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The Real Deal Los Angeles

The age of agent auteurs

Listings videos are increasingly cinematic and costly, but can they actually sell luxury properties?

July 14, 2017
By Cathaleen Chen

The trailer for 864 Stradella Road in Bel Air featured two kids pretending to be sick so they can stay home and enjoy the house. The home sold for $39 million six months after the clip was released.

UPDATED, 9:35 a.m., July 17: Topless women painted in gold, some in harnesses, writhe suggestively in what you could easily mistake for a mad supervillain’s luxurious Los Angeles lair. Far from a scene in the latest Hollywood franchise, this NSFW clip is from the listing video for the Opus, Nile Niami’s 20,500-square-foot, $100 million dollar spec home.

In a statement released soon after the video debuted, Niami said of the short film, “I kept telling the director, ‘Go darker … go sexier….’ and was thrilled to see the results — a woman who is transformed and empowered by the beauty of Opus.”

Not surprisingly, the video garnered nearly a million views after it launched on Vimeo on May 4. But so far, the property remains on the market.

Some say the buzz alone from the often-suggestive pieces makes elaborate listing videos worthwhile. “If you’re not using video, then you’re not relevant,” said Ben Bacal, a Rodeo Realty broker. Hilton & Hyland’s Drew Fenton has the listing. 

However, not every agent is on the same frame when it comes to using videos as a means of promoting a luxury listing. Clips can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to upwards of $60,000, according to listing video production company Rafiki Productions, and agents typically cover the expense themselves. Some brokers say the pricey videos don’t do anything to boost the bottom line.

The jury’s still out on the success of cinematic videos as sales tools, in part because it’s hard to pinpoint which marketing strategy sold a house, experts said. These days, luxury brokers have to do it all: social media, online ads, drone photography, catered open houses and now high-production-quality videos.

“I don’t think you can draw a line between a video and the expediency of how it sells,” said Horacio LeDon of Partners Trust, who produced a “La La Land”-themed video for an $8.5 million listing in Encino.

“It’s hard to quantify in empirical terms. For us, if we could produce something very creative, we know it’ll get covered [in the media], so we’d get exposure and expand our bandwidth,” he said.

Other luxury brokers are more doubtful.

“I’ve never been tempted to make a video, because a seller has never been interested,” said Jade Mills, a top-producing broker with Coldwell Banker.

“To me, it’s very time-consuming, and a lot of the time, buyers would rather go to a website and just look at the pictures. They probably don’t want to spend five or six minutes watching a video.”

Bacal, who has a video made for every listing he represents, argues that given the popularity of videos in mainstream media consumption, it’s only intuitive for agents to use them as a way of promoting their listings.

“Just having the word ‘video’ in an email is going to guarantee a 100 percent higher click rate,” he said. “And it’s so easy to share them on social media.”

In 2015, Bacal founded Roofshoot, an app that provides agents with templates and tips for shooting videos on their iPhones and uploading them onto the Roofshoot website, which serves as a search engine for all the videos shot with the app. A Roofshoot subscription costs $25 a month for an agent.

But it’s not all about the exposure, some argue. F. Ron Smith, co-owner of Partners Trust, said his brokerage has a policy of making a video for nearly every listing because only videos can showcase a home in a holistic way that photos cannot.

“It really does serve multiple purposes. Some people think it’s self-aggrandizing for agents to do these videos, but it’s just the easiest way to convey the details and the emotions of the property that you’re selling,” he said.

Unlike Bacal’s mini-movies, Smith’s videos lack costumes and plot twists. A video for 868 Leonard Road in Brentwood, for instance, featured property shots paired with an interview with the architect. However, the home did not sell until eight months after the video came out. It’s worth noting that the listing for one of Bacal’s most elaborate and most viewed videos on YouTube also remained on the market for eight months after the video was released.

Others argue that videos can also serve purposes outside of marketing. LeDon, who was once a screenwriter in Hollywood, said he encounters sellers who want to have a special listing video made for the sake of having the video itself.

“There’s a sentimental component to selling, right? People get attached to their properties. So if you could memorialize it, years down the road, to show your kids and your friends, I think it’s a very special thing,” LeDon said. “We realized early on that people were really invested in what we’re doing. Our biggest fans are our sellers.”

Production process

Every agent’s approach to producing a listing video is different. Agents have the choice of handling the entire endeavor themselves each step of the way — from writing a script to casting to shooting — or they can hire a turnkey company that takes care of it from start to finish.

