Pathway to growth: Production firm’s storytelling attracts national attention

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Despite a wall lined with Emmy Awards and a client list including ESPN and VH1, Pathway Productions founder Michael Husain is as eager to talk about corporate work and Web site development as his firm’s latest Peyton Manning documentary or his work showcased in this year’s Heartland Film Festival.

“The new media side of our business, and that includes Web site development, grew 100 percent in each of the last two years,” Husain said. “So you can see why we’re excited about that. We think we have the opportunity to continue that kind of growth.”

Pathway’s creativity is in just as much demand for corporate DVDs and Web site design as it is for its Hollywood-style documentaries.

Husain plies his craft-not from the media capitals of New York or Los Angeles-but from a hiply decorated but otherwise unassuming downtown office above the Old Spaghetti Factory on South Meridian Street.

The office, which Pathway moved into in early 2004, is a big step up from the room in his north-side Indianapolis home’s basement where Husain started the company in 1996 with $5,000 from his own savings. Pathway worked out of a small Broad Ripple office for five years before moving downtown.

Pathway’s annual revenue has grown to near $6 million, half coming from broadcast work for network television and the other half from corporate clients such as Eli Lilly and Co., the NCAA and Simon Property Group Inc.

Unknown commodity

Still, some in the industry think if more people knew about Pathway’s broad capabilities, the storytelling specialists would grow even faster.

“I think a lot of people view Pathway as a corporate video production company,” said Laurie Kowalevsky, executive vice president and director of client services in the Indianapolis office of Publicis, an international advertising agency. “They were in our building almost two years before I fully understood what they did. What they offer is pretty formidable for a company in this market.”

Kowalevsky isn’t surprised by the firm’s growth in DVD production and Web development.

“New media is a strength because they bring a new perspective,” she said. “Not only are they on the cutting edge of technology, they know how to leverage the technology.”

Pathway’s broadcast work goes beyond documentaries. The company helped produce the anti-tobacco White Lies television advertising campaign and created pop-up factoids for classic sports movies shown on ESPN Classics.

Husain’s most recent credit line is “The Innocent,” an award-winning documentary that explores the lives of former death-row inmates wrongfully convicted of heinous crimes. “The Innocent” will be featured in this year’s Heartland Film Festival, which starts Oct. 13. The venture is Husain’s first in independent filmmaking.

Broadcast revenue in 2004 declined slightly, but 2005 revenue is already 20 percent ahead of 2003. Pathway’s most recent projects include a show focused on children and fishing for ESPN, an organic living show for the Discovery Channel, a documentary about Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse set to debut on ESPN Classics in February, and documentaries on the NCAA’s 100 most influential student athletes to coincide with the association’s centennial celebration.

Pathway business is so good, Husain said, the company just signed a deal to lease more space at its downtown office, and the work force has grown to more than 30. This comes on the heels of acquiring a small Web development firm-Verso Media-and opening a Chicago office to stoke growth, primarily in the new media realm, Husain said.

While the creativity is free-flowing at Pathway Productions, the growth has been carefully scripted by Husain and his top executives.

“This company has an uncommon combination of creative range and depth and a professionalism that gives them a really good one-two punch,” said Daniel Bowen, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer in charge of ESPN Outdoors.

Against the grain

It doesn’t surprise those who know Husain that his company prospers in a region known more for manufacturing and agriculture than media moguls and Internet innovators. Husain has always chosen his own path.

The youngest of three, Husain now laughs at his parents’ attempt to interest him in science. His father, a microbiology instructor at Indiana State University for 23 years, and his mother, also a scientist, wanted at least one of their children to follow in their professional footsteps.

“My brother ended up in marketing and, later, my sister did, too,” Husain said. “I was my parents’ last hope. Dad was feverishly buying me microscopes and science kits.”

But the youngest Husain had a passion for something else: storytelling. His company’s ability to tell stories, he said, is what sets Pathway apart from its competition locally and nationally.

Husain’s storytelling skills have led to credits that include numerous ESPN Sports Century segments and A&E Biographies, among others. Husain said it’s the company’s same storytelling skill that goes into creating corporate Web sites and DVDs.

“Anyone can build a Web site or hold a camera,” Husain said. “If you don’t tell a story, it’s just a series of pretty pictures. And that’s forgettable.”

“The core vision that hasn’t changed is the craft of storytelling wrapped around a commercial enterprise,” he added. “We’re not an ad agency. We don’t come up with people’s branding statement. We try to tie into the client’s focus. It’s been a natural evolution for storytelling.”

Husain, 40, graduated from Indiana University with degrees in telecommunications and political science. Although he initially fancied himself as a newscaster, he later relented, saying, “I was troubled by the brevity of the medium.” His stint at an NBC affiliate in Louisville lasted less then a year.

He quit television altogether in 1987 and launched a publishing company that specialized in making newspaper-style fliers for public rest rooms. Husain said the venture was successful, but the lure of the small screen was too strong, and after 2-1/2 years in the publishing business, Husain found himself producing documentaries for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

The big break

While the Oregon job wasn’t long-lived, it led Husain to Bill Curtis, the well-known narrator for the “Investigative Reports” series on A&E. Husain followed Curtis to Chicago to work on the series.

By the time Husain and his wife decided to move to Indianapolis to start a family, he had amassed enough experience and cable TV contacts under Curtis’ tutelage to launch his own business.

For one month, the company was known as Michael Husain Productions.

“My brother told me the name was too volatile,” Husain said with a laugh, although he noted he spells his name differently than the former Iraqi dictator and that his family’s origin is India.

In the end, Husain chose to name the company after his father’s former employer, Pathway Laboratories.

Despite Husain’s documentary experience, there was some doubt a firm from Indianapolis could tackle TV projects.

“I never saw our location as an obstacle, but sometimes networks ask us what we’re doing in Indiana,” Husain said. “They wonder if a company from Indianapolis can have much substance in this industry. We’re known as ‘that little Hoosier company.’ Once we prove ourselves, it’s not an issue.”

Pathway got its first chance to prove itself nationally in 1999, when ESPN signed the firm to produce three separate documentaries on A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Mario Andretti.

“Their work spoke for itself,” said John Dahl, senior coordinating producer for ESPN Original Entertainment. “The type of skill set they posses isn’t always easy to find, even nationwide. They’ve been willing to offer input, but also to listen to our vision.”

Though Husain has had the opportunity to align with various venture capitalists, he eschewed investors, deciding instead to grow solely by investing profits back into the company. He said that approach allows Pathway to keep its focus on controlled growth, which allows Husain to remain personally involved in project development.

“This is not solely a financial venture for me,” he said. “I love doing this.”

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