Curtain Call: Fancy Rhino making a name for itself

Curtain Call: Fancy Rhino making a name for itself

December 6th, 2012 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Fancy Rhino owners Drew Belz, left, and Isaiah Smallman talk business in their new digs in the old Loveman's building. Employee Helen Harrison is seen at her work station, back right.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Drew Belz

• Age: 24

• Hometown: Asheville, N.C.

• College: Covenant College

• Marital Status: Single

• Occupation: Co-owner Fancy Rhino

Isaiah Smallman

• Age: 23

• Hometown: Baltimore, Md.

• College: Covenant College

• Wife: Kelly

• Occupation: Co-owner Fancy Rhino

Nothing sums up what Fancy Rhino is all about better than "Build Me A World," the full-length documentary about a year at Howard High School that the production company created just a year into its existence.

For co-owners and cousins Drew Belz and Isaiah Smallman, the 90-minute film, which looked at the difficulties faced by a primarily black inner-city school, represents exactly the kind of projects they want to tackle.

"I am so glad we get to be here and tell the Howard story," Belz said.

The movie premiered Aug. 17 at The Tivoli Theatre and since then has been screened nine times in town and has been entered in about 20 film festivals, according to Smallman.

The two-year-old company and its now nine employees have also done music videos, local and national advertisements and marketing and training videos. They are currently creating a national ad for the new Samsung Galaxy Note II and the Samsung tablet.

About half of Fancy Rhino's current workload is tied to local businesses, Belz said. But both said that what they most enjoy making are videos that can have an impact on the quality of life in Chattanooga. Both agree they could have created their business in another city, but they're committed to being a part of and challenged by the renaissance that Chattanooga continues to undergo.

What they appreciate about the city is a real sense that people want to identify the issues and do something about changing them, Smallman said.

"There are things about Chattanooga that we love and things that we don't and we want to try to change the things that we don't and here you can see the results," he said.

Both graduates of Covenant College, the two met at family gatherings over the years, but Belz, the younger of the pair, said he did not follow his cousin to Covenant. Rather it was a mutual interest in literature and film that brought both to the Lookout Mountain school, where they paired up to create a few films, both for fun and at the request of the school.

They had a such good working relationship, Smallman sent Belz an email predicting that they would one day work together professionally. His prediction came true about six months later.

In October 2010, they made the commitment to start their own company and started Fancy Rhino out of Smallman's apartment. The name came out of a brainstorming session with the "Rhino" meant to represent the power inherent in every business and its story, Smallman said. "Fancy" represents the part of their job that finds a story "and puts a tuxedo on it or dress it up," he said.

With name in hand in May 2010, they decided they could benefit from being a part of the Lamp Post Group's business incubator -- which helps new companies get off the ground -- and moved the operation into Lamp Post's offices in the old Loveman's building on Market Street. Earlier this month, Fancy Rhino moved into its own office space across the hall from Lamp Post.

Being a part of the incubator helped Fancy Rhino in numerous ways, both said. In addition to providing an office space, Lamp Post can provide capital, advice, contacts and a sense of security, they said.

"It's a lot more than shared space," Belz said.

"Being a door down from [Lamp Post co-founder and partner] Ted Alling is very helpful," Smallman said. "We probably doubled the rate of growth because of Lamp Post. It's like living with your parents. They are not going to clean up your crap, but they are not going to let you drown either."

Alling said Belz and Smallman represent precisely the kind of company Lamp Post wants to help.

"They are LA [Los Angeles] talent in Chattanooga and we are behind the scenes doing back office type things for them and letting them be creative and shine," he says.

Smallman said the biggest lesson learned from their mentors at Lamp Post was to aim higher than you think you can and to always do your best work. The Howard film, for example, was originally to be a 10-minute documentary, Belz said.

"We realized it was bigger than that," he said.

Making the decision to make a full-length documentary meant committing staff, resources and time to something that took a year. It was an important job, Belz and Smallman said, not only prove to themselves that it could be done but because the project demanded it.

That kind of commitment is the way they try to approach each project, Smallman said.

Belz said that, while Chattanooga's arts community is making great strides, it is only scratching the surface when it comes to arts and businesses working together.

"The idea that beauty can create business is happening but slowly," he said. "We are seeing the payoff."

When it truly happens, both Belz and Smallman said they want to be there and to be a part of it.

"Chattanooga has an incredible wealth of opportunity," Smallman said. "The possibilities are endless and there are very few places in the world where that is as true as it is here."