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Independent filmmakers face the same hurdles all directors do—casting, location scouting, and shooting schedules, to name a few. But without a studio to underwrite the costs, they also have to figure out how to finance their films. One group of alum filmmakers, tired of starting Kickstarter campaigns to fund their work, think they’ve found a solution: they’ve formed their own movie studio.
“We didn’t want to do hat-in-hand fundraising anymore; we wanted to create a framework to fund our film projects on a repeatable basis,” says Joseph Dwyer (COM’14), cofounder and co-owner of Auspicious Phoenix Productions, which he and friends and former classmates Oleg Bolotov (COM’14) and Jim DanDee (COM’13) started in 2015. “We saw too many filmmakers put all of their eggs in one basket. They’ll attract a lot of attention to do one film and then by the next one, it’s hard to go back and ask people for more money. So we wanted to cut that out, and make a business that is profitable and aimed toward creating visual work.”
Auspicious Phoenix Productions, a studio-based entertainment company in Somerville, Mass., specializing in art, documentary, and narrative films, has made eight so far. They include five original short works, all funded and produced under the Auspicious Phoenix umbrella, the team took on the road for three weeks in August 2017: Blood Highway, directed by Dwyer, a throwback to ’70s grindhouse cinema; Quietus, directed by Joy Song (COM’15), a story about rebirth; Ladia, directed by Álvaro Congosto (COM’12), about a female athlete; Craniac!, directed by Paul Villanova (COM’13), about a young filmmaker who discovers a Martian living in his brain; and The Literal Lens, directed by DanDee, a narrative documentary about a journey in Japan.
The classmates kept in touch after graduation, DanDee says, and just like in film school, they helped crew one another’s films. “When you’re in school, you typically have an inner sanctum of people,” he says. “Filmmakers work together because they know they can rely on each other. It’s this close-knit community that gets built up,” and as a result, the five films share a similar approach and tone.
The tour, which stopped in New York City, Houston, Los Angeles, Denver, Boston, and Kinderhook, N.Y., was so successful that the team plans to repeat it in 2019. A composer is working on a piece of music, and the filmmakers will be challenged to make separate short films to accompany it, according to DanDee.
The creative approach might be more difficult to pull off if Auspicious Phoenix Productions had to answer to a larger outside presence, like a financier or an executive producer, Dwyer says.
The filmmakers developed a self-sustaining business model when they started the company. They rent out their Union Square studio for commercial shoots, photography, and use by other filmmakers when they aren’t using it to shoot their own work. And it seems to be working. Despite losing upwards of $16,000 their first year, DanDee says, they have since turned the ship around. “In 2017 we made over $40,000, and in 2018 we are on pace to hopefully break $100,000,” he says.
“That’s all bootstrapping, no loans,” Dwyer says. “Working with a small business association mentor, we set up a bunch of different revenue streams in terms of using our space as a studio, taking the films that are made in the studio and exhibiting them to make money. We want to stabilize and diversify our company.”
DanDee’s feature-length, fixed-perspective thriller, The Experiment, about the rapid psychological decline of a medical test subject, is in preproduction. And a narrative documentary feature, directed by Song, is seeking distribution.
“We’re excited for the next few years,” Dwyer says. “We’ve been learning as we go and adapting what works and getting rid of what doesn’t. A lot of the stuff we picked up along the way as a film production company has been what do we want to do and what aligns with our goals. We have a big space to do work in; how do we make money off of that in order to make money for our productions? How can we open it up to people and make it a resource in the community? We want to let people know the landscape is changing, and we consider ourselves to be at the forefront of that.”