Connecticut’s First Major Motion Picture Studio
Coming to New Haven
By Anna Zuckerman-Vdovenko /AZVPHOTOMEDIA.com
Connecticut’s hometown hero and movie star Michael Jai White
Relocating Jaigantic Studios From Hollywood to Connecticut
CONNECTICUT’S NEWEST VISIONARY
When movie star, film director, producer, and disciplined martial artist Michael Jai White was growing up on the streets of Bridgeport, he may not have dreamed he’d be running the Tri-State area’s first major-mini motion picture studio back in his home state of Connecticut one day. But as fate would have it, White has returned from Hollywood to bring creativity, optimism, and many future jobs to Greater New Haven area. He plans to build 25 large soundstages in the state and is implementing state-of-the-art virtual reality technology at their groundbreaking film studio in Shelton. White’s big project is called Jaigantic Studios, a “play on words” that includes the fact that it will be a sizeable operation as well as the given middle name of Michael Jai White, Founder, and President.
White’s Hollywood expansion includes an experienced team of entertainment executives totally committed to bringing a successful, lucrative film studio to our state. This “A Team” is comprised of Hollywood veterans seasoned on the back lots of L.A. studios but ready for something new and different. Together, they represent the future of the Film and Television Industry in our state, an industry that formerly was limited to areas like L.A., New York, and Atlanta.
Donovan DeBoer, White’s long-time business partner, is the Founder & CEO of Jaigantic with credits abounding from feature films, post-production, studio building, development, film marketing, and brand management. Jackie Buster, Jaigantic’s gracious, well-spoken Founder and Chief Network Officer, hails from Connecticut. She is part of the Senior Leadership team providing strategic management and guidance to the company’s executives on how to create developmental opportunities through community engagement and educational training programs. She oversees marketing and communications and manages media relations, merchandising, and event planning. Jackie looks forward to the time coming soon when she will be also handling the production of commercials for outside entities. Mayne Berke, Chief Operating Officer, has decades of experience as an astute and award-winning production designer. Berke makes no bones about the fact he loves what he does, cheerfully describing his fascination with the entertainment industry as “running away with the circus many years ago.” Berke’s credits include S.W.A.T, The Princess Diaries, Rock Star, and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Keith Shaw, Jaigantic’s talented Chief Studios Officer, has many accolades from colleagues who marvel at his directorial credits, his management of the studios, and his broad knowledge of production and attention to detail. Keith Smith, Director of Photography has well over 100 credits in cinematography and photography to his name. These include the upcoming much-anticipated release of The Outlaw Johnny Black, a Jaigantic release that promises to entertain audiences at the theatres. Smith has an acclaimed reputation in the entertainment industry that includes films such as Three Kings, Natural Born Killers, A Few Good Men, JFK, Any Given Sunday, and countless more. Stay tuned for additional key talent who will join the Jaigantic Team later this Summer.
Fortunately, Connecticut has made it financially attractive in terms of making it possible for creative film companies to come here by limiting taxes and giving some leeway in terms of incentives. White’s visionary impetus is to empower people from his home state with production training and “soup to nuts” guidance on how to become gainfully employed in the creative, inspirational world of the entertainment industry. He and his cadre of star-makers, funding geniuses, and advisors have already come very far in their quest to break ground for the new site that will give Greater New Haven a financial and aesthetic facelift beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations.
Last summer, PR was released to schools, theatres, and social media in the state announcing that a new film studio called Jaigantic would be opening up in the state of Connecticut. They wanted people to come by the Shelton Studio to learn about entertainment production and to explore possibilities for future jobs. On the appointed day, studio executives were surprised to find a line-up of over 150 people. There had been over 400 requests to join the gathering from people all over the world, but due to COVID-19 concerns, the studios decided to limit entry to those in state. After the lineup was admitted into the studios, they were asked if they’d like to be part of a collaborative effort to create a project about a local hero of their choice. The results might also include a related product concept. The fruits of their efforts would later be shared in a collegial event format. It was suggested that they quickly network, then form groups to come up with their ideas. In that historic moment, Jaigantic Studios had begun to fulfill their earnest mandate to start a broad outreach forming a creative workforce filled with local talent in the state of Connecticut.
