Getting the Green Light

SEU PHOTOS BY RICHARD OM
INDIE ATLANTIC PHOTOS PROVIDED BY INDIE ATLANTIC
FRACTAL FEATURES PHOTOS BY JORDAN WEILAND
NFOCUS PHOTOS PROVIDED BY NFOCUS

While it may seem an unlikely place for a production company whose targeted clientele wouldn’t hesitate to take them aboard private jets to document their luxury vacations along the coasts of Italy, Indie Atlantic had targeted and moved to Lakeland well before our city became known as an evolving hub for artists and creatives.

“And that was the goal,” says its co-founder Andy McEntire “We came to Lakeland because it wasn’t a saturated market, it’s accessible — close to the airport — for clients we needed to fly to. And we just really wanted to be around people who were honest and actually cared about each other.”

Clearly, Southgate’s brief debut in Edward Scissorhands is not necessarily the draw for filmmakers to flock to the city. (Yes, Johnny Depp has in fact roamed the paths of the same shopping center where you buy groceries.) In actuality, filmmakers rarely flock to many places in Florida; regardless, filmmaking is becoming an undeniable element of our cultural development. Whether we are aware of this or not.

Filmmakers such as Indie Atlantic, NFocus, and Fractal Features have found a current of inspiration and an economical foundation basing their studios in Lakeland.

There is a composition to the city one can’t quite point out until you’ve stepped out of it for a time. One that offers a kind of Vada Sultenfuss, My Girl nostalgia — a tight-knit, seemingly small town (Lakeland can often be deceiving in size). One that has managed to grow visionary, yet grounded in recent years. (Though, to be clear, My Girl was filmed in Bartow and Plant City, it’s hard to imagine that Lakeland wasn’t passed along the way.)

While Lakeland as a home base for a production company is obviously a wise economical choice, in the grand scheme of things this may not even be its top selling point. For many filmmakers, like Indie Atlantic, it’s these minute qualities which create a kind of blank canvas a filmmaker seeks out. (There’s a reason why The Walking Dead continues to be filmed in rural Georgia.) College town that we are, local schools and universities are making more space for this interest to be studied and explored.

01. 

AN EDUCATION

Wrapping up its ninth year just this past season, Southeastern University’s Revolution Film Festival offers students exposure to professional producers, cinematographers, even stuntmen to greater understand the nuts and bolts of the industry.

“Students are able to hear and interact with professional filmmakers,” says SEU film professor Christopher Clark, such as this year’s keynote speaker, Anne Marie Gillen, producer of Fried Green Tomatoes.

Attended by aspiring filmmakers and students locally, as well as from Winter Park to Tallahassee, the festival’s actual filmmaking competition appears to be its biggest draw. “This year’s submissions came from just about every continent in the world,” notes Clark, “local, regional, and national on short films for the high school, college, and professional categories.” When young aspiring French filmmakers submit fascinating foreign documentaries on French beekeepers and their enchanting apiaries, you can’t help but recognize there is something brewing in the cinematic culture within these scaled-down city limits.

When small-town stability meets a piqued interest in cinematic pursuits, it brings a whole new meaning to the impact of local arts and culture. Nothing can impact the soul quite like a story. And film may be the visual universal language for storytelling. One that can outlive us all.

While there was a time film pursuits seemed to have the highest stakes and greatest occupational risks (it still very well may), the opportunities are ever evolving and shifting in favor of those who have their sights set on the big screen.

In recent years, a handful of local filmmakers have paved the way to make film production as a career a viable opportunity.

02.

A COMMUNITY INVESTMENT

In 2009, director, producer, and screenwriter, Joe O’Brien, along with production company NFocus, set out to make his first feature-length film, Endure.

I think, because we had invested in our community, when we wanted to give something a try, they did that too, and supported us. — JOE O’BRIEN

A fully funded production, the support of silent investors allowed the freelance director Joe O’Brien and team at NFocus, Jim Carleton and Rob Tritton, to step onto a three-week set right here in Lakeland with a primarily local crew, including cinematographer Stephen Campbell (director of photography for The Walking Dead) and a star-studded cast with entire creative freedom.

Looking back at the experience from beginning to end, Joe O’Brien says, “We found out that filmmaking really starts with asking for money. So we did some of that and got a little bit of money to hire a couple actors.”

Some 10 drafts into a fully baked screenplay, Joe O’Brien took it to potential investors to possibly recruit some talent and money. “I think, because we had invested in our community, when we wanted to give something a try, they did that too, and supported us,” he says.

After meetings in Los Angeles and a series of offers, the film landed on its leading cast: Judd Nelson (famed from The Breakfast Club), Tom Arnold, Joey Lauren Adams, and Devon Sawa (Little Giants, Wild America, anyone?). A crime drama, the story follows a veteran detective, played by Nelson, who discovers a disturbing photo of a young woman and sets out on a search to find her.

Over the course of three weeks, 10 hours a day, including a 16-hour shoot into the night, the filming was quickly wrapped up under a month and onto the next step: distribution.

03.

