian through and through. She just wanted to get the story out.
But she published with university presses, which are not great marketers. Now she is finally getting the recognition she deserves.”