Video journalists Elettra Fiumi and Lea Khayata decided to join forces in 2011 and establish their own production company, Granny Cart Productions, because they enjoy filmmaking—every part of it. The two met as students at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where they collaborated on a master’s project and were taught all aspects of video journalism, from scriptwriting to filming to editing. When they were about to graduate, they were unsure how to put their skills to use. “We were looking at the jobs on the market that were very specialized: Only researching, only editing,” Khayata explains. A professor suggested they set up their own, full-service company. When they wrote their business plan and had long discussions about their goals, they agreed that they ultimately wanted to shoot long-form documentaries and to work with cultural institutions. Four and half years after they launched the company–named for the carts Fiumi and Khayata used to haul their camera gear–they’ve realized their dreams, producing films for clients such as Gagosian Gallery, the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Cool Hunting, BBC and MSNBC.
Elettra Fiumi, left, and Léa Khayata. Image © Eva Sakellarides.
Getting to this point took time. Opening a business was complicated. They first had to get Khayata, who was raised in France and Lebanon, a visa. (Fiumi, who was raised in Italy, has a U.S. passport.) They had to write a business plan that laid out their investment and how they planned to pay the bills. Rather than relying on film-making grants, they would go after advertising work that could help fund their journalism: “We wanted to create a self-sustaining cycle of productions,” Khayata says. Their overhead and initial investment were minimal, since they already had DSLRs, computers and editing software. In the first year, Fiumi says, “We built our own website. We ordered our business cards online.”
More daunting, she says, were “the many administrative things we never thought of,” including the legal paperwork to set up a limited partnership, workers’ compensation insurance and payroll taxes. Dealing with the administrative headaches of setting up a company paid off. “It gave us an aura of professionalism that we wouldn’t have had if we were starting under our own names,” says Khayata.
To get the company afloat, they took whatever jobs they could. “The beginning stages are really about building a portfolio,” Fiumi says, “So there was a lot of working for less money than we should have been paid, and doing videos that weren’t what we were hoping to be working on.”
They landed their first assignments through the connections they had made at Columbia and contacts at American Express Publishing, where Fiumi had worked as an editor before she enrolled in graduate school. Early jobs included video interviews they produced for Columbia Journalism Review, and short online vignettes for Monocle. They also reached out to editors directly to find out who hired freelancers and what projects they were working on. They contacted an editor at the BBC through Twitter, and he in turn put them in touch with an editor responsible for hiring freelance contributors.
“Slowly we crafted more of a style as we grew our portfolio, and then it was easier to get more jobs that we were interested in,” Fiumi notes. Having their company name in their credits helped them establish a brand identity. The “grannies,” as their clients call them, bring complementary skills to all their collaborations. “We have different insights but a similar eye,” Fiumi says. “That’s something you can’t find in a single freelancer.” Though with their current workload, they sometimes hire an assistant editor or a second cameraperson to help, Fiumi notes, “We always maintain creative control from start to finish so that our style is imprinted on all our projects.”
That style is characterized by the intimate interviews they capture and their attention to finding and shaping narratives. “That’s true in our journalism work and in our corporate work,” Fiumi says.
For MSNBC, for example, they produced profiles for a series called “Breaking Glass,” on women breaking barriers in their work. Each one explored a woman’s working life through interviews and fly-on-the wall documentary footage. They included “The Leading Lady of Houston,” an 11-minute video about Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major American city.
Says Fiumi, “We spend a lot of time figuring out what the story is, and the best way to tell it.” That appeals to both their journalism and commercial clients. “The thing we’ve heard from clients is that they appreciate that we aren’t just technicians with a camera who put images together,” says Khayata. “They like that we think about the story when we shoot and when we edit to bring it together.”
They’ve been hired by clients such as designer Rebecca Taylor on the strength of their documentary work. A colleague recommended Granny Cart to the Kurt Weill Foundation, which was hoping to document their annual Lotte Lenya competition for theatrical singers. “We got to sit down with them and got to understand their mission and their history,” Fiumi recalls. With those insights, she and Khayata planned what footage and interviews they would shoot over the course of the six-month competition. Though it was a promotional project, they produced it as they would a documentary project. Their 26-minute film ran on the Foundation’s website and was picked up by a PBS station.
Alison McDonald, director of publications for Gagosian Gallery, has commissioned Granny Cart to produce videos on several of the gallery’s exhibitions. Gagosian supplies the art and the expertise, and arranges interviews with artists and scholars, McDonald says, “but Granny Cart takes all of those ingredients and creates a video that is entertaining, informative and accessible.” McDonald says in the past, she’s worked with videographers and editors who needed a lot of direction, and filmmakers who wanted to pursue their own concepts. She says of Khayata and Fiumi, “They often exceeded my expectations both in terms of the finished video but also in terms of just how smart, sophisticated and sensitive they are to understanding any principles we establish at the beginning of any project.”
As they have grown their business, one of their biggest challenges has been negotiating fair rates for their work. That meant learning to talk about the client’s budget when they first discuss a project, as well as educating new clients on the costs of productions, and what they can produce whether they shoot with one camera or two, for three days or five. “There are a million ways to tell a story and how much money you have to spend influences how you tell it,” Khayata notes. “We’ve learned from other people who were in the business longer that everything has a cost and it’s OK to explain that to [clients] and also be firm about how long things actually take, being clear about it and putting a price on that.”
When they first entered the market, they asked advice from owners of other production companies. Though they are now established, Fiumi says, “We try to carve out time to learn from other entrepreneurs [and] colleagues. That kind of information is invaluable.” Khayata notes that many of their referrals come through contacts they’ve made. “The time between when you meet a person and actually signing a contract can be months or years. We’ve had calls from people who heard about us from work we did two years ago.”
They hope eventually to be able to hire more friends and collaborators to help when they are juggling deadlines on multiple productions, but they remain dedicated to their original mission. “Your editing is going to be so much better if you’ve been involved in the shooting, and your shooting is so much better if you’re thinking ahead to the editing,” Fiumi says. “We always say: This is the best, to have creative control from the beginning.”