Although the teams could create a short film limited to 60 seconds, they could also use their imaginations to incorporate digital media, production, sound, music, and concept to showcase a local person or entity in Connecticut that they deemed heroic in some way. After 4 weeks, they would regroup to show each other their work and hopefully, be inspired. With that in mind, an amalgam of creative projects got launched. Each group developed their own personal journey to document local hometown heroes on video with associated product concepts if applicable.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY
One dark November evening, the studio in Shelton was lit up with excitement. That night, participants returned with their “Hero” projects. Before then, they had met many times to finish their films. The Jaigantic soundstage in Shelton was converted into “party central” with a cheerful assortment of décor, and gifts to celebrate creativity and partnership. Jaigantic drummed up delightful fanfare in the form of great food, red carpet style photos, and prizes for content. The participants felt empowered by their collaborative efforts as they shared their concepts and creations. Topics included a youth mentor, an open and affirming bookstore, artists, and influencers. One group cleverly launched the concept of self-empowerment (“Be Your Own Hero”) with accompanying backpacks, hats, and t-shirts. Michael Jai White, who was away working on an upcoming action film, beamed in from LA on a big screen to say hello to the group and wish them all his best. The event was hugely successful and bred new friendships as well as numerous professional contacts for those who participated.
Following the Hero’s event, 10 people have begun to start working with Jaigantic on a studio project behind the scenes video documentary. The production assistants exert much effort, clarity of thought, reliability, and pure talent as they participate in this continued endeavor.
Jackie Buster, the mover and shaker behind such a successful outreach then set up a social media club of sorts on WIX called the “Heroes Hangout,” in which all the participants and anyone who was interested could dialogue online together, share their projects, and network for future production opportunities. The teams continue to stay in touch daily via WIX to cheer for each other’s accomplishments and assist with questions that come up in the course of their early steps into exciting careers as videographers, production assistants, actors, still photographers, digital media designers, and PR specialists. Go to www.jaiganticevents.com for further information if you are interested in joining this networking group of creatives.
This spring, I sat down with Michael Jai White for an interview to find out how things were progressing at Jaigantic.
THE DREAM EVOLVES
Can you explain how your dream to create a “major mini motion picture studio” in this area advanced so rapidly and what this means for our region?
“Actually, it started with me trying to get a few films done here. There was a film that had a script I wrote called “Crossroads” that got great traction in Hollywood and was right at the point of getting produced. But then I said to myself: ‘Wait a minute, since this was autobiographical in nature, I wanted to investigate what I can get going in Connecticut.’ I began to develop a laundry list of services that would make it palatable to shoot here that I could take back to LA and say: ‘Hey this is why I’d like to shoot the project here in Connecticut.’ Well, knowing that, I started getting help from local sources, such as all kinds of assistance from my college (Central CT State University), local police, politicians, and government officials who cared about the future of Connecticut. I was deeply motivated because I had many other people that backed me up. Then I found some locations that were open to being used as an indoor studio capacity. Well, going from that, I realized that if I found a spot big enough to accommodate the sets, what I’d be doing in essence (and leaving behind me after it was over) would be something that could be used over and over.”
“I knew that demand for shooting space is very much sought after because of all the content that needs to be shot now from streaming platforms to everything else. So, I said to myself that this could become a big business here. One thing led to another, and the timing was just perfect because Connecticut began giving filmmakers a tax incentive to film in-state. They changed tax laws that made Connecticut attractive the same way Atlanta became a financially appealing place to film. It was fortuitous. Not only could I get a soundstage to be used over and over for what looks like a big demand in the next five to ten years, but I can also find a viable, centrally located place in Connecticut to create this new space. Connecticut is strategically that perfect place for a film studio.”
What other factors helped you decide to move forward?
“I found out about the newest virtual reality digital technology on the forefront that happens to be something my partner, Donovan DeBoer ,is very much a part of. * All these things just coincided, so to build a studio made all the sense in the world. I definitely wanted to bring movie making to Connecticut but previously didn’t realize I had the capacity of taking the leadership in a studio situation. It just kept evolving to that moment where everything fell into place. Oddly enough, if it weren’t for COVID-19, there would be no way I would have gotten this kind of talent behind me. Top people in Hollywood began stepping off of their roller coaster because they had to. They stepped off and realized they didn’t have to be on somebody else’s ride. We all began to think we could take more control in our artistic endeavors.”
