The high-definition helicopter camera system that Alan Purwin used to bring us the steady images of the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase through Los Angeles, the flyover panoramas in "Jurassic Park" and, more recently, the startling images from the Discovery Channel's "Planet Earth" documentary is now going to be utilized in the war on terror.
Purwin recently sold Cineflex LLC, a unit of his Helinet Aviation Services LLC of Van Nuys. Cineflex developed and patented the technology behind an ultra-stable camera system he's been using for aerial photography in movies, TV and newsgathering, and the buyer, Axsys Technologies Inc. of Connecticut, a defense and aerospace supplier, will use the special camera system partly in the war on terror.
Axsys paid $27 million in cash, with another $42 million to be handed over if the company meets certain revenue targets over the next three years.
So with that pocket change and maybe a little free time, what's Purwin going to do?
"Flying, that's what I love to do create and choreograph aerial sequences," said Purwin, who started flying as a teen. "I go completely antsy when I am not in the seat of a helicopter for two or three days."
Purwin said that he sold the camera sales portion of the business, which was a valuable and growing segment, because Helinet wasn't equipped to deal with the growing global demand for his technology, from both a development and manufacturing standpoint.
"We were growing so fast we could have had potentially serious problems, because demand had outpaced our ability to create infrastructure," Purwin said.
Purwin had been making most of his money using the company's helicopter-mounted camera system in film and TV production. The camera system includes a gyroscope, among other technology, to keep it fixed on its subject even from long distances and while being bounced around on a helicopter. That led to its extensive use for animal photography in the recent Discovery Channel mini-series production, "Planet Earth." The firm has done work on a number of films, including "The Italian Job," and the forthcoming features "Transformers" and "National Treasure 2."
It was over the past few months, however, that Purwin realized the most lucrative application of the technology was in the burgeoning national security and surveillance industry.
The executive team at Axsys realized it, too, and approached Purwin. They expect the camera technology to become an integral part of their company's core infrared camera business.
"We are aggressively developing a militarized version of the product to participate in some exciting opportunities we see in defense and homeland security markets," said Geoff Ling, director of investor relations at Axsys. "Improvised explosive device detection and the like mean more and more applications. Cineflex is a very important part of our plans."
As the defense and surveillance applications of the system became clear and the orders came, Purwin's firm tried to handle them. But the bureaucratic challenges were daunting, particularly when dealing with foreign customers. The U.S. government prohibits or constrains sales to many countries in Asia and the Middle East, for example. But any other global deal could get tricky, too. One sale to a Panamanian company took nine months to complete.
"For sales in Asia, we had a two or three week turnaround, but that's typically the fastest you'll see," Purwin said. "The Panama deal took a lot longer, because they have harbored drug kingpins in the past. There was a lot of diligence involved to make sure everything was happening the way that it was advertised. We made it happen, and the company owner has it on his yacht now."
Purwin may be more than a flyboy; he could be a shrewd businessman, too. In return for the low rates he charged on the acclaimed and popular Discovery series, he received ownership of the raw footage collected. Two years after this spring's airdate, he'll be able to market that trove of imagery.
Purwin founded Helinet in 1987, when he and partner Michael Tamburro scraped together enough money to buy one helicopter.
"I sold everything I owned, even my car," Purwin said.
Tamburro was killed in a 1996 helicopter crash, which also injured Purwin, while filming a movie in the Antelope Valley.
Early on, the company subsisted by selling charter flights. The firm moved into the organ transplant world, which was in its infancy at the time. In a few years it became a major part of the business and today the company frequently flies hearts, lungs and livers to trauma centers like Cedars Sinai Medical Center and UCLA.
In the early- to mid-'90s, the entertainment side of the business began to take off. The value of Purwin's high-tech aerial camera came into focus for the world in 1994. It was a news copter equipped with one of Purwin's patented camera systems that captured the O.J. Simpson freeway chase.
"The whole world was riveted because they could see a good, non-shaky image," Purwin said. "After that day every news copter had to have an attached camera, because the hand-held thing was instantly a thing of the past."
And Hollywood followed, with movies like "Armageddon" and "Pearl Harbor" heavily using his high-tech aerial photography.
The success put Purwin in a position to grow through. Purwin had been a big user of the Cineflex camera systems, but in late 2003 he bought Cineflex for $2.25 million. Back then it was a two-man operation with a lot of potential but limited resources. He funded it for just six months before it started making money.
Cashing in on the technology via sales was difficult, however.
"It's never easy to sell a half-million dollar camera," he said.
Today Helinet, which will retain and use 10 of the camera systems after the sale, does about $35 million a year in revenue and books multiple commercial, TV and feature shoots.
"That's the kind of rental business where we can get pretty good margins and drive really steady employment," Purwin said. The company's roughly 25 employees will stay in California in the wake of the sale.
Without the Cineflex unit, Purwin plans to put the focus on flying and aerial choreography for Hollywood, medical flights and charters. The company has 20-some contracts for electronic news gathering and about the same number for medical use.
The fleet is one of Helinet's most valuable remaining assets. Prices for choppers started at $200,000 when Purwin went into business two decades ago, but they go for between $2 million and $7 million today.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.