Elam Stoltzfus Combines Passion, Creativity into a Niche Business
Elam Stoltzfus has a small business. Actually, right now, it’s just him. He adds staff when he gets into the production phase of his work. His office — and his equipment — occupy a separate building on his Blountstown property. What his Live Oak Production Group lacks in size, Stoltzfus makes up for in impact as he creates award-winning documentaries that share the untold stories of Florida’s great outdoors — films that have been presented on public television and at festivals across the country. Since starting as a videographer, he has branched out beyond making commercials and training videos to produce the full-length films “Big Cypress Swamp: Western Everglades,” “Living Waters: Aquatic Preserves of Florida” and “Apalachicola River: An American Treasure.”
Nature Lover Elam Stoltzfus has built a reputation for professionalism and passion in the documentary film business by showcasing Northwest Florida’s unique landscape By Joyce Owen Originally published in the Apr/May 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine
Elam Stoltzfus has a small business. Actually, right now, it’s just him. He adds staff when he gets into the production phase of his work. His office — and his equipment — occupy a separate building on his Blountstown property.
What his Live Oak Production Group lacks in size, Stoltzfus makes up for in impact as he creates award-winning documentaries that share the untold stories of Florida’s great outdoors — films that have been presented on public television and at festivals across the country. Since starting as a videographer, he has branched out beyond making commercials and training videos to produce the full-length films “Big Cypress Swamp: Western Everglades,” “Living Waters: Aquatic Preserves of Florida” and “Apalachicola River: An American Treasure.”
People who know Stoltzfus’ work praise the beauty and imagination he brings to the documentaries he creates. Few realize that he didn’t grow up living along any of the rivers or swamps he has now immortalized in film. In fact, he was raised much farther north, living an austere life in an Amish/Mennonite home near Lancaster, Pa.
Maybe it was during those early years, as the oldest of nine children tending to chores far away from the realities of the outside world, that he dreamed of doing something different with his life. Stoltzfus, who always enjoyed the arts, painted and sketched and was a teenage musician. When he picked up a camera and began taking photos, he found a skill; however, it was when he found a video camera that he says he discovered the tool that would form the next 30 years of his life.
Success Comes from Early Lessons
A friend of a friend led Stoltzfus south, where he transitioned from a life devoid of media to studying media and communications at Florida State University, earning his degree in 1988.
Since then, Stoltzfus has worked in all aspects of video and film production, providing video footage for ABC, MTV, the Weather Channel, HGTV, the Travel Channel, “Inside Edition,” Jefferson Pilot and public television programs.
“Folks called me the ‘video doctor,’” he says. “I learned how things worked, learned to fix them and then made the videos work. Putting those pieces of the puzzle together is what I do best.”
In 2000, realizing that he could branch out on his own, Stoltzfus established his video production company, Live Oak Production Group. Within a year he won a grant to help fund “Living Waters,” his first full-fledged documentary, for which he teamed up with world-renowned nature photographer Clyde Butcher to feature 12 of Florida’s 41 aquatic preserves. The program was introduced on PBS.
Stoltzfus shot on film, a new medium for him, and he said that fact changed the perception people had of him. He was no longer just a videographer; now he was considered a cinematographer, a filmmaker.
And although Stoltzfus acknowledges that a single image can tell a story, by pulling together still shots, film clips, a storyline and a soundtrack, he has gone that extra step beyond basic storytelling to educate, entertain and inform viewers.
“I’ve told stories that have never been told,” he says. “Every project I’ve done has filled a gap.”
That’s how the “Living Waters” project was conceived. Working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the state parks, Stoltzfus introduced the underwater preserves, or “liquid parks” — from swamps to limestone springs — to a much wider audience than had previously existed.
As he creates each documentary, Stoltzfus reaches out to the people who live and work where he is shooting, asking them to share their stories, whether they be about the Everglades, the Apalachicola River or the Panhandle’s coastal dune lakes. By using them to help write the copy, score and record the music, Stoltzfus believes he uncovers the real story.
According to WUSF program director Susan Geiger, who represents independent film producers including Stoltzfus, the entertainment value and information his documentaries provide reach millions of viewers.
The industry awards he has received for his videos — including nine Tellys, three AVAs, three Auroras and an Emmy nomination — reflect his filmmaking skills and burnish his reputation.
“As my work is more recognized, it’s getting easier to get a film picked up,” Stoltzfus says. “I produce it, show it and they (PBS) get it placed.”
But he says his ability to educate and inform viewers outweighs the honors.
With each of his three major film releases, Stoltzfus has connected with more viewers looking for an armchair experience that carries them right into the heart of Florida’s outdoor treasures — a far cry from the image that some out-of-staters may have of a Florida crowded with strip malls, concrete condos and beaches crowded with tourists.
“At the end of the day, I realize I can reach millions of people with a targeted message,” he says.
While he is a talented artist and storyteller, Stoltzfus says his most important skill as a businessman is as a connector. The connections he has made and nurtured over the years are those he returns to with each new endeavor.
“Stoltzfus is a great networker,” says Teresa Baum, who owns a management and consulting company based in Walton County. “I met him five years ago while making a presentation in Blountstown, when he was the president of the chamber of commerce. In 2006, when I needed help with a video, I contacted him. He remembered me. That was the first time we worked together, but he kept in touch.”
When Stoltzfus presented his “Living Waters” film at Chautauqua, a non-profit educational center in DeFuniak Springs, Walton County officials were impressed with his work and introduced him to members of their chamber of commerce. They in turn directed him to tourism officials in South Walton.
Sonny Mares, executive director of the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council, helped fund a short demo tape on coastal dune lakes that he now hopes to use to lure eco-tourism visitors to the area.
Seeing a niche that needs to be filled, Stoltzfus now seeks to reach out to businesses and community organizations that he believes will benefit from his latest project. He sees a full-length documentary on Walton County’s rare and imperiled coastal dune lakes as his next untold story. Again turning to his connections, he has reached out to Baum, whose own local connections he hopes will help generate endorsements for the project.
With Baum’s help, Stoltzfus already has become a regular visitor to South Walton, speaking to community organizations including the South Walton Community Council, the Coastal Dune Lake Advisory Board and the Friends of Scenic 30-A.
At a recent Friends of Scenic 30-A meeting, he told the members his documentary could help educate locals and bring more visitors to South Walton. Touching on a familiar theme of his films, he asked the group, “Do you think the coastal dune lake story is being told?”
Holding up a brochure with spaces for advertisers, he challenged attendees to consider that a film on the coastal dune lakes could have international interest. As Walton County residents were already pondering the effect the opening of the new airport in Bay County will have on tourism, Stoltzfus’ pitch was right on target. By the end of the meeting, potential sponsors lined up to talk with him about the documentary.
Meanwhile, Stoltzfus has already planned ahead, making connections for distribution, including public television and international distributors. And when he was in Los Angeles doing publicity for the Big Cypress Swamp documentary, he says an international distributor asked him, “What else are you doing?”