Between the pandemic, and first the threat and finally the reality of the WGA strike, you may not have noticed a major shift in focus towards, of all places, New Jersey, as an epicenter of film production. Why New Jersey? Well, actually, New Jersey has a stellar, and very important role in history of American film, particularly as it relates to female filmmakers. In 1912, Alice Guy-Blanché, the first female director in history, opened Solex Studios, one of the most successful studios in early American film, in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Now two producers, Molly Conners, the founder and CEO of New Jersey independent film, television, and digital media company Phiphen, and one of the executives at Phiphen, Jane Sinisi, have opened Phiphen Studios, a post production house. Their goal is to support and and be part of expanding the ever-growing New Jersey film community, which saw an increase in investment from $70 million in 2017 to over a half billion dollars just two years later in 2019.
Phiphen Studios is in Englewood Cliffs, less than a five mile drive from where Guy-Blanché made so many breakthroughs, and had so many firsts at Solex Studios all those years ago.
Since Phiphen Studios opened, a number of studios have announced or are building their own sites in New Jersey. Netflix bought a former army base in Fort Monmouth, where they will construct one of the largest film production facilities int he world, and Lionsgate announced in 2022 that it would be building a 125 million dollar studio in Newark. With Phiphen, Molly Conners and Jane Sinisi are once again showing women in film are often the first with a great idea.
SUPPORT FROM THE START:
Molly Conners and Jane Sinisi have had impressive careers as producers, prior to their work at Phiphen and Phiphen Studios. They both say they were lucky to have strong, affirming experiences as childhood, and found inspiration from their parents’ support and example. Molly says, “I have a supportive, loving family that always encouraged me to pursue anything I was interested in exploring as a hobby, and eventually towards a real job and career. I’ve always loved movies but I didn’t necessarily grow up thinking I would be in the movie business. I used to produce political commercials and that led me to catch the creative bug and eventually into producing feature films.” Jane, too, points to her family’s support. “My father worked tirelessly in construction and every weekend when he had some down time, all he wanted to do was take me to the movie theater, and we saw every movie that came out from G to R rated, we just loved being together and having this movie going experience together. My love of movies and becoming a cinephile led to a career in producing and that was due in large part to my dad. Also we never left before the credits rolled, he said that was a show of respect to the people that worked hard on those films, something I still do to this day with my family.”
CAREERS THAT INSPIRED EXPANSION:
Molly Conners has been producing award-winning films for over 15 years, including co-producing the 2-time Oscar nominated Frozen River, starring Melissa Leo, and executive producing Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which won him Best Director, as well as nabbing Best Picture and Best Performance for Michael Keaton at the 2015 Oscars. She founded Phiphen Pictures (now called just Phiphen) in 2015, which has its headquarters in New Jersey. Phiphen is named after the phi phenomenon, which is the optical illusion of movement in which your brain sees moving objects from a succession of still images, as is the basis for film and animation. Once the head of Phiphen, she spearheaded the release of 2018 film Like Father, written and directed by Lauren Miller Rogen, the 2019 Emmy-nominated tv series It’s Bruno, and David Gutnik’s FKA Twigs starrer Brighton Beach, where she connected with Jane Sinisi.
Jane Sinisi, who was born and raised in New Jersey, expanded on her career in real estate by going into film production a little over ten years ago, executive producing one of the highest sales in Sundance Film Festival history, The Birth of a Nation, in 2016. As to how working in real estate helped her prepare her for film production, Jane had this to say: “ It definitely prepared me for being a producer. In both real estate and production, you have to wear many hats, from development and management, attention to detail, and overseeing a team of people. I find that they definitely continue to intersect and I’m a better producer because of my career working in real estate and vice versa.”
It was co-producing on a film with Molly that led to her joining Phiphen, and ultimately working together to open Phiphen Studios. About partnering with Molly, Jane says, “I watched Molly on the set of Brighton Beach in 2016 and was so impressed with the environment she helped create on set, plus she and I just got along really well, and found that we had the same taste in movies and tv, and that led us to want to create more projects together as a team. It was just an organic friendship that blossomed into a working partnership here at Phiphen and now Phiphen Studios.”
