At first, Synema Studios was just an easier way for Missoula vlogger and online video producer Michael Aranda to file his taxes. He’d moved from California for a job with Hank Green’s video company, EcoGeek (now Complexly), in 2012, and figured registering an LLC would streamline the paperwork from his various side gigs. Six years later, Synema employs eight people and sprawls across several rooms at 500 N. Higgins.
“We have a booth at South by Southwest this year, and we have a couple of clients that are bringing in decent amounts of money now,” he says. “So just the other day I was like, ‘Man, it feels like we’re on the verge of becoming a real company.’”
On Jan. 18, the Missoula County Commission voted unanimously to finalize a contract promising Synema Studios $53,100 in Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund money. The grant will support the creation of nine new jobs over the next year.
Flanked by several colleagues in the basement conference room, Aranda says he already knows what the year’s first hire will be: a salesperson. The company already has several commercial clients, and the next goal is to pitch Synema as a resource for local businesses trying to bolster their internet presence. That means webpages for some, and promotional material for others, says Synema CMO Todd Williams. Aranda explains that expanding Synema’s portfolio is the only way to make those new jobs sustainable in the long-term.
“What we didn’t want to do was put ourselves in a position where, once this grant money is spent, we then have to lay off nine employees. So part of this plan for 2018 of getting more aggressive about bringing in external clients is to make sure that this grant money is only a supplement that is allowing us to get off the ground in the first place.”
It’s clear from the Synema principals’ backgrounds, however, that commercial revenue will be a means to a more personal end as well. Aranda got into film editing in California at a young age — sixth, maybe seventh grade, he says — thanks to his father’s obsession with collecting video equipment. Williams, too, caught the filmmaking bug early, and relocated from California to Missoula expressly to collaborate with Aranda. The two describe commercial work as the fuel for an engine that can churn out their passion projects, of which there are many.
One such project already netted Aranda’s crew a Big Sky Film Grant from the Montana Film Office. In 2017, they produced three segments of an educational YouTube series about geoscience called Kate Tectonics. The show presented an opportunity for host Katelyn Salem — a longtime fan of Aranda’s vlog who struck up a friendship with him and Williams playing the online game Minecraft — to combine her geosciences degree with her lifelong interest in filmmaking. Synema tapped British filmmaker Khyan Mansley to help spice up Salem’s curriculum, and built a set using old barnwood they found on Craigslist to look like the inside of a log cabin. That set currently takes up half a room in Synema’s basement digs.
“I noticed that there weren’t a lot of places where you can learn things about geology other than a textbook,” Salem says of Kate Tectonics’ origins. “Even on YouTube, geology was a thing that people weren’t really talking about, so we saw an opportunity there.”
Aranda is preparing to launch another internal project in early 2018, a show he calls Cut to the Tech. Fed up with the lengthy and meandering product-review videos that proliferate on YouTube, he decided to produce tech reviews that are shorter and more direct. After connecting with a company rep at VidCon last year, Williams secured a partnership with the camera equipment retailer B&H to furnish Synema with products for the show. He estimates the average run time of a Cut to the Tech video at a minute to a minute and a half.
The development grant has made the Synema crew optimistic about their ability to market their childhood passions to Missoula’s business world. “Part of what our mission is,” Aranda says, “is to educate people who aren’t as familiar with the internet about the value of being online.”
This story was updated Jan. 25 to correct Williams' title at Synema.