Rafiki Productions, for instance, works extensively with listing agents. The company spends between two and three weeks on a single video, from brainstorming the concept to the final edited product.

Rafi ki Productions’ trailer for the $18.5 million West Hollywood property at 1895 Rising Glen features Sherlock Bones, portrayed by Instagram-famous dog Aqua.

As a team of four, Rafiki charges between $15,000 to $60,000 per video.

“We started out doing very simple real estate videos, but more and more brokers came to us wanting to do something different,” said Alex Odesmith, one of the creative directors at Rafiki. “Then we figured, why not market these properties like a product? Putting a story into them makes it more fun, and easier for people to connect with, and hopefully they’ll share it.”

Luxury listing videos now account for a third of Rafiki’s business, Odesmith said. Its other business includes videos for commercial properties and music videos. Brokers tend to allow the firm to take the reins in terms of creative direction, Rafiki’s representatives said.

One of the company’s most watched videos was for 1895 Rising Glen, an $18.5 million West Hollywood mansion listed by Bacal and Ness Krief. The home hit the market March 2016, and the video was uploaded onto YouTube that June. Here’s the premise: The owner of the estate dies, and neither of her two children — or at least her human children — inherits it. Instead, it goes to Sherlock Bones, a corgi portrayed by the Instagram-famous Aqua.

But the video didn’t seem to push a sale. Despite the video’s debut in late June of last year, the house only sold this past March, for $14.5 million, according to Redfin.

Interior Pixels, a production company that mostly does films for single-family residences, charges less for its videos than Rafiki: between $500 and $3,000. The company tends to produce less involved pieces, typically without a storyline, but featuring actors who interact with the home. The cheapest videos just feature footage of a property’s interior. Drone photography costs about the same, according to brokers.

LeDon of Partners Trust takes a more hands-on approach to his videos, working with individual freelancers rather than any one production company. “I reach out to my creative sphere of people,” he said. For his “La La Land” video, for instance, the director was the girlfriend of someone on his team. LeDon says he spends anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000, cutting costs by finding aspiring actors and directors who are trying to build a reel.

“They’re going to do great work for me for very little money,” he said. “And these production companies that focus on real estate shoots only, they end up cookie-cutting their product.”

Other real estate listing production companies include Tri-Blend Media Productions and Red Productions, which has an office in Fort Worth, Texas.

Viewer discretion required?

Rafiki’s productions tend to be family-friendly. In another project — a video for 864 Stradella Road — two kids feign sickness to stay home from school. As soon as their parents leave, the two frolic around the house, playing golf, swimming in the pool, trying on clothes in giant walk-in closets and dancing around the family’s Ferrari in the garage.

It took the five listing agents (Bacal, Mills, Branden Williams and Rayni Williams of Hilton & Hyland and Mauricio Umansky of the Agency) six months after the video came out to find a buyer. The home was priced at $48 million in its last ask; it went for $39 million.

But even going the opposite route doesn’t guarantee a short stint on the market.

The Agency’s Billy Rose went with the “sex sells” mantra for his listing video for 1709 Glen Rising Road. In it, the home’s attractive female owner lounges around in the 6,051-square-foot house and at one point steps into the shower naked. She then spends time preparing a romantic anniversary dinner. The big surprise? Her partner returns home, and — gasp! — she’s another attractive woman.

The home did eventually sell, but only after another nine months on the market.

Bacal defends the use of sex appeal as standard marketing. “Cars and magazines have always used sex to sell. That’s just something you can’t get away from,” he said of the Opus video. “People say it’s lewd, but at the end of the day, people aren’t going to not buy a house because the video was lewd.”

But some say the vamped-up sex appeal of these videos can be unappealing to certain buyers. “I think some of these videos would turn people off,” a female luxury broker who wished to remain anonymous said. “They wouldn’t necessarily turn me off to a house, but if I were shopping for an agent, that would certainly alienate me.”

Regardless of preferences on the subject matter, elaborate listing videos seem to be part of a larger push for agents to go all-out for luxury properties. And brokers themselves can have a little fun and expand their personal brand while they’re at it.

“Agents are local tastemakers. They’re influencers,” Bacal said.

 

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Ben Bacal was a listing agent for Nile Niami’s Opus house and worked on the video. He was not involved in the listing or project. Drew Fenton of Hilton & Hyland has the listing.