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.
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."
He brought on two friends, photographer Justin Mein and graphic designer Sarah Dreyer, who now make up two of the company's four leading directors.
"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.
Dollar movie nights have been popular, with past screenings including Back to the Future, Rushmore, and Exit Through the Gift Shop. The next will take place on Saturday, April 13, and this time they're changing things up: The movie — appropriately, the animated feature Up — will be projected onto the ceiling, and viewers will lie on the floor to watch.
"We just wanted to also make C&I a way where people can connect," says Miller. "That's what really matters. Behind it all, it's relationships. That's the main thing for us."
C&I now has 13 employees who travel among three studios — the Fort Lauderdale headquarters and satellite offices in D.C. and North Carolina — including Corey Bost, C&I's event manager and a local musician who performs and records there.
For this month's Art Walk, taking place March 30, C&I is putting on "French Quarter at C&I," a New Orleans-themed event complete with Cajun foods like jambalaya and gumbo, a live jazz band sourced from C&I's crew of in-house musicians, street performers, fireworks, a pop-up coffee shop, cigars, and plenty of cheap craft booze provided by nearby Riverside Market. But more than just a place to drink, hang, and share ideas with other local creative types, C&I's events are designed to rally support and nurture artists in a tangible way.
Take the "Live at C&I" concert series. Not only are the artists given the opportunity to play in front of a big crowd but C&I also shoots HD videos of their performances for free. Why? "Simple," says Miller. "We love music. Period. I love to help out artists that are really talented. Sometimes, artists just need that simple media push to help them get noticed. We love that we can do that."
As far as their own work goes, the team at C&I keeps busy with clients from all over the country in anything from politics to magazines, from ESPN and Sony to IKEA and Sea World. Currently, they're working on shooting a Miami-based reality-TV show, Top Recruiter, that follows some of the nation's most sought-after job recruiters, as well some commercials with national clients like Head & Shoulders and Blinc Mascara.
And even amid all the chaos of its commercial work and community events, the team has been working on shooting its own original films, including a web series called The Distance, based in New York and Fort Lauderdale. Currently in its fifth episode, the drama series focuses on long-distance relationships and stars Miller's brother Josiah Sampson as Sam and Brigitte Kali as September. You can watch The Distance, along with other C&I short and feature-length projects, at films.c-istudios.com.
"We are constantly pushing ourselves; we are never satisfied; there is always something more we can do," Miller says. "The future of C&I is to continue to build relationships and make great content. If we do those two things, we will be in a great place."
Their FAT Village neighbors, boutique design agency Helium Creative and planning and landscape architect firm Cadence, are also doing well in the blossoming Fort Lauderdale arts district and bringing attention to the area while building an audience for the work being done there.
"As long as we continue to create awesome media and awesome events, FAT Village will grow," Miller says. "If we all realized that life is more than money, we would be doing better. Relationships are everything, and that is the best thing about FAT Village... Fort Lauderdale is a town that people outside of Florida will start hearing about a lot more."