DISTRIBUTION

“I don’t think we had any aspirations for a theatrical release,” says Tritton. “Back then, the money would be in DVDs. And even then DVDs were starting to diminish; we really expected the revenue to come internationally. Because that’s where you have all these territories and countries that will license it for TV and however else they find use for it there.” Though, the film did really well domestically.

That process took a year, “finding the right distributor and then doing the deal, and then delivering it. There’s a lot of specifications to deliver.” By 2010, Redbox took on Endure as an exclusive release in 30,000 kiosks across the country. For the first three weeks, the film was listed as one of the top 10 rentals and later on was distributed to HBO and Cinemax.

04.

A CATCH-22

In recent months, Fractal Features has been in post production with the film, At The End of the Day. With a nearly $250,000 micro budget, the film was locally cast and shot just this year.

Since 2011, director, editor, and screenwriter Kevin O’Brien had filmed and produced over 100 short films for Christian organizations and churches. With the dream of a full-length feature film, he completed a draft by 2014, the film was cast in 2015, and due to funding didn’t begin filming until February 2017. A year and a half later, with the needed funds underway, Fractal Features was launched and the film was greenlit.It was the long game. Everything is a long game. Some people rush that, but the goal was to be financially stable before we went to that

It was the long game. Everything is a long game. Some people rush that, but the goal was to be financially stable before we went to that next level.— ANDY MCENTIRE

At the End of the Day tells the story of a conservative professor of a small-town Christian college who finds himself in a gay support group to protest the launch of an LGBT homeless teen shelter. “Ultimately,” Kevin O’Brien says, “the film is about listening to the stories of others and valuing their experiences as much as we value our own.”

With a nearly entirely local cast, this four-year pursuit led to a 21-day shoot (which included one day of filming in Orlando). Now in the third round of campaigning, the film prepares for distribution with the goal of entering film festivals later this fall.

In whole, Kevin O’Brien says the journey has been more taxing, more costly, and more fulfilling than anything he’s ever done in his life. “The entire process is a big catch-22. Everything is dependent on everything else.”

Even if he had the chance to film elsewhere, he’s quite confident any other location wouldn’t have been as ideal. “Every film M. Night Shyamalan has made takes place in the area of his home [Phila- delphia], and I love that model. Lakeland obviously isn’t as big, but the idea of making stories where you live is awesome, especially with a micro budget.

05.

BRAND PERCEPTION

Brother and sister Andy McEntire and Katie Wiatt founded and spearheaded Indie Atlantic in 2006, when McEntire was still in college in West Palm. Three years ahead of McEntire, Wiatt had attended Dreyfoos School of the Arts for film production.

“We started in a garage. Literally. I’m not just saying that; it was an actual garage,” McEntire states plainly. Founded in 2006, Indie Atlantic began with Andy, Katie, and Matt Wiatt (Katie’s husband.) “When I graduated college I moved to Jacksonville to live with them,” says McEntire. “So I stayed with them for free, to get the company off the ground. Which was awesome because I had no money at the time.”

Taking on a variety of projects for nonprofit organizations, weddings, etc., much of their work grew to be centered on high-end clients, sending the company across the globe from South Korea to Italy.

“We spent years working with people who we ‘can’t mention,’ to huge insurance companies, a lot of the richest golfers in the world, to people even rich- er who control the coal mines in the U.S. Not just wealthy people, but influential people. And a lot of them are great people; they’re just not that happy.”

While the company was rapidly growing successful in its array of commercial and private clients, McEntire points out one week in particular as essentially the pivotal point in his life, and no doubt, the future of Indie Atlantic.

“I was interviewing kids that were in forced prostitution — young women, refugees from Nicaragua,” says McEntire. “They were in the slums of Costa Rica, in the bajo, the lowest of the low essentially.”

Within a day after documenting in San Ramón Costa Rica, McEntire arrived back at Palm Beach International airport, just to take off again. “I’m literally packing and repacking, then hopping on a client’s private plane, heading to Italy. You go from these people who have nothing to the top 50 richest people in the world, so it’s a major culture shock. We sit down in this private plane and stewards are handing out steak dinners. Meanwhile, the client says, ‘So tell me, what have you been up to?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been in Costa Rica, documenting these kids in poverty … ’ And she cuts in with, “Well, why would you do that?” and immediately returns to attend to her steak. And that was the end of the conversation. Right then I knew she was more interested in the steak on her plate than people’s lives being changed. And that was the realization for me: I don’t want to be stuck in this wealthy lifestyle.”

What would appear to offer all that a filmmaker could dream of (surrounded by the sun, the water, the wealth), where Indie Atlantic was headed wasn’t quite where they saw themselves growing as a company, or even as families and individuals. “So we decided to change what we were doing,” says McEntire.

Considering a relocation, Lakeland developer David Bunch was instrumental in encouraging the team to make the move to Lakeland. McEntire recalls, “Bunch told us, ‘I promise if you come here you’ll double your profits.’ And we certainly have.