Jai White does seem to have an angel on his shoulder. He’s providently been guided from point to point in his career, directed in various ways that got him to the point where he’s at right now. The coincidences and timing in his life enabled a progression so that when opportunity knocked, White already had all the skill sets in place to make things happen. His next big film, “Crossroads,” will detail the ups and downs of his life and allow viewers to realize that our lives are full of decisions that direct us to our highest potential if we are sensitive to those forks in the road and make a wise decision which way to go.
IMPACT ON THE STATE
White affirms he will always plan to keep the studio and sound stages they currently have in Shelton, even after they build out in Greater New Haven. He explained that there is no empty studio space in this country. There’s pretty much a line-up, basically a queue around the corner for viable shooting space. White asserts that this urgent need for studio facilities is not going to change for quite some time. At the time of writing this article, Jaigantic plans to break ground in the Greater New Haven region sometime this summer. As the facilities come online, over the next few years, Jaigantic is dedicated to employing several thousand people working in its 25 soundstages throughout the complex.
To fully understand this positive economic impact for our state, you have to add in the extraneous workers that support the studio employees that already represent 18 union trades. If you think about pretty much everything that Jaigantic Studio staff will be utilizing in the area such as couriers and restaurateurs to grocery stores, salons, and even dry cleaners, the job potential becomes even more significant. Ancillary jobs will also be created for the studios such as landscapers, maintenance crew, and third-party cleaning. Jaigantic’s business team explained that the impact just ripples out amongst the whole community, a win-win situation for all parties concerned.
Jaigantic is committed to growing a workforce here in Connecticut. In order for this workforce to flourish, outreach is important to cultivate. Jaigantic wants to find those kids that would like to enter the trades as well as target colleges and engage students turning them into future employees. People that live in Connecticut and go to school here often leave the state to seek employment elsewhere, but Jaigantic’s mission would involve giving those young people an opportunity to work in a very unique industry where they might just want to stick around.
Berke compares their newfound efforts to what’s happening in Georgia. Before Tyler Perry and many others brought their filmmaking efforts to Atlanta, there were perhaps 300 people in the industry within the state, but now there are over 20,000 who have a positive impact on the economy. The tax credit that made all this possible in Georgia is now the same as what we now have here in Connecticut. Pre-Pandemic, the film and TV industry brought 9.4 billion dollars into Georgia’s economy, and even during the pandemic, the figure tallies at 4.5 billion. More importantly, to understand is that a 100-million-dollar movie employs over 500 people. Move over, Hollywood…
For those who are passionate about creative production and deeply willing to give their time to learn, the studio has designed a training program that will provide education for many people in Connecticut that seek to learn a trade in the film industry. The internships and apprenticeships will be available to applicants with and without college educations. Some evening classes in photography have already started at Jaigantic’s Shelton studio free of charge. Keith Smith is already leading evening workshops in photography, lighting and special effects as a benefit to those who participated in The Hero’s Challenge Program launch last fall created for those interested in exploring production jobs.
According to DeBoer, one final layer to the impact expected will be tourism. A big part of the studio’s scene is back-lot tours. People really want to witness the inner workings of how filmmaking functions, which Jaigantic is fully prepared to do. There will be field trips for schools as well as tours open to the public. When Universal Studios first began their back-lot tours, VP Al Dorskind arranged small rickety busses to drive those interested around the property with guides that took students and tourists inside sound stages to watch filming. There were no fancy rides or shows, just the raw material to enjoy. People just loved it, so the idea grew into something that blossomed bigger than he could have ever imagined.
AN OLD SITE WITH A NEW VISION
Jaigantic plans to break ground soon on River Street in Fair Haven, a town with a current population of 26,000 people. DeBoer explained that back in the day, Bigelow Boiler Works was a big industrial factory that employed most of the population of Fair Haven. By the mid-1980s, the company closed its doors. The studios plan to train a local workforce nearby where some people can literally walk to work. Their vision includes bringing back a kind of generational wealth, stability, and a feeling of community with good union jobs. The site in Fair Haven will be built on the Quinnipiac River in two phases. There is an urgency to get going on the build-out because there is a shortage of soundstages in the world while at the same time an explosion of content and venues for creative expression. Inquiries are already coming in as to when everything will be operational.
