James Velissaris is the Producer of Finch Fortress Films. Velissaris hails from Chicago, where he was a local football star for Glenbrook North High School. In addition to football, Velissaris was a strong Christian and involved with the ministries at several Baptist Churches in the Chicagoland area. He credits Pastor Norwood of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church for being an influential figure who encouraged him to grow in his faith and service. He created The Right Steps Camp, which is a football camp for underprivileged boys from Humboldt Park. Velissaris teamed up with other local football stars to teach and inspire these youths, many who had lost hope due to struggles in their home environments. After graduating high school, Velissaris attended the prestigious Harvard University. At Harvard, James continued his journey toward faith, football and film. He was a member of a Christian Men’s group, where he helped to foster close relationships with other men of faith on campus. He also continued to play football. His team, led by Ryan Fitzpatrick, won the 2004 Ivy League conference championship. During this time, James also gained more interest in film. Often staying up hours watching and having spirited conversations with his Harvard roommates deep into the night. James knew that he’d revisit his passion for film and storytelling and after years as a successful executive, he finally realized his dream by launching Finch Fortress Films. Finch Fortress Films is a production studio producing films that champion diverse teams and share diverse stories.
How did you get started in this business?
I have always had a love for film. However, I was constantly frustrated by the way that media and film depict people of color. One of the reasons there’s not more diversity in film is because there are very few diverse people who finance movies. So I decided to be a part of the change and finance and produce movies that depicted people of color and marginalized communities thriving in the world. After a long career in finance, I understand how to manage budgets, negotiate contracts, and work and motivate teams, which are all key elements to producing a compelling and profitable film.
How do you make money?
There are lots of ways to make money in the film. My background in financial engineering allows me to understand how to structure financing deals that are favorable for all stakeholders. By using state tax credits, there are ways to get additional non-dilutive financing, which is always welcome because it allows everyone to put in less but achieve a higher return on the film.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
Unfortunately, the timeline from beginning to the end of a movie production is a very long process. It can take up to 2 years to discover if your project was successful or profitable. However, I participate in late-stage funding as well, coming in at post-production, which allows the production timeline to be truncated and gives the ability to make returns more quickly. When putting together a portfolio of movies, you have the opportunity to have a balance. Some films I invest in because they will generate profits. Others may be highly impactful and ripe for an indie award. You can derive value in many ways and sometimes in much more fulfilling ways than just the bottom line.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
My mother told me early on in life that I could do anything I set my mind to, and I believed her. This self-belief has allowed me to carry confidence into everything I do with an expectation to excel, from football to academics and now film. I knew if I studied the craft like I studied for my economics exams or my football playbooks, I would have what it takes to be successful, and I’m only just getting started.
How did you get your first customer?
I was concerned at first, that as a first time producer, I may have trouble entering into the opaque market of film financing, but fortunately, that was not the case. I was able to find online platforms that facilitated connection with an amazing stable of producers, directors, and script writers. From building those relationships, I was able to start accumulating more deal flow, reading more scripts and producing more films.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
If you have the right network, marketing is organic. As I mentioned before, surrounding yourself with other industry experts is a great way to market. They will keep you top of mind for projects they see that may fit with your investing thesis, which is really helpful. Building a strong and diverse network is basically a natural (and free) extension of business development for the company. Also, being a value added to the production team also helps to set you apart and gain access to work with some of the best directors in the industry. In addition to financing, I can also help to license music, secure sponsorships, and other ancillary but important tasks through my network. I also believe that being a mission and values first film company gives me yet another way to differentiate from the competition.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
My biggest constraint is time and resources, so we have to be very intentional about weighing the pros and cons of certain projects. While there are some projects that really pull at my heartstrings, we also have to remember that we are running a business and need to also consider the return profile that can be generated from each financial investment. For instance, even though I love the horror movies of Alfred Hitchcock and the contemporary horror play by Jordan Peele, I never thought in a million years that I would make a horror film. However, the horror genre does exceptionally well from a returns perspective on a much smaller budget. So, if I think of putting together a successful portfolio of films, horror is definitely a piece of that puzzle. There is a built-in audience both domestically and internationally that can provide a significant level of certainty around the base case scenario that the film will return.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
What makes me successful is that I have a higher order purpose. So working in film is much bigger for me than just seeing my name on the big screen. I’m working to change the narrative for people of color and marginalized communities in film. That is a huge source of motivation for me and keeps me driving forward. It’s important to me to be a lens and voice to the world that can give hope to others who see positive images of themselves in the films that I create.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
One of my most satisfying moments was when I wrote a movie review of CODA and lauded the work of actor Troy Kotsur. I thought he gave an extraordinarily powerful and moving performance. When he thanked me by acknowledging and liking my post it was a great moment. My view was further validated when he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor for his performance this year. My goal is to be able to champion more actors telling unique stories like CODA, which are often overlooked by mainstream audiences but can be just as compelling and entertaining.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
I’m at the forefront of an interesting time in the film industry. There is an insatiable demand for content but a paucity of active production houses. This imbalance of supply and demand, makes this a great time to build and grow Finch Fortress Films. I am most excited by all of the new technology available to use on set. I’ve seen some really unique tech that helps to increase the production quality and lower the cost of production. As a financier, that’s the best of both worlds.
What business books have inspired you?
As a man of faith, I’m really inspired by what I read in the Bible and Christian literature. If you really consider some of the narratives put forth, it can give you a great source of perspective and direction. Which in times like these is very welcome. The book of Job, The Prayer of Jabez, and In Defense of the Christian Faith, are some of the books that have stuck with me over the years.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Follow your own path. When you look to society for validation, you can fall into the trap of building your life to the status quo. If you do that, you live a life of status quo, which may be great for some, but may also not align with the true purpose for your own life. Once you have the confidence and conviction to chart your own course, learn, make mistakes, give yourself the freedom and space to grow, you will be fulfilled, content, expectful and joyful.
Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?
There are so many facets of the film industry, and while you may not be passionate about all of them, it’s imperative to know how it all works together. I would advise you to take some classes to have at least a cursory understanding of the cast of characters needed to produce a film successfully. Before enrolling in an NYU Film program, I started by looking at Masterclasses of all things film. From the compositions of Hans Zimmer, to the story development of Shonda Rimes, and the acting of Samuel L Jackson, it was a great introduction that piqued my interest beyond the art of creating a film.