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Ari Novak is no stranger to big pitches. As the CEO of the Oracle Film Group, Novak has overseen simple digital fixes in post-production to negotiations with a small town to let their streets be overrun with dinosaurs. So he knew his most recent venture, convincing his colleagues at LA and New York-based company, Oracle Films, to open a satellite office in Bozeman, Mont., was going to take something a little different(and maybe a little help). This spring, Montana Film Commissioner Deny Staggs discussed this most recent development and Oracle’s future plans under the Big Sky.
Deny Staggs: So, let’s start with what Oracle does. What kind of work do you do as a production company at the moment?
Ari Novak: Our company produces motion pictures and we do the post-production and visual effects on those movies, but we have long standing history of servicing visual effects on many movies in post-production; that’s a big part of our business. Imagine some company might produce a movie in Europe or Asia and needs visual effects, they’d turn to us to make those. Now, instead of making those on the coasts, we’d be making them right here in Bozeman, Mont. Those movies range in size from smaller, independent films to major studio releases, and this is growing quite a bit in addition to our own in house productions.
DS: What made you want to bring that kind of work to Montana?
AN: Yeah. That’s a good question. I fell in love with Montana five winters ago when I first came. I just loved being here in this environment full of outdoor adventures and really awesome people. I thought to myself, if I lived in a dream world or a perfect world, I’d love to be able to work in Bozeman and never have to leave. So, I started coming out during the winters as an ice climber and spending as much time as I could and realized that if I’m spending all my winters out here, I could find a way to spend my summers out here. At that point I’d been producing films for the SyFy channel and those movies are relatively low-budget. So, we have to film in a lot of places that are production friendly and as I was learning more about the community here and I realized that we may be able to pull off a low budget film here in Montana and do it really well. Previously we’d produced movies in Bulgaria and Belize because the economics of it. I felt very passionately about trying to bring some of this work home. Not just to the states, but to a place like Montana and give worthy people an opportunity and show off.
DS: And putting a satellite office in Bozeman was your goal? What’s the story behind placing it here?
AN: I wanted to be able to establish not just shooting our movies here because I really enjoy shooting here and the benefits of beautiful locations, the talented crew, and the affordability (when you’re shooting low budget movie), just matter so much. We can make a much bigger movie that’s high quality and really good and treats our crew and cast really well by shooting here in Montana because we don’t have to spend as much money as we would in major metropolitan areas. We wanted to put it in Bozeman because it’s got the right combination of art [and] outdoors type people who are a really good fit for our company. There’s the university here and students in tech and the arts that’ve been a great resource which for the company. And then I think Bozeman in general attracts really good people.
DS: Moving a company like Oracle to Montana has to take a lot of work, how’s that going?
AN: We knew we were going to have to bring in quite a bit of equipment and people and it was going to be a process. What was really instrumental to be able to take on that much added expense and trying to pull this off was a grant from the MFO. It’s going really well. Right now, we are in full swing in pre-production on a new film and making commercial content for both national and local clients here at the studio. [We’re] setting up all the animation for our upcoming feature film and then that facility will facilitate movies that we’re producing, as well movies that are being produced by clients in New York and Los Angeles.
DS: That’s great to hear. So, you’re bringing in equipment and things, but what about crew? How is it finding people to work on productions here?
AN: It’s a really good workforce. People were really surprised in my company and as well as with the networks that I work with on how many people really talented people we were able to find right here in Big Sky Country to come work in all sorts of high tech fields: computer animation, post-production, you know [the] production department. So, we’re transitioning. I would say 2/3 of the crew were local, so a 1/3 was out of LA and New York on our last film and now we’re just brining up like a couple people from NY or LA, and even in key positions they’re all local Montanans. I’d say the way were are currently looking at it is, about 25% of our personnel we’ll have to bring in because they’re high level experts in their field, so they’d be coming to Bozeman. And then 75% of our hires we’re looking to be local or people who have the talents and abilities or people we can train.
DS: You mentioned the Big Sky Film Grant’s help in the move up to Bozeman. Were there specific pieces of the grant that were the most helpful for a venture like this?
AN: The financial support and that it was a front loaded grant that gave us working capital. The people I work with are very nuts and bolts, dollars and cents. [Tell them] “You know we need to incur a big loss to bring this studio to Montana but eventually it’s going to make us more money and ultimately our work is going to be that much better thus it will propel our company,” they’ll say “Great idea but we can’t do it.” Because this grant was literally was able to put dollars, money where your mouth is, so to speak, that made it real.
DS: Is there anything else out there like it? Have you seen other film offices offer anything similar?
AN: Honestly, I haven’t applied for a lot of grants, I’ve typically a film commission is a big pain in the butt for filmmakers, believe it or not. As much as they’re set up and they want to attract work, most of them are just sort of this office trying to get you to pay more money for permits or just sort of raise your budget. The Montana Film Office I feel is like an actual partner. When I call up, John, the location scout, it’s like calling up someone on the next desk from me because he’s as involved and informed about our production as anyone within the company. I mean everyone is great who works for your office. They make these movies happen for us. So, it’s a really unique program, and typically something I’ve shied away from. There’s been other opportunities we’ve had to work with film commissions to get rebates, but at the end of the day it just wasn’t worth the time and effort. But your office really kicks butt.
DS: Thanks. Now, I’m trying to remember exactly how we connected. Did you just cold call us one day?
AN: Yeah. I literally just called up one day. One of our investors was like “you should really look into collecting the rebates,” and I explained how a lot of times that can cost a lot of money for accounting and this and that, but I promised him I would do my diligence. So I called up the office on an information gathering mission and Rachel picked up, and said let me put you through to the State Film Commissioner, Deny. I’m from New York City, if I could get an intern at the film office to respond to me when I was producing a million dollar Mercedes Benz commercial I felt lucky. So the fact that three seconds after dialing the phone, I was on the phone with you, it was like an otherworldly experience. You get people on the phone and they actually listen and care and from that conversation that began this relationship with your office that made it happen.
DS: So, you’re here and you’re working on some projects and just finished a movie. What was it like? Still feeling like it was a good move?
AN: It was a really nice experience. There’re so many regulations when shooting movies in Los Angeles. For instance, when you use a hostess plate [a plate that sits on vehicle where the camera sits outside the passenger or driver door] in LA you need to hire the highway patrol to drive alongside you and only on Saturdays of months that end with the letter Q. Here in Montana, we talked to Livingston and they said “you’re going to be driving on the right side of the road, right?” and we said “Yes” and they said, “Sure, then. Go ahead, do whatever you need to, have fun.” That was the attitude and that makes a big difference. Being able to shoot here, where’s it’s really production friendly, we were able to pull it off and get a really product. The movie plays and it’s fun, and it’s the movie we wanted to make, instead of sacrificing and saying, well, we got something in the can.
DS: Well, we’re glad that things are going so well! Anything stick out to you?
AN: [What] our key PA said really offhand once in pre-production rang true. I had sent her out a mission, we had a go-get-list for shotguns, and we had to get the firing pins removed so they’d be safe, and this and that. [In] most places that’s a really hard thing. But she said, “Like everything in Montana, nothing’s too hard here”. And it’s true.