CRAIG LEITNER MAY have leapt into the big leagues when media conglomerate Clear Channel acquired his company Contemporary Group in 1999. But when it comes to producing large-scale events, he still focuses on the small details. “I love doing the creative development of our projects,” says the vice president of St. Louis-based Clear Channel Entertainment Special Events. “We don't do parties in a box or canned ideas. We start out with whatever information we glean from the client, and we go from there. We try to get very specific to meet their needs.”
Taking a micro approach to macro events has led Leitner's operation to some big numbers indeed. The 10-employee division pulls in nearly $15 million in gross annual income and works on close to 90 events a year — among them the Gala Award-winning Super Bowl XXXVI halftime show, seen by more than 800 million television viewers worldwide in February 2002.
Leitner says the Super Bowl event was not just a big success, but “a huge challenge.” “It was the first significant event following 9/11, in terms of national scale,” he recounts. “The FBI and Secret Service took over. They created a whole new scenario for us in terms of security — getting materials in and out of the facility, moving people in and out, credentialing everyone. Those were all challenges we hadn't faced in the past.” Leitner credits vice president of production Jim McClellan for ensuring a smoothly run event, despite the last-minute replacement of the act originally booked — an entertainer who declined to perform in the wake of the September terrorist attacks — with rock group U2. He adds that 50 production staffers contributed their efforts to the compelling event, which included a dramatic 120-foot-high Kabuki scrim that scrolled victims' names.
In addition to producing mega events like the Super Bowl show and the opening of the 4.2-million-square-foot Mall of America in Minneapolis, Clear Channel prides itself on an ability to reproduce the big city on a small scale. That's exactly what the company did with its party for Anheuser Busch's annual convention in New Orleans last year. “That's the shame of going to marvelous cities — so often there's so much business to accomplish, you don't get to enjoy the city you're in,” Leitner says. To make sure event attendees got the full Big Easy experience, the Clear Channel crew created an event that featured recreations of city landmarks such as Jackson Square, Café du Monde and the Garden District. Leitner describes the 5,000-guest event as pure celebration. “That's what we do best, I think,” he says. “We give people pleasure and joy and a means to acknowledge themselves and recognize what they do.”
Clear Channel Entertainment Special Events 1401 S. Brentwood Blvd., Seventh Floor, St. Louis, MO 63144; 314/962-4000; www.ccspecialevents.com
“The big thing now is the drama you can create with lighting. The [International Council of Shopping Centers'] Maxi Awards are fairly low-budget, fairly simple productions in general terms. But the fact that we can create significant ambient changes through the course of the evening at a reasonably cost-effective level through the use of lighting has worked enormously to our benefit in raising the excitement factor.”
“It's amazing to me, the depth this industry has now. I think ISES has played a role in that. Also, I think that as corporations and private individuals put more and money into events in the later '80s and '90s, their expectations grew. These weren't people who said, ‘Come on in and do a party for me, and whatever you do is fine.’”
HIGH AND LOW
“On an emotional level, the hardest part of the job is the down of the first hour after the event is over. You immediately start dismantling something that was beautiful or moving or exciting, that is now back down to its component elements. I spent many years being there until dawn, until the last moment when everything had to be out … I try to pass it off to younger staff now.”