Nearly fifteen years ago, Orlando was slated to be the Hollywood of the South. The major studios boasted fancy plans of film production in town, which brought many ambitious actors here hoping to secure their fifteen minutes of celluloid immortality. Time passed and the fancy plans fizzled out. Local entertainers and crew were left to duke it out over the rare commercial or movie project that would make its way to Central Florida. There have been a brave few who didn't take off for LA and NY as soon as the industry faltered and landed positions with local performance groups or the theme parks. Maybe they're waiting for business to pick up, maybe they've lost faith in their abilities, or maybe the City Beautiful grew on them.
In 1999, two Disney employees joined forces to create a glimmer of hope for Orlando in the form of the production company called Stars North. The company was formed to give those remaining actors and crew along with local hopefuls a chance to pursue their craft. It also gave its co-founders, Balinda DeSantis and Todd Thompson, an outlet for their own creativity.
The Walt Disney Company, the entertainment giant responsible for pairing Mickey with Minnie, Lilo with Stitch, and Tim Rice with Elton John, lured DeSantis and Thompson with marketing positions and tossed them in a room together. After working together for a while, Todd revealed his love for acting and telling stories and Balinda shared her love of movies. The pair bonded and embarked on their first collaboration.
"The first thing we did was write a feature length script and that was a really good experience that taught us how to put a story together. It took almost a year to complete it," says DeSantis. She continues on with the history of Stars North, "We also volunteered at the Florida Film Festival and they offered a lot of free film seminars. We attended one that taught us that if you want to make movies, you should start by making short films. Shorts help to build a person's storytelling skills and also give you the chance to gain production experience. So we thought, 'Okay, let's make a short.' It just seemed like the thing to do."
From there, Thompson and DeSantis started work on their first short film, The Paper Route, for which they recruited talent and production support from Orlando and the surrounding areas. They enjoyed the process so much that now, three years later, they just wrapped production on their fourth short film, Time & Again, which stars Margaret Blye and Academy Award-nominated Seymour Cassel. The Stars North team met Cassel at the Florida Film Festival several years ago and became instant friends. Cassel is also slated to appear in their feature length film Shooting Blanks, currently in development stages.
Time & Again, which shot for four days around Orlando, was written by Thompson and is a tribute to his family. The main character is based loosely on his grandfather and both characters were named after his aunt and uncle. "My Uncle Steve used to own the old movie theater in Medina, Ohio. I saw all my movies there while growing up." The film is a touching story of a watchmaker named Steve who repairs a clock that he soon discovers allows him to control time. Steve uses the clock to win the lottery in order to pay for his ailing wife’s medical treatment. But as the story unfolds, destiny has plans of its own.
Todd Thompson and Balinda DeSantis are not entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck in the movie industry. For them, it‘s all about good storytelling. Their goal is to convey a story to an audience- to move them, to give them a break from reality and maybe give them a new perspective on things as they leave the theater. Eventually, the duo would like work their way up to the ranks of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, two filmmakers who "make those kind of films that people like to watch over and over and over again."
The two appear to have a good partnership, with no competition and no obvious battles for control. While DeSantis prefers the creative process and casting, Thompson is fascinated by all aspects of filmmaking. His interest in film began as a child where, as DeSantis tells it, "Todd was the kind that would write a story, borrow his grandpa's home movie camera and cast all the people in the neighborhood to play the parts." Thompson's enthusiasm is apparent as he bounces from setting up the next shot for Time & Again and filming bumpers for a local public-access program called "Showcase Shorts" to talking with us—all without showing any signs of slowing down. Thompson's views on the experience: "I like coming up with an idea, writing it down and sharing it with those around me. I love mixing actors with crew as we all work together to film the movie. And then I love post-production where a lot of editing, sound design and music bring us one step closer toward a final cut. I guess I love the whole process, really. It's collaboration at its best!"
The town cynics who cast doubts on a resurgence of the local film and television industry want to know... why Orlando? "We both live here and like living here so why go anywhere else? Orlando's got all the resources and facilities we need, not to mention the large pool of talented actors and crew who share the same strong passion for filmmaking that we have," explains DeSantis.
Because Stars North is still a small company, everyone involved is a volunteer. Thompson admits, "Just about everything is donated, to be totally honest. We've been fortunate to be able to reach out to people we work with who share that dream of making movies. Everyone has a different talent to bring to the table and everyone rallies together to make it happen." A Stars North production is a chance for everyone in the community to get involved. "Every time we do a film, we fill our key positions with seasoned professionals then reach out to the local film schools to recruit the rest of our crew. It gives the students a chance to work with the pros," he continues. And as for keeping the company afloat? "We couldn’t do it without people like Gary Turchin and Kenny Taht of Convergence, our co-producer, Kathryn Ruscio Kelly, Director of Photography, Stephen Campbell or production manager, Smithy Sipes. They’re all great assets to the Florida film community who share our enthusiasm for independent filmmaking"
Time will tell whether Stars North becomes an overwhelming commercial success or rejuvenates the dehydrated film industry in Orlando. For now, their movies will circulate around the film festivals and the boutique production company hopes to see Time & Again debut at the Florida Film Festival in March. DeSantis and Thompson remain with the company that brought them together with the hopes of one day working on films under the Stars North banner full-time." Our next goal is to produce our first feature length film. And long term, we'd like to have something in development, something in production, and something in the theaters at all times," says Thompson. "There's nothing better than spending 12 hours on a set and coming home feeling like you've created something. There's no better feeling in the world."
originally published in the December-January 2002/2003 issue of Industry magazine.
Content on this site was originally written by Katharine Miller between 2000-2015. Many feature articles and interviews were published in print and on websites that no longer exist. Katharine is reproducing her written material here for portfolio and archival purposes only. Links and credits to clients and original publication will be included where possible.