Jaigantic’s production studio will create their own content but will also have the opportunity to rent out their soundstages that offer turnkey services from pre-production to physical production of the movie or TV series as well as post-production with virtual production. This amounts to one-stop shopping for filmmakers, according to DeBoer, who states that creatives can stay for the entire process in-house. If they aren’t shooting on the soundstages with the virtual reality LED lights that transport actors anywhere on the planet visually, they can be out on location in Connecticut.
It‘s hard to fathom, but an actor in Jaigantic Studios virtual reality soundstage in L.A. can be beamed into a scene in real time playing opposite an actor in the Connecticut studio using the same technology. Some film crews who come here will opt to use our many diverse locales within the state. If you think about it, Connecticut can look not only like New England, but also like many other geographical spots such as parts of Europe, with its castles, rivers, lakes, forested wilderness, and seascapes if needed.
CREATIVE MATERIAL IN THE WORKS
Jaigantic has great things in the works, including Outlaw Johnny Black, a film anticipated to be out this year in theaters not only starring Michael Jai White but also directed and written by him. White claims the film is a great testament to what Jaigantic is all about, describing it as a “Faith-based Romantic Action Comedy Western.” Although it is an amusing complex catchphrase, White explained that the film is really equal parts all of those. Audiences that have previewed the film have been polled. They declare the movie to be unlike anything they’ve ever seen before, fun and entertaining but also having something important to say. The film was inspired by “Black Wall Street” (dubbed by Booker T. Washington) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, once a symbol of economic hope and success due to the entrepreneurial spirit demonstrated by Greenwood residents who thrived together at the time when prosperity wasn’t common in the face of racism and segregation in the early 1900s. White also has green-lit Piano Man, a Billy Joel biopic that covers a particularly fascinating time period in the artist’s life. Jaigantic also is working currently on a series action-thriller that involves espionage. No Safe Harbour features characters that begin an idyllic cruise off Newport only to discover their sailing yacht conceals the Narragansett Files, a key to unimaginable riches, global influence, and a Machiavellian attempt to control the White House. Sounds like a winner that will have the audience addicted to each week’s drop in no time!
White’s projects nowadays primarily focus on celebrating the human condition in an optimistic, fun way using humor, allowing the audience to think deeply while being entertained. White believes strongly that he should look at what he wants to take on artistically from the standpoint of the consumer. He affirms that one of the best things about being back in Connecticut is that he no longer has to deal with Hollywood values as the ultimate measuring stick. He enjoys working with people here whose ideas align with his own core principles that he developed while growing up in our state.
White, like many other young people of his day in Bridgeport, grew up fast. He admittedly needed to sort through many incarnations as he embarked on his own hero’s journey. During childhood and youth, White shuttled between Bridgeport (living with his mother) and Harlem (spending time with his father). Naturally gifted in the field of martial arts, White derived confidence and developed values from learning 10 different forms of self-defense and becoming an advanced black belt in each one. His education at Southern CT State University also forged his intellect and heart. White’s personal outreach now includes speaking to youth groups and encouraging teens to find their own honorable path full of integrity for their individual highest good.
Every week, new things are happening for the studios now that things are perking along nicely for the business. Jaigantic has just announced it will add publishing to its storytelling development arsenal with the acquisition of Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts. The company will target manuscripts with strong adaptation potential for Film and TV content, a match made in heaven according to publisher Rhonda Hughes. Hawthorne’s first book to be released as an imprint of Jaigantic will be North Star Rising: A Novel About the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Sidney Morrison, simultaneously slotted for a mini-series.
DO WHAT YOU LOVE …
Much of the movie business in Hollywood has become more about money than anything else. White says: “I think you can be quite successful monetarily, but you can do so and entertain and teach as well.” At one time, Hollywood carried those values especially back in the ‘70s when the people who were running the studios really loved what they created. That may be why the high quality of what was created is now being repeated in retreads of movies that worked. I want to create movies like that, the kind that you’d want to re-watch and share with your family or close friends over a beer.”
