Neighborhood Film Company: A Business with a Social MissionBy Tara Nurin |
- 4000 fade
- 4000 fade
- 4000 fade
In 2009, Ricky Staub was about two years away from achieving his dream life.
Working as assistant producer on M. Night Shyamalan movies and fast-tracking to the big-time, he was ready for fame and fortune. But instead of shopping for a Beverly Hills mansion and partying with the stars, Staub has instead spent much of the past two years voluntarily living in a homeless shelter and hanging out with former addicts and convicts.
“I think what happened is both Ricky and I started to recognize the briefness of life and started to ask questions like, ‘Why am I building my own little empire only to chase after my own dreams, get rich, and die?’” explains Staub’s business partner Anders Lindwall, a former writer and professional volunteer, on behalf of his longtime friend, who’s on his honeymoon.
Lindwall and Staub found their answers in Neighborhood Film Company (NFC), a creative services production agency they founded a year ago.
They and four full-time employees are producing ads and marketing videos for big-name clients like Nike and Anthropologie. But they’re doing it as a means to guide adults in recovery from homelessness, addiction, imprisonment, and mental illness toward a more meaningful path.
A nonprofit within a for-profit
Partnering with Project H.O.M.E., with whom they connected through a friend of Staub’s father, Lindwall and Staub have just launched a nonprofit agency within their film company to house their outreach efforts. Calling it the Working Film Establishment (WFE), the pair, along with Executive Director Dan Walser, are gearing up to use the nonprofit to provide intensive hard- and soft-skill training to carefully selected adults in order to rigorously groom them for profitable, sustainable careers.
Beyond the targeted career coaching, they’ll extend paid apprenticeships within the film company to provide practical exposure to the professional world while sheltering apprentices in the close, nurturing environment they’re fostering.
“There are nonprofits that provide job training and there are employers with good intentions. But the nonprofits aren’t on site with the employees to support them if they hit a rough patch and decide to stop showing up. So do you think that employer is going to want to hire another employee from that group? It creates this huge chasm in Philly where pools of potential employees can’t get to this other world,” says Walser.
Learning the limitations
Even though they’ve already signed on Loews Philadelphia Hotel as the first employer-partner to commit to offer internships to program graduates, the filmmakers are realizing that when they work with this population of adults, they must tread even more slowly and carefully than anticipated.
At first they expected to turn around a feature-length film whose creative talent and crew would exclusively comprise program participants. But after several months of working with their first employee, by all accounts an extraordinarily talented former prison inmate named Elliott Harmon, they’ve learned that for their model to work, they need to engage with apprentices on a tightly intimate, individual level. Now, they’ve realigned their expectations and tentatively shaped their format toward no more than five apprentices at a time.
“Our residents are people who’ve gone through a lot of struggles, immense poverty and education deficits,” says Will O’Brien, special projects coordinator for Project H.O.M.E. “The idea that you can clean them up and they go out and get a job really doesn’t work well. People need ongoing support.”
To help ensure their approach succeeds, the NFC crew is taking this emerging idea of “supported employment” and turning it into something much deeper: a holistic integration they call the “family ratio.” The family ratio keeps the filmmaker/apprentice ratio low enough to allow for the staff to protectively encircle apprentices with close connections and genuine responses to setbacks or emergencies, no matter when or where they occur.
“The level of commitment is extreme. At midnight you may be kicking in their door,” says Lindwall. “People who run nonprofits are conditioned to measure success by headcount. I’ve been around enough organizations to know that when we’re dealing with a human element, that doesn’t transfer to numbers.”
But as anyone running a nonprofit or private company knows, some numbers do matter. For now, the for-profit NFC is funding the nonprofit WFE, and private donations, along with a corporate commitment for $30,000, are starting to trickle in. As he prepares to welcome his first apprentice early next year, Walser is actively seeking fiduciary sponsors for individual apprentices, plus additional corporate and private donations to help fund training, social support, stipends and operational costs. Shyamalan has pledged spiritual support, and former governor Ed Rendell’s son, Jesse, is helping to make introductions.
So far, the NFC crew, almost all of whom are recent Philadelphia transplants, are finding a welcome reception and an ethos of cooperation among city organizations unlike any they’ve encountered.
Just as they feel serendipity brought Harmon to them, they believe providence brought them to Philly. Working out of a shared artistic space on a ramshackle dead end, they look ahead toward the relationships and the transformation they hope to foster here, and they somehow know instinctually that, as Lindwall forecasts, “We’re going to encounter major failures and major disappointments. But they will not supersede the joys. I’m one-hundred percent confident about that.”blog comments powered by Disqus