Film Producer - Isaiah Smallman

 "...I had access to film equipment and learned a lot about editing. It was exciting to be a part of it all, and that was the first time I thought, "I could make a living doing this.” 

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Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do?

I am a film producer and co-founder of Mama Bear Studios in Chattanooga, TN. My cousin and I started a commercial video production and creative agency, Fancy Rhino, after graduating from college. I was always interested in feature film production, so I decided to take a leap into film and television. We started Mama Bear Studios about a year ago and I now work as a screenwriter and producer.

how does Mama Bear studios differ from the first company you founded, FAncy Rhino? WHAT KIND OF TASKS AND RESPONSIBILITIES DO YOU HAVE?

Our work for Fancy Rhino, although it includes traditional content, is advertising at it's core. Our clients are ultimately selling products or services. We do have investors for Mama Bear Studios who are looking for a company to co-produce or to buy a film, but we don't work off of commission. In general, we have more creative freedom.

One facet of what we do at Mama Bear includes investing and financing projects. Similar to a venture capital firm investing in a technology company, sometimes we invest in projects that are made by other companies. We give guidance to a team and have some creative oversight, but ultimately it is their 'baby' and we are just enabling them to carry it out. When we aren't playing the investment role, we are in fact, the creative team. At that time, we look to partner with others that have more resources than we do to make bigger projects.

What does your typical day look like with Mama Bear Studios?

I usually get into the office around 8:00 am and the four of us meet as a team around 9:00 am. We discuss our plans and goals for the day and the week, to make sure we are on the same page. I typically spend 3-4 hours throughout the workday on my primary project. I am currently writing a feature screenplay as well as a television pilot. 

As far as writing new material, we have a very collaborative process. We read and give feedback on each other's work, which could be anything from a 5-page outline or a 10-page script. We meet as a team of three without the writer, to discuss their work and to get on the same page, and then we meet with the writer for another hour to give feedback. Going over that work may take most of the morning to read through. I also spend part of the day doing administrative duties, reading projects from outside our company, and responding to emails.

If I am on the road in L.A. or at a film festival, most of the workday is filled with meetings. We are based in Chattanooga, T.N., which is great because it allows us to keep our overhead low, but it does mean that we have to travel to stay connected with the wider film-making community. More than anyone else on the team, my focus is maintaining relationships with directors, writers, producers, and investors.

What's your educational background & what kind of experiences did you have to prepare you for this role?

My dad worked in urban ministry and community development. He started numerous organizations and his work was entrepreneurial at it's core. When I was about 15 years old, he started a commercial film business. I started interning there at a young age, so I had access to film equipment and learned a lot about editing. It was exciting to be a part of it all and that was the first time I thought, "I could make a living doing this.” 

Covenant College did not have a full film major, so I took the only film courses that were offered at the time. I studied English, which was beneficial because I was writing and reading a lot. I think it was best for me not to have a film degree. My business partner and I worked together to make new content throughout college, and we ran a film club. We hosted a few film festivals and tried to get as much experience as we could before starting Fancy Rhino.

If you want to have a career on the technical side, film school can be great for making connections and getting plugged into things. If you want to be a writer or director, again, film school can be great for connections, but ultimately I tell people you should just go make stuff. Use the money you were going to spend on school, work for less, intern for people, and just get out there. Build your hours of experience and make connections. You can still do that in school, but it's a very expensive way to do it. For about 2 years before launching Mama Bear, I was doing research and getting a lay of the land. I read books about Hollywood, read tons of scripts, met with people who had experience, and went to film festivals, to get prepared.


There was a transition that was beginning to happen, and is still ongoing, where companies realized that they could get really great work from smaller companies rather than big agencies. We stumbled into that environment and started making work the way that it made sense for us, and with our budget. It turns out that we were on the cusp of a new style of advertising that was growing out of that necessity to create work on a smaller budget. We didn’t entirely realize that at first, but it was the only way that we could afford it. It ended up being a popular style that got us a lot of attention from some bigger companies. We are defined by documentary style work that is less produced, but still heavily edited. It was what these bigger companies were looking for, and we met some really great investors early on that helped us grow. We had a few key connections with companies that then made it much more possible to get in with other big companies. Getting those first couple 'big' clients, those sort of just happened. We had no business doing it but we were really blessed.

WAS it ALWAYS YOUR GOAL from the beginning to start another company, OR DID MAMA BEAR EVOLVE OUT OF FANCY RHINO at a later point in time?

In a lot of ways I started Fancy, because I wanted a way to make a little more money than I would have as a freelancer, but I also wasn’t quite ready to move to L.A. to do that whole thing. We wanted to stay in Chattanooga and because there wasn’t a place for us to work here, we started our own company. There have been times in the past 5 years where I thought this is what I want to do, but when I was honest, I didn’t want to make advertising for a living.

Starting Fancy Rhino was by no means just a stepping stone, but for me it was a way to have more leverage when entering into the film industry. By starting Fancy Rhino out of college, I probably missed some opportunities to intern for someone. I am having to work backwards at times to learn some things about the industry, but ultimately it was the right call to start with owning my own business first. In some respects I am starting ahead of people who had to intern or work under people for a long time.

Which film, or piece of work, are you most proud of? What are some highlights for you?

We did a bunch of work with Air Jordan for a while and that was super cool because the reality is that Nike is one of the biggest brands out there. It was cool to know that they wanted to work with us and even though it was small amount of work for them, it was significant work. Our team at Fancy Rhino was super excited about it and it was a great learning experience and cool opportunity to learn a lot of stuff. It definitely opened up more doors for us.

One of the best things we’ve done as a team at Mama Bear Studios so far is going to the Austin Film Festival. I had heard about this screenwriting conference and film festival on a Podcast that I like a lot. All of these amazing A-list screenwriters were so open in sharing with us what they know. We learned an insane amount about how screenwriting works, and to be able to hang out and share a beer with our favorite screenwriters was amazing. That was a massively inspiring opportunity and we are headed there again this year.

What are your goals and dreams for Mama Bear Studios?

Really crazy big picture if I’m honest: We are inspired by Pixar's model and consistency. So much is changing in the film industry, and although our work and the way we do things won’t look like what they are doing, we’d love to grow and make films and television at that caliber. We want to work with the best talent, and distribute our work on the widest possible platform. It’s not about the money or recognition, but movies are expensive to make. We feel like being able to make the kinds of movies we want to make is important. That requires a certain degree of recognition in the industry - they go hand in hand. We would love to build a reputation where we have the opportunity to work on amazing projects, and great actors and directors want to work with us on a regular basis. We also want to be great filmmakers and make movies that people really love, that is part of the dream for us all still - not just enabling others to create, but to actually create the work ourselves.

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