C&I Studios, at 541 NW First Ave., Fort Lauderdale, is a work/play space that's quickly become the social center for FAT Village. It looks like it comes straight out of a fashionable, wood-loving Brooklynite's Pinterest. It is composed of a large studio for shoots of all sorts, an Airstream, and a coffee bar with overstuffed couches, tall walls of books, and old-timey wooden window frames imported from Washington, D.C.
"We're more than a production company, but we're not an ad agency," co-owner Joshua Miller explains about his enterprise. "Our bread and butter is helping companies and individuals market themselves with media. The media part of C&I is the backbone. It's what funds everything."
If you're wondering what "everything" is, you can get an eyeful of it at FAT Village. It's there that C&I offers visitors interactive visual arts experiences, live music, and a place to get coffee at its bar, which is called Next Door.
Founders Miller, Justin Mein, and Ian Dawson met during middle school in a Maryland suburb of D.C. Their families were friendly and used to go on vacations together. Now all three own a quickly expanding media company they call "an idea agency," with offices in five cities. The three jet among D.C., Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York City, and North Carolina marketing products from concept to storyboarding to casting to makeup to preparing for television.
Miller explains that in the early days, he agreed to do a film reel for a woman who wanted to become a news anchor. After he completed it, she wrote him a disappointingly small check for $45. But it paid off big-time. Six months later, she was working with the Congressional Media Group, which does the media for the U.S. Congress. After Congress let go its creative and production staff several years ago, the woman for whom Miller made the $45 reel sent its business to C&I.
"To this day, they're our biggest client," Miller says. "And it's about us taking a risk and doing that job for her for nothing and then building that relationship with her and seeing where it went."
Miller came to Fort Lauderdale in 2008 to work with a client. Before occupying its current space, C&I was located in his apartment, then in the Progresso Plaza at 901 Progresso Drive -- where Laser Wolf is situated -- and in a spot on Commercial Boulevard and Dixie Highway, which is where he started doing things like movie nights and Taco Tuesdays.
When they first saw their current space, they had to clear out their bank accounts to secure it. Miller was considering leaving the Sunshine State and heading home to the D.C. area. "Before we moved to FAT Village, I only knew Florida was like Las Olas. I was like, this sucks. Then I thought, 'No man, if this town sucks, it's because no one is doing anything.' It was like, 'Let's just build them a home.'"
When they started here in 2010, there wasn't much happening. The area was nearly deserted but for a CrossFit gym. "Art walk was really lame... but it's hard to do something when you don't have the support of the street," says Miller.
C&I didn't want art to be just something you saw on the wall. They hoped to make it like all their events: interactive. Once they created four sets to match each season. People came in and did their own photo shoots. Summer had a fan for wind and a swing. Autumn included changing leaves. "You could be a part of it," Miller says. "We wanted to take these art walks from having 17 people to having 1,700 people."
These days, the art walk regularly draws 2,000 to 3,000 people. C&I has gone from humble movie nights to people not wanting to leave after art walk ends. Miller laughs that he's heard rumors about the company, that they're funded by a church or something because they do so many free events. "It's really not about the money," he explains. "It's about developing a culture of creativity."
Los Angeles indie act Local Natives actually found C&I after turning to Yelp for cool spots in Fort Lauderdale. Miller says the firm cares a lot about music and scores all the commercials it produces in-house. That attention to detail carries over into the ever-expanding array of events. This past summer, C&I helped put on a pop-up concert series, Summer Soundtrack, where only 100 people could attend at a location announced last minute.
They've also brought in out-of-town acts like Forlorn Strangers and helped foster the careers of locals like Corey Bost, Civilian, and KIDS. Josiah Sampson of the latter band is Miller's brother-in-law, and three of the guys in the band work at C&I.
Miller sees this as just the beginning of a long relationship with Fort Lauderdale, its residents, and surrounding businesses. "To see other people come into FAT Village after us, watching what we did, that's really exciting too. People have started to duplicate what we've been doing, which is exciting for the town and exciting for the people."