White also plans to do television, stating: “There was a time when television had morality in every show. But now, it’s as far away from that morality as you can get. That’s become the selling point. I know what worked before. The shock value and the low common denominator type of entertainment that we’re being proffered on TV is just about people getting on a bandwagon and trying to cash in on trends that don’t last. But I see that movies that really have something special to say are heralded. People are appreciative of a movie that has values and morality sewn into the thematic fabric. Audiences want to see a path through difficulty, coming out on the other side where central characters experience some sense of victory.”
Jaigantic is now in a place where they can turn out entertaining films and TV shows they are proud of. Production is in a position where they don’t have to just churn out content. White will be planning to be in many of the Jaigantic films, but also will continue writing, directing, and producing. White’s long-term plan is to expand his talents into the background behind the scenes. But for the moment, he’ll definitely be in front of the camera, as he’s not only responsible for Jaigantic Studios, but he has a very active global fan base to please. White’s unremitting goal will be to plant the seeds for harvesting a generation of new talented actors, directors, and producers.
ALL THE RIGHT MOVES
White began his career in front of the camera as an action star who was famously admired for his karate moves and round-about-face kicks, being a black belt in over ten various self-defense disciplines. One of his breakout roles was when he played Mike Tyson in Tyson, a sports drama biopic. White was able to mysteriously channel the moves and the vibe of one of the world’s most famous fighters with dexterity. About White’s roles he says:
“Every role helps me discover myself because it’s forcing me to look at life through a certain perspective. The responsibility of the actor, producer, and director is to recreate humanity honestly. One of my favorite roles was in a movie where I played a slave named Elroy. That was an example of the greatest gift that just kept giving. Reporters asked me about how tough it was to play a slave. They were expecting me to give them a horrible account of my experience, but it was just the opposite. This slave lived his entire life on a plantation. The overseers and the master’s son were only a little older than him. In this film, Elroy was respected among his group and lived with his mother by his side. The role forced me to realize that even in the hardest of circumstances, every generation can do better than the prior.”
“As my character, I looked at my life in this manner, understanding that my life was better than the generation before. Playing that role, although it is a given that slavery was a terrible historical fact, I still felt appreciation for the good things in Elroy’s life. Small but important things such as the singing of his mother, the beauty of the flowers, and the taste of his mother’s home cooking, which seemed like the best feast ever. And even now, I still see the singing voice as a thing of beauty. The appreciation for the beauty of flowers still stays with me. The fact that I can put on a headphone and listen to 60 instruments all at the same time became mind-blowing if I saw that experience through Elroy’s eyes. Playing Elroy made me look at things in a totally empathetic way. If I had a skill I could define, it would be the ability to look at things from someone else’s perspective. That’s one of the great things about acting and having to play a character.”
It seems that there isn’t anybody Jai White can’t have a conversation with because he primarily seems to care not about who you are but more importantly HOW you are as a fellow human being. He seems like he is fully capable of relating to the special essence inside others that define and distinguish their personality and character. This skill clearly will lead him to become one of the next great dramatic actors of the decade. Michael says: “It means a lot to me to be able to communicate with other people who are different than I am and in small but important ways those interactions make the world a better place.”
A MAN WITH A MISSION
Jaigantic seems to have a mission in the entertainment industry largely based upon Michael Jai White’s strong and positive energy. Although we all come from different influences, the film entitled Crossroads that he plans to film here in Connecticut will depict how we are all a product of our influences. As he explained:
“A person doesn’t become a drug dealer without somebody introducing that to a person, and someone else doesn’t become a doctor without being exposed to that profession. My film will look at life showing that when you are at a certain crossroads where you move to the left, your life goes in one direction, but if you move to the right, it goes in another. My goal as a filmmaker and producer is as somebody who has lived this way and continues to do so every day. That is the freedom that I have by being a person who doesn’t look at things through margins. I am a person that really doesn’t categorize people by their color, age, background, culture, sexual preference, or whatever. In this way and through this non-judgmental filter, I feel that I really have something to say. We also have to take responsibility for what we introduce to others and how we influence them.”
