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VOL. 126 | NO. 112 | Thursday, June 9, 2011

Ardent Studios Adds New Film Department


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Ardent Studios will celebrate the opening of its new film department with a reception Thursday night, June 9, at the legendary recording studio.

“We need a film department to serve our internal need for video services, to serve our music clients and to expand our services to the Memphis business community.”

–John Fry
Ardent founder

The new venture represents a tie to Ardent’s past. L.A. film veteran Jonathan Pekar will head the department. His father, Ron Pekar, was the graphic designer for Ardent in the early days, designing the original studio logo ad the iconic neon logo for Big Star’s “#1 Record.”

Jonathan Pekar has come back to Memphis after 23 years in Los Angeles, where he worked for the Discovery Channel and did work for clients including Disney Studios, Vans and SST Records.

Pekar was passing through Memphis as part of the Antenna Club reunion when he started thinking about returning home. His punk band, Distemper, had been a stalwart of the Antenna scene in the 1980s, and Pekar was proud to show off Memphis to his band mates.

“I said, ‘You guys just need to get one-way tickets. Me? I’m immune to it,’” Pekar said. “Well, after 23 years in L.A. you see how they are trying to be Memphis. Of course they never will.”

While in town, Pekar took his friends on a tour of Ardent and struck up a conversation with Ardent founder John Fry.

“Basically, I got back to L.A., got in the car and drove back out,” Pekar said.

Fry said the addition of film services at Ardent is timely.

“We need a film department to serve our internal need for video services, to serve our music clients and to expand our services to the Memphis business community,” said Fry.

The department recently finished an animated promo for the Memphis Music Foundation. The video animates the iconic work of Memphis’ Lamar Sorrento, known the world over for his “outsider” artist paintings of Southern music legends.

“I was terrified to show it to him,” Pekar said of Sorrento. “I couldn’t believe it, but he sat there watching it over and over. He loved it.”

Pekar is the second in his family to bring visual expertise to Ardent. His father, Ron Pekar, was very closely allied with Ardent’s early successes. He designed Ardent’s 1971 “earth circles” logo. But his most recognized work is the neon design for Big Star’s debut album.

“I knew the band well,” Ron Pekar said. “(Big Star singer and songwriter) Alex Chilton lived next door to us in Midtown. For some reason, I just got to be involved.”

Ron Pekar’s work encompasses much more than neon. It is featured in more than 15 museums, including the Smithsonian. Older, observant Memphians will recall the series of riparian sunsets that hung on the west wall of the Cook Convention Center.

Big Star’s recent revival of popularity and the death of Chilton last year prompted him to redo the neon stars for Fry, Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and the families of the other band members, who have since passed away.

Ron Pekar has also done a neon setting of the STAX “snap” logo.

“Living in California, you kind of let things slide,” he said. “I’d always known of Alex’s world renown. But it was my kids who let me know about this rebirth of his style and work.”

As for Jonathan Pekar, he is thrilled to be back in Memphis. But like many local film producers, he feels thwarted by the state’s inability to compete for larger-scale movie production work through the tax incentives offered by competitors like Georgia and Louisiana.

Particularly embarrassing for Tennessee leadership is the filming of the series “Memphis Beat” in New Orleans and the fact that local director Craig Brewer had to film his remake of “Footloose” in Georgia.

“My, gosh, we would be killing it here,” Pekar said. “I’m not a bright-eyed dreamer either. This is money. This is common sense stuff.”

While other states offer tax rebates to large productions, Tennessee politicians have failed to do so. A tax break on a film that spends $20 million in-state not only incentivizes out-of-state hiring of local service providers, but also generates sales taxes on most spending.

Politicians aside, Pekar and Fry are glad to be working together.

“Jonathan is one of the most energetic and able professionals I have ever met,” Fry said. “He is in love with Memphis and will be a great part of the Ardent family.”

Pekar is equally happy with the new arrangement in his hometown.

“Memphis has proven personality,” Pekar said. “It has this charm that people try to capture everywhere else.”

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