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Movie man: Andrew Gernhard of Gales Ferry founded the flourishing Synthetic Cinema International

January 2, 2019

If you’ve seen a major movie filmed around here, there’s a good chance it’s produced or co-produced by Synthetic Cinema International, based in Rocky Hill.

Perhaps you’ve heard of “A Very Nutty Christmas” starring Melissa Joan Hart that aired on Lifetime in late 2018? It’s from Hartbreak Films (the company Hart owns with her mother, Paula Hart) and Synthetic.

The 2014 screen adaptation of the Wally Lamb novella “Wishin’ and Hopin’” starring Molly Ringwald and Meatloaf? Synthetic.

The 2017 thriller “Stalker’s Prey”? Synthetic.

This isn’t just a moviemaking success story. It’s also a local-guy-makes-good story. The co-founder and producer at this ever-growing company is producer Andrew Gernhard, who grew up in Norwich, graduated from Norwich Free Academy in 1995, and now lives in Gales Ferry.

Gernhard, 41, is proud of Synthetic’s development since its inception in 2004. He said the key “is changing with the market/audience, nurturing local talent, expanding business at the proper rate, keeping an open mind on everything and trying to treat everyone well.”

It speaks volumes that people like Melissa Joan Hart (of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” fame) have returned to work with Synthetic again after a first collaboration. 

Likewise, Synthetic and Lamb are hoping to turn his 2013 novel “We Are Water” into a film, after teaming up on “Wishin’ and Hopin’.” 

Gernhard was the one who approached Lamb about Synthetic’s possibly creating a movie version of “Wishin’ and Hopin’.” (Gernhard knew Lamb from when the now-bestselling-author was teaching at NFA.) The film was shot mostly at NFA, and Lamb was on set pretty much every day.

Lamb said the Synthetic people, particularly Gernhard and director Colin Theys, “very much invited me into the dynamic, and I think they all had a pretty good time. I know they’re proud of that film, and I just love the way it came out.”

As a producer, Gernhard said he basically develops the movies and works with everybody from start to finish (including dealing with people’s complaints, when those come up).

“I’m there from the minute it’s an idea at a coffee shop or walking around all the way to the broadcast. I have to live this movie for a year or six months or whatever,” he said.

Starting on VHS at NFA

Gernhard’s path to Synthetic success took some circuitous routes and unexpected turns along the way.

He didn’t get into film — at the time, it was actually video — until he was in high school.

“Video production wasn’t easy when I was growing up. Now, everything is digital. I wish I had an iPhone as a child. I had to borrow a VHS camera to do anything,” he said.

He started shooting video with a specific purpose in mind: getting a college scholarship.

“I knew that I don’t come from a wealthy family, barely middle class. It was just my mom and me. I knew I had to get scholarships to get to college,” he said.

Up until the start of high school, he was a top artist in school and thought an art scholarship might be the one to pursue.

“When I got to Norwich Free Academy — which was a great high school, still is a great high school — we had a very talented year. I graduated in 1995. I was the bottom of the barrel as far as the artists,” he said. 

Consequently, he figured art scholarships wouldn’t come his way and neither would academic scholarships, since, while he was a good student, he got Cs and Ds in math and foreign language.

At the time, video production was in its early days, and few students were interested in it. Gernhard saw his opening.

He volunteered at Century Cable public access and was mentored there in video production. Gernhard did things like tape board meetings for Century and, in between, he was able to use the equipment to do some of “my artsy stuff.”

He won an award for visual arts at NFA, the Leslie J. Spivak Award.

“It was a ton of money, 10 grand or something. Everybody else was getting a thousand bucks. I won by default — I was the only one! So I was, like, I’m going to get into video production,” he said.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in communications/video production at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He started working on educational videos with Mazzarella productions in Bristol and then wanted to do something that wasn’t about working with children.

Gernhard and his business partner at the time loved “Jaws” and decided to create a parody of it, called “Trees.” They shot the movie “Jaws” — but with a killer tree. A couple of articles about “Trees” appeared on the fan site Fangoria and, he said, “All of a sudden, everybody wanted it on VHS.”

So “Trees” was released on VHS by the now-defunct Raven Releasing.

It was, Gernhard noted drolly, back “when something called Blockbluster existed.”

The year 2000 was the 25th anniversary of “Jaws,” and Blockbuster set up a display about “Jaws,” with “Trees” next to it. It was perfect timing and perfect synergy.

Then they made “Trees 2: The Root of All Evil” and learned the world is a fickle place.

