The 4,000-square-foot second-floor space at the intersection of Cherokee Street and Jefferson Avenue had seen better days. That says a lot, seeing as how it had done time as, among other incarnations, a mattress show room and a probation office. Long vacant, its windows were boarded up, carpeting was haphazardly glued to the floor and pegboard covered the walls. "It was dank and disgusting," sums up Jason Deem, owner of the building now known as Nebula Coworking. But when the four partners in First Punch Film Production discovered the space in January 2010, they knew they'd found home. "People thought we were crazy," producer Sam Coffey says today, and you believe him.
The space is now a gorgeous studio with clean hardwood floors and light streaming in from windows on the west wall. Here the First Punch crew has shot, animated and edited music videos, commercials and parts of the company's first short film. The quartet — Coffey, Mike Broy, Ryan Frank and Carson Minow — did the renovation themselves. Both Coffey and Broy toiled as construction contractors before First Punch was born (they specialized in historical rehab). Their fastidious labor on the studio proved infectious, as Deem began working to bring the other 25 commercial spaces in the century-old red-brick building up to snuff. Today Nebula Coworking is home to sixteen businesses, including Lane 4 Collaborative, Eleven Media Group and Cinco de Mayo STL.
The First Punch studio walls are adorned with murals and paintings, most done by artists from the neighborhood and some by Ryan Frank, whose official title is creative director. Frank's pre-Punch résumé includes a stint as a manager at the City Museum's Art City. He also found freelance work making puppets and painting — a commission for a mural on the wall of the museum's sandwich shop bankrolled his initial stake in First Punch. "We didn't have anything when we started except an idea," Frank says. "We didn't have any equipment or space. We all had low-paying jobs." Frank, Coffey and executive director Minow are all 30 years old. Broy, the old man of the group, is 32.
Minow had been waiting tables at Mangia Italiano, but she was eventually cut loose for skipping too many shifts in favor of freelance film work. Born and reared in California, Minow's the only First Punch principal not native to the St. Louis area. She came here for school (Webster University, where she majored in film production) and hasn't looked back. "Every resource we could possibly need is in this town," she says.
Adds Coffey: "We just recently shot, from concept to completion, a broadcast-quality TV commercial, in a week. I don't know where else we could pull that off. We pulled together a huge crew, we shot with live talent, it was very graphic-heavy, and we pulled all this off in an extremely short period of time. There's a huge wealth of creative talent in St. Louis."
If the First Punch members brim with self-confidence, their passion for St. Louis is sincere. The company is rooted in the foursome's ardent belief that great things can be made in this town. Not "great for St. Louis" — great, period. It's not that they lack perspective. Both Minow and Frank made separate trips to Africa to make films; Minow came back with what she describes as a "cultural exposé about Ethiopian music and life," while Frank shot a music video for a rapper he met in Ghana. The TV commercial Coffey describes was commissioned by Savtira, a Florida-based corporation that invited nationwide bids before choosing First Punch.
There has been some pressure to head to a coast — "People always ask us why we're not in LA," says Minow — but First Punch has no plans to leave.
"St. Louis is poised to be a really great metropolis, but there's all this professional flight." Minow says, acknowledging the Gateway to the West's half-century-and-counting tale of woe. "All these young people who leave for bigger cities because that's where the opportunities are. One of our goals is to be completely homegrown. To make things here and stay. The talent is here. We just need it to stay."
The partners say they've found plenty of work. Sometimes, it's paid commissions, but not always. "We never stop working," says Frank. "Even if we don't have any paying jobs coming in, and there's a lull, we work on our own stuff. We never stop."
The quartet's individual creative urges are always part of the mix; each member of the group has personal projects in various stages of production. But the constant flow of activity stems from a more basic instinct. "We can't sit stagnant," says Coffey. "It's when you sit stagnant that you start to get that attitude of not being busy, and you start to fall out of it."
The group's most substantial production to date, an eleven-minute short film called The Good Boy, has yet to see an official release.
The project originated at the St. Louis-based Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma, which won a Kresge Foundation grant to produce a film about gang involvement among local immigrant and refugee populations. The story was written by Mexican American immigrant kids; the majority of the actors are refugees from Somalia and Liberia. With the exception of a couple of film students from Chicago who were passing through and helped on one shot, every aspect of the movie production, from sound to costumes to editing, is the handiwork of First Punch and its St. Louis connections.
"If we were rooted in Cincinnati, it might be the same thing — I don't know," says Frank. "But this is where we're at."
To learn more about First Punch Film Production, visit the company's website at www.firstpunchfilm.com.Click here to return to our list of MasterMind Award winners.