Molly welcomed Jane, first at Phiphen, then as a co-creator and ultimately CEO of Phiphen Studios. Molly explains her trajectory, in terms of why she started Phiphen, and subsequently Phiphen Studios, as well as their position on diversity and parity for women in film this way. “It was my love of making film and television, and wanting to have a bit more control over the type of projects, storytelling and people I wanted to be working with… I wanted to be my own boss and it’s the best decision I could have made for myself. It led me to meet Jane and eventually create Phiphen Studios together. For Phiphen, story is paramount, whether that’s a project geared towards women or men, we want to tell quality stories that have meaning behind them and keep viewers thinking about the film or tv show long after watching. Of course we are always looking out for female-centric stories that will speak to us more personally and seek out talented women in the industry to work with, such as Julia Stiles who we’ve worked with on our film The God Committee. Now we’re producing her directorial debut Wish You Were Here. I do think it is of the utmost importance to tell women’s stories, but this has happened organically and, thankfully, with the changing times. Jane and I have had the great fortune to work with amazing female directors and will continue to do so.”
BUILDING PHIPHEN STUDIOS:
The plans for Phiphen Studios began in 2020. The idea was to create a boutique post-production facility with editing rooms, an audio department, a 4K theater, and office space, with the potential for expansion into soundstages and other valuable additions.
Of course starting the project in 2020 was decidedly inopportune, due to a certain worldwide pandemic, but they were determined, and both felt prepared for creating something new and exciting. They were able to open the facility in late 2021. Says Molly, “Working on so many movies and being in post production and seeing all the facilities, I knew what filmmakers were looking for when it came to the type of space that would help finalize their creative vision. From state of the art equipment, the right people to work with, which we have in our managing director of Phiphen Studios in Aldey Sanchez. The background that I had in being a producer and going through the post process myself, 100% helped prepare me for success with creating Phiphen Studios with Jane. When asked about feeling a connection, as one of the few woman-owned studios, with Guy-Blaché, Jane explains, “The history of New Jersey filmmaking with Alice Guy-Blache’s Solax Studios was something that’s been a really special full circle moment for us, creating another female owned studio in the state. At Phiphen, we felt we were ready to expand the business, and thought a natural next step was to create a post-production studio for not only Phiphen’s projects but for the entire industry. It’s a studio created “for filmmakers, by filmmakers” is what we like to say.”
With great tax breaks and the perfect diversity of topography, New Jersey has been resurfacing as a major filmmaking hub, as exampled by recent award winners Joker and West Side Story. Concurrently with working to open Phiphen Studios, Phiphen produced Stowaway, a successful Netflix sci-fi thriller release in 2021, which starred Anna Kendrick, as well as a number of other projects. Though both building the new studio and filming through a pandemic were a challenge, they faced it head-on. Says Jane, “Luckily, Molly and I are yes people and when confronted with challenging times during the pandemic, and trying to build from the ground up and open our own studio, we never said, “No, this is too hard.” We figured out a way to make it all happen. I’m proud of the resolve and determination Molly and I had to get this studio off the ground at a time when it probably would have been easy for others to not continue with it.”
Phiphen Studios is already up and running, and has a significant head start against Netflix, Lionsgate, and others entering the fray, but Jane and Molly don’t see anyone as competition, and welcome all who are making the move to New Jersey, believing there’s room for everyone. Says Jane, “I think the secret is out! New Jersey is the place to be for entertainment production. Here at Phiphen Studios we’ve known how incredible the state is and seeing Netflix and Lionsgate coming to the state can only be a good thing for our work and success in New Jersey.”
They’re not only using Phiphen Studios for post on projects out of its parent company, Phiphen, but the new production house has become one of the go-to places for both American and International studios and production companies. Jane lists just a few. “Over the last few months we have supported projects like A24’s The Front Room, directed by Sam and Max Eggers, as well as Birth/Re-birth directed by Laura Moss, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year. Most recently we supported A24’s Y2K, directed by Kyle Mooney starring Rachel Zegler and Alicia Silverstone. Currently we’re supporting Daddio, directed by Christy Hall. It stars Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson. Of course, there are many others that we can’t talk about yet!” Molly adds, “Our new film COUP! recently used the space for post, and it was an incredible experience getting to actually use our facilities, and see how we created the exact space we always dreamed of having during our past projects’ post-productions. It’s exciting. But the truth is that we get to support a variety of filmmakers, being experienced on the production side allows us to relate to filmmakers and better support them at the start. Word is getting out and we’re excited to support projects in the years to come.”
WHY WE CHOSE THEM
Helping to bring film production to New Jersey brings honor to the long and often forgotten legacy of women in film that Solex and Alice Guy-Blaché represent, but it also offers a positive alternative to areas of the country, like Georgia and Louisiana, that have proven to be dangerous to women, and less than supportive of female bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom. Molly Conners and Jane Sinisi are continuing their great track records of producing artistic films that add memorable, often award-winning indies to the larger catalogue of American cinema. Through both Phiphen and Phiphen Studios, they are also paving the way for New Jersey to become one of the most powerful forces in film. — Leslie Combemale