“Nobody bought it. Nobody wanted it,” Gernhard recalled. “I was crushed. I lost a ton of money. … I put in a ton of work.”

He decided to leave filmmaking behind, and he went into graphic design and printing for a couple of years.

Calls that changed his career path

“Then, oddly enough, I started getting phone calls. The DVD boom started to hit, and some of these distributors remembered I did ‘Trees.’ They were making phone calls saying, ‘Are you making another movie?’” he said.

Gernhard remembered that, at the time, his friends were all “making these indie films, stuff that really meant something to them or something that was politically charged. … Nobody was buying it, nobody was seeing it.”

Indeed, one distributor advised Gernhard, “Everybody wants to make a film. Make a movie. Make what Blockbuster wants.”

Gernhard dutifully went to Blockbuster to see what was there, and he realized it was mostly major feature films — and monster movies. (“You know, hot guys and girls, monsters, guns, explosions, that type of stuff,” he said.)

With that in mind, he co-wrote “Hell’s Beacon,” about a group of kids who crash-land on an island where a meteorite hits and releases an alien that starts to kill them off one by one. (“The way you save on special effects is the alien can turn into people,” Gernhard said.)

It was low-budget, with a crew of about five people making the flick over two to three weeks. Gernhard didn’t have any money to fund it, though, and he approached Richard Lucas — whom Gernhard was familiar with from SCSU, where Lucas was head of the communications department — and his wife, Bonnie Farley-Lucas.

Gernhard realized Lucas knew potential investors. He gave them the proposal, and the Lucases returned a couple of weeks later, telling Gernhard, “We found investors. It’s going to be us. But we don’t want to make a movie. We want to make a company.”

And so began Synthetic Cinema International. They filmed “Hell’s Beacon” in 2004, and it was bought by Universal Studios Home Video and released to all Blockbusters. Synthetic went on to do a string of “monster slasher movies,” Gernhard said, that fit the Blockbuster market. Some were bigger hits than others.

Then technology developed and how people watched movies at home shifted, and Blockbuster started to fail. Things looked up for Synthetic, though, when the then-fledgling Chiller network bought Synthetic movies “Banshee!!!” and “Assault of the Sasquatch.” Gernhard recalled, “The ratings were huge.”

Chiller eventually asked Synthetic to make movies specifically for the network. Synthetic has since done projects for SyFy, Telemundo, Lifetime and Hallmark.

While Gernhard said that a lot of people still think of Synthetic as making monster movies, that’s no longer the company’s main product.

“The Christmas movies are what’s big now. They’re bigger than anything we’ve done. … The audience loves these Christmas movies,” he said.

These types of movies are a cultural phenomenon. Theorizing on why, he said, “I think everybody is tired of world issues. … Christmas happens once a year, and it’s still magical. It’s almost like a vacation from life. I think watching Hallmark movies is taking a vacation and enjoying it.”

Coming attractions

Synthetic has more Christmas movies it is working on and will be doing its first film outside Connecticut — in Iceland. Gernhard said he can’t talk too much about that project, except to say it’s for Hallmark and isn’t a Christmas movie.

The idea, though, grew out of a 2017 trip Gernhard and his fiancée, Christy O’Connor, took to Iceland, following the Northern Lights.

The Iceland movie is one passion project for Gernhard. The other is the proposed movie version of Lamb’s “We Are Water.”

Lamb’s “I Know This Much Is True” is being made into a miniseries for HBO starring Mark Ruffalo. Gernhard hopes that excitement about that project, which he’s not involved with, helps propel “We Are Water” into production.

“That’s one we have to find a home for — whether it’s (with) an investor, which I don’t usually do — because I can’t afford to make it myself. … If we’re going to make a film like that, we want it to be like something that could be a Sundance film or something that is an HBO-quality film,” Gernhard said.

John Doolan, who also wrote the script for “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” did the honors in adapting “We Are Water.” Lamb, who gives feedback on the scripts, said he thinks it’s “a really good script.”

If they get that project off the ground, they want to shoot it in Connecticut.

Gernhard said he hasn’t been tempted to leave Connecticut behind for filmmaking opportunities in Los Angeles or New York.

“I’m not a big fan of L.A. I’m not a big fan of California. It’s fine, it’s just not for me. Same thing with New York. I like going into New York, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” he said.

This past spring, Gernhard and O’Connor moved to Gales Ferry and had their first child, Violet, in the fall.

The last year was a wonderful time personally for Gernhard — and the same goes for Synthetic.

Gernhard said, “2018 was a great year, and we are looking forward to an amazing 2019!”

k.dorsey@theday.com

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