In asking Michael about his life story, he explained that he felt he had to become a man and take full responsibility for himself since the age of 14. At that time, he expressed that he was in a society where he straddled so many lines. He had friends who were gangsters and friends who were captains of industry, friends who lived in the project,s and at the same time, he was very close to others who lived in mansions. Being from Bridgeport allowed Michael to have a great background enabling him to ultimately tell stories through film. He attributes this blessing to the great diversity within a 10-mile radius from the place in Connecticut where he spent his most formative years. As he explained, one minute he could be in the forest, and in the next minute, he could be in the middle of “the hood.” He could visit Westport, or Stratford Avenue or head to the beach, all within a 10-minute car ride. The variety of people, places, and events he has experienced has made him feel fortunate and happy.
“One of the side effects of poverty seems to be that it sometimes can also be a breeding ground for creativity. The blues and so much art come from places that have adversity. I’m aiming to unmask all that and support talent from those sources too, not just from well-educated people who are already trained. Our paid internship programs will allow people to learn how to be production assistants and gain access to the entertainment industry. We hope to have summer programs for youth to expose them to acting, photography, and production.”
White acknowledges that most actors glean inspiration from others in the industry. For him, Tyler Perry is a major influence because not only is he a good friend, but he also represents a niche audience that is really very domestic:
“I hope to use that same model in my Jaigantic brand but make it international and global, which I think will work very well. It’s all about knowing how to minister to your audience, and I do know my fan base very well. I also have the means to connect directly with them the same way Tyler Perry has done. But another personal influence is Harrison Ford, an action star while at the same time a very elegant dramatic actor. One doesn’t even think of him as an action star though. Yet he’s behind some of the biggest action vehicles ever. He’s packed with charm, wit, and understatement. He never overdramatizes or takes melodramatic bait that could ruin a good performance. Harrison was once a carpenter, and he never left that kind of blue-collar ethic that I find so appealing.”
“The world likes to publicize negativity believing that this is what leads to multiple clicks in social media. But I say no to that kind of click-bait. The positive far outweighs the negative, and if you keep your eyes open, you can find 20 things to combat that one negative thought you tap into on social media. I’m going to encourage people with my films to not tap into the negative. The reality is we’re at a place where we can achieve our dreams even easier than before. The world has become smaller through the Internet and if your mindset is healthy, it can become a great tool. I would encourage people to find out who they really are and live their authentic selves.
My greatest freedom is that I’ve found my authentic self and I’m living that now. As a child, I knew what I loved but strayed away from it. I used to make super 8 films and create puppet shows, but as I went to college and tried to become sophisticated, I got further away from where I was meant to me. Nobody told me to start shooting movies and telling stories, but one day I realized that I was back to what I used to love doing the very most as a 10 year old. It was my “Rosebud moment”( from Citizen Kane), if you know that film, a realization of what I loved the most in life. I was living it, thankfully, and have continued on this path for the past 25 years without ever looking back. And honestly, I don’t want a billion dollars; I want to share it with others because that is far more gratifying.”
GRASS ROOTS TALENT
Michael Jai White vows to seek out talent within Connecticut and the Tri-State Area. He hopes to draw outside the state only if he has to find certain skilled people he can’t locate nearby. He says: “I have an agenda. I can get everything done in-house, then I’m going to be shouting out from the rafters! I want to have every excuse to brag about Connecticut.” Jaigantic is also perfectly positioned to be able to draw from talent in the tri-state area if projects need more people. White thinks of Connecticut as his true home and the people he has known since his childhood as well as his colleagues at Jaigantic Studio like family. He loves those ineffable moments where a streak of thought connects him straight back to his early years; feeling that continuity can’t take place anywhere else but in Connecticut.
I recently found out that Michael’s given middle name, Jai, actually means “Victory” in the ancient Sanskrit language. It’s a bit of a mystery exactly whose idea it was to confer that unusual name upon Michael at birth, but it is clear to this author that there was a providential nature to the receipt of such a powerful title. It’s a no brainer to predict that White’s return to Connecticut will be a victory for all of us who want to see our state thrive, grow creatively, and give meaningful purpose to our youth who need new and exciting skills. White says: “When I cross that Connecticut line on the highway, I just smile, you know? I just immediately feel at home with so much joy in my heart.” Welcome back home Michael Jai White, Jaigantic Studios’ leader with a gigantic heart.