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There is nothing like the desperation of: Either you get a job and make money or your family won't eat," says Joshua Miller, founding director at C&I Studios, a 7-year-old media company and "idea agency" based in the up-and-coming FAT Village Arts District in Fort Lauderdale.
In March 2009, balancing a full-time job at an Apple store with C&I jobs on the side — and in the midst of having his first child — Miller, then 25, finally took the leap and went full-time with his company.
When Miller had first started his business out of his hometown bedroom in 2006 in Washington, D.C., it was purely about doing something that he loved: filmmaking. He had picked up a friend's video camera and started shooting at age 13, then went to film school and began C&I (what the initials stand for "is a secret"), producing creative short films out of his home using borrowed equipment.
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Realizing how difficult it would be to support himself through his art, Miller took on commercial work: VHS-to-DVD transfers, editing, shooting anything in his field.
"I thought, 'If I could just make good money with these corporate jobs, they could pay for the films and creative stuff I wanted to do.' We all know making films isn't easy or cheap. So I just started to hustle more and more."
"I remember the first paid gig we got was editing a news reporter's TV reel," Miller, who is now 30, says of those early days. "She came with four DVDs and eight VHS tapes and wanted me to cut the reel. I got the job on Craigslist, and it took me 11 hours to do. The job paid $45, and I was so mad... I knew editing inside and out. I had been to film school, and here I was taking a $45 job. Her name was Kate, and we have her name in the current studio. Kate is the reason we say, 'Life is more than money.' It's all about relationships. Six months later, she went to work for the Congressional Media Group, the people that make videos for Congress, and they needed a video team. Kate brought me in, and to this day, they are one of our largest clients."
By 2008, Miller decided to relocate to South Florida, where he was offered a temporary job editing video for Sun Sports. Fort Lauderdale also happened to be his wife's hometown.
"The idea behind C&I Studios is that it's not about me," he says, which is promising coming from someone in the so-called millennial generation, known for its narcissism and for constantly publishing self-obsessed streams of social media updates.
The team opened its first office in a 500-square-foot space in the Progresso Building (the same building as Fort Lauderdale's hipster watering hole Laser Wolf).
"At that time, we were making pretty good strides," says Miller. They were taking on more commercial photo, video, and design work, bringing in bigger-name clients like Sun Sports, ASCAP, and Maxim magazine.
Soon, they were able to move into an office space double the size in North Fort Lauderdale — a necessary move to accommodate C&I's growing staff, which then included a photographer and interns. "We were crazy busy," remembers Miller.
Miller had always envisioned himself moving back to D.C. or to New York, Boston, or Austin, where the creative scenes were much stronger, but in 2011, he did the opposite and moved C&I into its current 4,000-square-foot warehouse studio in the FAT Village. Financially, it was a sink-or-swim move.
"I honestly didn't think we could afford it," Miller says. "I had a family and a staff that relied on us, and I was weary of Fort Lauderdale, to be honest... Then I thought, 'Well, if nothing creative is happening here, it's because everyone keeps leaving, and it's also our fault.' "
His team — a lot of whom he trained and don't have degrees — focused on building a community, one that would encourage growth and eventually become self-sustaining. At the studio, the office takes up just a small loft area built on top of crates. The entire 4,000 square feet of the ground floor — which includes a recording studio, wardrobe and makeup area, cycloramic wall, a lounge area, and even a fully stocked and liquor-licensed bar — is for the community. As many as 2,500 people have packed inside the space during events like Night Owl Market, an independent craft bazaar featuring local vendors.
"This is our town, and it is creative," Miller says. "People just didn't know where to go. Now they do."
In addition to doing corporate jobs for clients, C&I began hosting events that draw eclectic crowds of old and young people — anyone looking for "something real," Miller says. The studio participates in the monthly FAT Village Art Walk that takes place on the last Saturday of each month, a free concert series called "Live at C&I," $1 movie nights, and a new BYOB event called Barbecue Fridays, with burgers and dogs (they even have vegan options) and the "largest game of beer pong ever" outside the studio.