WHEN DEBBIE MINTZ BRODSKY was 10, she wrote a film script about a family of porcupines, one of many scripts she penned and in some cases produced, with her older brother acting as cameraman. Her love for film led to a career producing documentaries and public television, but she missed the intimacy of home movies. Who saw that and how did it make them feel?, she found herself wondering after a project aired.
To find out, she launched DMB Pictures from her home in Bethesda, making mini-documentaries that preserve personal history and become instant family heirlooms. In one recent film, an 82-year-old man who grew up in Hitler's Germany recalls how his parents sent him to live with a family in Indiana to avoid Nazi persecution. In another, a couple recount the story of their marriage on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary. "I was never a very good student of history," Debbie says. "But I love it now, because I'm seeing it through the eyes of these people."
Born in Potomac, Debbie, 37, majored in broadcast journalism at Boston University. Her first job took her to South Carolina, where she filmed training programs for Head Start teachers. She returned to Maryland and, after a stint making educational videos for Cerebellum Corp., went to work for MHz Networks, a Virginia-based public broadcaster. She produced a magazine-style show about local cultural events and a documentary about immigrant teens, and won three regional Emmy Awards.
In 2004, after her oldest son, Adam, was born, Debbie returned to work, but she missed spending time with her baby. A few years earlier, she had interviewed her husband's grandmother, then 92, and heard stories the older woman had never shared, even with her own daughters. "I started to think I could really use this passion I had for sharing people's stories to create precious memories for families," she says.
In late 2005, she left MHz with a voluntary severance package and invested about $10,000 in camera and computer equipment. With no advertising (she has a Web site, but most of her business comes from talks she delivers to local genealogical and community groups, as well as word of mouth), she cleared about $200 the first year, $9,000 in 2007 and about $18,000 so far this year, she says. Her goal for 2008 is to net $36,000, equal to her part-time salary at the TV network.
Packaged like big-screen movies, with photos and blurbs on the backs of their cases, Debbie's DVDs are 15 to 25 minutes long and range in price from $500 to more than $5,000. They resemble something you might see on the History Channel, with interviews, music and old photos spliced together. Irwin and Nikki Pikus had one made in spring 2007, a few months before Nikki died of complications from lung cancer. Later, Irwin took comfort in the film, which he calls "a treasure." "Debbie has a very nice manner. She can elicit things from you. You don't feel pressured; you don't feel as if you're on display," he says.
Debbie's husband, Andrew, a program manager at Sprint.com, jokes that she enjoys her work so much that she should pay her clients for the privilege. There's some truth to that, Debbie says. The job has "given me so much more gratification than being able to broadcast to millions of people."
Are you succeeding with a new and unusual business? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.