Arts & Entertainment, Film, and Small Business & Startups

Studio aims for the stars with planned feature film

For film-school buddies who founded GSM Creative, shooting commercials is a path to coming attractions.

July 1, 2016
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West Michigan natives Matt Lohr and Steve Wygmans have a goal to make a major studio film in the next seven years.

The two friends are co-founders of Grand Rapids-based GSM Creative film studio, 342 Market Ave. SW.

“When we started this company (in 2013), we made a goal that we didn’t want to just be a commercial company, we wanted to be a narrative company,” Lohr said. “So we set a goal that in 10 years, we wanted to shoot a feature film — a large studio film, like $20 million plus. That’s our budgetary goal: a real feature.”

GSM was named for Matt, Steve and original co-founder Garrett Ishman, who left the business to work in Portland, Oregon. Lohr is now GSM’s CEO and Wygmans is COO. They met at Compass College of Cinematic Arts in Grand Rapids.

“We went to film school together, Matt and I, and we didn’t like each other,” Wygmans said.

“Well, for the first semester we didn’t like each other. Then we started to grow on each other,” Lohr said. “He was a pretentious film douche, and I was like a strait-laced square. We had prejudices about each other that kept us away from each other.”

“But once we worked on a project together and were late-night editing, it was like, ‘All right, the dude with the tie’s not so bad,” Wygmans said.

“‘And the idiot who doesn’t shave is not so bad,’” Lohr said.

They graduated in 2010 and continued to work on projects together informally. Lohr spent most of his time on his sound mixing business, and Wygmans was getting burned out working for a film company that he felt wasn’t going anywhere. While filming a travel show together, “Great American Brew Trail,” they discussed starting a film business together.

“I was like, ‘I hate my life,’ and Matt was like, ‘I want to do something other than sound.’ And I was telling him about this Western film I was writing at Compass. ‘It’s a good story. It just never got finished. We should team up and keep working on it. ‘And he’s like, ‘OK,’” Wygmans said. “So I started writing it, and we were like, ‘We really want to shoot this, so we should probably make some commercials (for money).’”

“He pitched it to me, and I was like, ‘This is genius. Why haven’t you done this yet?’” Lohr said.

GSM was born, and Lohr and Wygmans became successful at shooting commercials for a living. The majority of their work now is corporate documentary, particularly for nonprofits.

These cultural pieces explain an organization’s identity rather than what it does, Lohr said, making not just a compelling marketing tool but a far-reaching story brand.

“(Customers) want to understand they’re not buying a product, they’re buying an entire culture. They’re inspired to purchase because they believe in what that organization is doing because of what they’ve seen on video,” he said.

“That’s the approach we take. We try to really show the human side of a business and really tear those barriers down.”

The money from the commercials is fueling Lohr and Wygmans’ dreams to make “Broken Revolver,” the Western they co-wrote. Wygmans is directing, while Lohr is director of photography.

“We have half of the film written in screenplay, and we also now have our short film — our proof-of-concept film — that we’re shooting in July, shooting up north near Howard City,” Lohr said. “(We’ve got) local actors and local film crew. And we’re taking a very focused approach to it, not just an independent film approach. Storyboards. The whole shebang.”

“We’ve got sweet props,” he said. “We called on people we knew who had guns that were accurate to the time. We called on people who had costumes that would fit the time period, and we just stretched our budget as much as we could.”

Both men believe Grand Rapids is a city where this kind of film work can be done. Although there are no more major film incentives and the film industry here is currently “stagnant,” good commercial narrative work can still be done, Wygmans said, and there’s good collaboration among different film organizations.

“The film incentives went away, and the people that hurt were the freelancers. It hurt the gear houses, sort of, but there are still films to be made here. There’s still independent work that gets made here with decent budgets, but there’s still a lot of commercial work that gets made here, too,” he said. “Even with the film incentives, there (were) a lot of loopholes and not enough of a budget to support the smaller stuff.”

Lohr encourages anyone interested in film to come chat with GSM, and if anyone wants to make a film, his advice is to simply go out and do it. The advice he wishes he’d gotten when he was younger was to “just take your camera and go shoot something.”

The beautiful thing about filmmaking, especially when there is no industry safety net, is it forces you to be creative, he said.

“The most dangerous thing any filmmaker can do is sit around and wait. Go and do it,” he said.

“If it’s your first film, it’s probably going to suck anyway … but that’s OK, because if they can get into that cycle of ‘make it, hate it, refine it, make it better,’ eventually they’re going to start building a methodology behind their practice, and then they’re going to get to become a real filmmaker.”

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