Andy Sullivan always knew he would make a film. It was just a matter of when.
That’s the problem when you know something’s inevitable, he said. “There’s always a tomorrow for it.”
Sullivan, 43, shelved that dream for two decades. In the meantime, he built what was once called the country’s fastest growing interactive agency, right in Montgomery County. Called Refinery, the company was acquired for an undisclosed amount in 2007 by G2 Worldwide. (Sullivan left as CEO in 2006 but remained a board member and cofounder through the sale.)
Now, he’s on the cusp of finishing his first feature film, Bokeh, a sci-fi drama about a couple who find themselves in a completely-deserted Iceland. The film, made for under $500,000, was pushed along by a personal investment from Sullivan, private investors, a $40,000 grant from Iceland and a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $49,000. Sullivan wrote and directed the film with childhood friend Geoffrey Orthwein.
Sullivan started making moves on his long-running plans of making a movie in the summer of 2013. Rather than trying to find an agent and a film studio, he took the indie route. Sullivan and Orthwein decided: “Let’s ignore everyone else and make our own film.”
“It’s too easy right now to blame a third party for why you’re not getting to make something,” he said.
The way he tells it, it sounds a lot like why he started Refinery in the early ’90s when he was 23 and working at Sony’s publicity department. Sullivan, a recent NYU film school grad at the time, felt like there wasn’t enough accountability at his Sony job — people wouldn’t get credit for their successes or would get blamed for someone else’s failures.
“I wanted more control,” he said, adding, “I didn’t really want someone to tell me that I could or couldn’t try something.”
He started Refinery, a fledgling interactive agency that came into the world when such a thing barely existed, with nine other friends. For a year and a half, he’d wake up at 5:30 and commute from Huntingdon Valley, where he lived (and still does), to New York City for his day job, get back home at 8 p.m., work on Refinery, sleep for four hours and do it all over again.
“My body could never do that now but it could it then,” Sullivan said. “Though making the film for a month felt that extreme again.”
Once he quit his job at Sony, he spent more than a dozen years building Refinery, working for clients like Campbell’s, GlaxoSmithKline and Motorola. At its height, Refinery employed 178 people and was doing $25 million in annual revenue. He didn’t do any filmmaking on the side during his time at Refinery — “It demanded every second I could give it,” he said.
When it sold, the company had shrunk to 79 people. Sullivan left a year before the sale, citing differing visions among the founders for the company’s future. The founders eventually decided to sell because they no longer wanted to maintain the business at that size or grow bigger.
After he left the company, Sullivan did consulting. He wasn’t interested in immediately pursuing another business.
“I didn’t want to chase Refinery after Refinery,” he said. “I didn’t want to race to make something bigger. It just wasn’t the right thing for me.”
When thinking back on his time with Refinery, he speaks with pride about former staffers like Indy Hall cofounder Alex Hillman, Archer Group CEO Mike Derins, Neo Pangea founder Brett Bagenstose and Tonic Design cofounders Chris Bye and Brian Brossman, all of whom he said are doing “awesome things.”
As for Bokeh, Sullivan will finish post-production in a month and then start submitting the film to festivals. If it doesn’t get into the festivals they want, they’ll self-distribute. You should be able to watch the film later this year. Sullivan plans to make a second and third movie with his company, Zealous Pictures.
“Hopefully, one day, someone says, ‘We’re going to pay you,'” he said. But in the meantime, he’s not waiting for permission.