Ideal work environment for a 9-year-old: Your office is next door to one of Charlotte's best bakeries, the conference rooms are full of pooches who snuggle when they're awake and wheeze happily while they sleep, hip young people come and go to connect you to the zeitgeist, neighborhood kids drop by to use the computers.
No wonder Emulsion Arts, born in May 2002, flourishes in its NoDa digs.
The company is putting the final touches on its first feature film, a broad comedy with unexpected heart titled "Redneck Roots." (The rough cut gets its public premiere Saturday at Sensoria, Central Piedmont Community College's multi-cultural fest.)
Emulsion continues to shoot local, regional and national commercials and corporate films while planning TV, documentary and feature projects. And though its four leaders - all women in their 50s - collectively have 130 years' worth of experience in the film business, they're kids at heart.
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"Nothing has aged about us," says producer Heidi Dove. "We love learning, and our pulse is on what's new."
Dove created Emulsion with writer-director Joanne Hock and financial manager Doug Adams and was there when the company leapt forward with a changing of the guard in 2008: Former New York entertainment attorney Robin Grey became CEO, Lisa Gergely came in as director of business development, and Adams left.
"I wanted to reconfigure the business," says Grey, who knew Hock from the board of directors of The Light Factory. "They were getting jobs but not making nearly as much as they should have. The question was, with the economy failing, how would Emulsion prosper?"
The answer: "By thinking bigger." It raised $200,000 to make "Roots" last summer. That figure is deceptively low, because it doesn't count in-kind contributions or voluntary salary cuts. (Emulsion's long list of thank-yous begins with the town of Stanley, where policeman Derek Summey was so helpful with locations they made him associate producer.)
Emulsion chose not to do a horror film or a slacker drama, typical low-budget debuts. It shot a family-friendly comedy about businesswoman Chris (Heather Gilliland) and co-worker Ben (Dean Napolitano), who has proposed to her. When she visits the rural family she has always hidden from him, he goes after her to meet her flatulent, beer-imbibing but surprisingly wry kinfolk.
"We cast the comic net wide to appeal to as many people as possible," says Hock, a veteran known for calm demeanor and firm control on sets. "We wanted to find the fine line between silliness and heart in the story."
Their complementary skills
The four women seem to harmonize as smoothly as a barbershop quartet
"We're not always so ladylike in production meetings," Hock says, laughing. "But we fit together well. Robin has the business acumen I don't have. Lisa has the people acumen."
And, says Gergely, "Heidi is creative at everything: She can write, edit, shoot (footage), do voice-overs. We throw anything at her on short notice."
In a way, the atmosphere at Emulsion seems placid: A few neighborhood kids come in to use computers, three dogs amble up to visitors, interns learning the business drift in and out of cubicles (and onto Hock's film sets, too).
At the same time, Emulsion plans to ratchet up production.
Hock, who jokes that she goes home only to sleep, cook meals and do laundry, plunged from post-production work on "Roots" into directing "Trinity Goodheart," a drama starring James Hong and Eric Benet. Emulsion didn't produce it, but success would reflect positively on Hock and her company.
Emulsion hopes to document the travels of Charlotte acting coach J.D. Lewis, who'll take off with his two sons on a round-the-globe public service jaunt this summer. A "Six Feet Under"-style series in a tattoo parlor is brewing. Gergely recruits commercials for clients that could be local (Boyle's), national (General Electric) or philanthropic (Thompson Child and Family Focus).
Yet a string of feature films would set the company apart as nothing else can. The next one could be "Wednesdays at the Gem," a period piece - and thus more expensive to recreate - about the Gem Theatre in Kannapolis during the 1930s, when segregation kept black audiences out of the theater. Hock describes her pet project as "'To Kill a Mockingbird' Meets 'Cinema Paradiso.'"
"We'll try to do stories we'd want to watch, like 'Driving Miss Daisy' or 'Fried Green Tomatoes,'" says Grey. "You have to be commercially viable, so people will invest in you, but a movie's quality matters, too."