“We moved to Lakeland because we wanted to be in a place that pushed us to be better and surround ourselves with individuals who are just good people. It’s really cut-throat in South Florida. We knew we wanted to work in commercial production, moving away from the lifestyle side of things.”

“I felt that we could really invest here, too,” says Wiatt. “We felt like we could do something to give back as well.”

“So we maintain a lot of these clients still, but we started to shoot commercials, brand stories, and now with Katie branching off into our first featured film, it’s always been a dream of ours,” says McEntire. “But we’ve always said,‘Baby steps,’not just, ‘Hey, let’s do it!’”

06.

TAKING FLIGHT

After years of experience working with nonprofits and Fortune 500 businesses the likes of CocaCola, Publix, and Red Bull, Indie Atlantic’s next project began filming last summer and is anticipated to launch them into its grandest scale of storytelling yet. While Hidden Figures may have just tapped into the intrigue of the female influence in aviation history, Indie Atlantic’s first feature-length documentary explores the first female pilots in American history and those few who continue to shape its future.

“Katie’s story, Fly Like a Girl, is on a whole different level,” says McEntire. “It’s the first national, international, interest we’re getting.”

During her time teaching fourth grade, while juggling Indie Atlantic nights and weekends, Wiatt quickly picked up on the many girls in class who lacked confidence, particularly in math and science. And who seemed too quick to own up to it. “A young girl once said to me, ‘Girls just aren’t good in math.’ And it really bothered me. So it kind of became my goal as a teacher to change that perception for young women.”

Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) at the time, Wiatt also had a great interest in aviation. “I went to Sun ‘n Fun and completely fell in love.”

As she continued to read and explore the topic, influences like Patty Wagstaff, the first woman to win the title of US National Aerobatic champion and one of the few people to win it three times, further inspired Wiatt to bring this untold story to life.

Paying tribute to the history of women in aviation, the documentary will center on Bernice “Bee” Falk Haydu, one of the first WASPs (Womens Air- force Service Pilots) during WWII; Patty Wagstaff; and Olivia Lisbon, graduate of Central Florida Aerospace Academy and one of Polk State Aero- space program’s first graduates.

Fly Like a Girl also sets out to explore how women are currently impacting aviation so we can look to the future. “Right now,” Wiatt explains, “of the pilot population, only six percent are women. And that, to me, is a problem.”

In the next 10 years it’s anticipated pilots and aviation personnel will soon face a massive shortage. “We rely on our aviation for deliveries, travel, and endless other ways,” Wiatt says. “So if we’re not us- ing 51 percent of our population to help solve this problem, then we’re not going to get anywhere. We want to examine why more women don’t want to explore aviation as a career.”

In the works filming since last summer, Fly Like a Girl is currently in its last round of funding. And Wiatt and McEntire are eager to get this off the ground. “People like the WASPs aren’t getting any younger, and we realized we have to get these interviews before it’s too late,” says McEntire. In promotion of the film, a trailer was released early this year and recently highlighted on Mashable, giv- ing the film a great deal of national exposure. “We know we’re not some big Hollywood film company,” admits McEntire, “so we kind of had to prove it to ourselves, could we even do this?”

In its final round of funding, the team will set out to complete its filming in time for festival season. McEntire says the plan is to take Fly Like a Girl to Sundance, Tribeca … your film-festival heavy hitters. “We have the opportunity to get some inter- views this summer with some pretty major people in California, Chicago, D.C., Houston. So for it to become reality we need corporate, personal funding. Even just $10 funding.”

07.

THE LONG GAME

From concept, to funding, casting, filming, production, distribution, the film industry is not for the faint of heart. (Though ironically so many creatives tend to be.) As each filmmaker in the city notes who’s been successful in seeing their film come to life, it’s just as much business as it is story that makes a full length feature film a reality.

“The biggest thing business-side, is overhead down, revenue up,” says McEntire. “And the other side is (to quote longtime Methodist, Lakeland-born and -raised Evelyn Willis), ‘You have to have a dream to have a dream come true.’ It sounds very basic, but really it changed my life the first day I heard that, because we’re all given different dreams.

“It was the long game,” McEntire continues. “Everything is a long game. Some people rush that, but the goal was to be financially stable before we went to that next level.”

“It’s chess, not checkers,” Wiatt adds.

“I think I finally embraced — I have a left brain and a right brain — I had to figure out the business side of meeting people and getting the work,” says McEntire. “But I think it entails being honest with people, learn- ing that a handshake still counts, and delivering better than they ever thought was possible. And knowing it’s going to take time. You cannot just come out swinging.

“In general, I’ve seen film companies come and go because they rush themselves or they bought too much equipment. But it’s about having a plan and adapting quickly. We knew we wanted to do feature films, but we didn’t know how to do it. So that’s why we’re just now getting into it. And Fly Like a Girl had the right idea.

“Some people wonder why we took the approach to this, but it’s a story that needs to be told and that’s what Indie Atlantic was founded on. I’ve never done things normal. And I always said I didn’t want Holly- wood to make me. I wanted to make it before I went to Hollywood.”