Breaking Barriers: Inside the World of #OMGFemaleFilmmakers with Steph Cullen

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Steph Cullen is a force to be reckoned with in the world of indie filmmaking. As the Founder and CEO of #OMGFemaleFilmmakers and OMG Studios Boise, she has carved out a unique space for underrepresented voices in the industry. With a passion for championing diversity and empowering female filmmakers, Cullen's journey is a testament to the transformative power of storytelling. In an exclusive interview, she shares insights into her creative process, the challenges and triumphs of independent filmmaking, and her mission to revolutionize the landscape of cinema.

PH: As the founder of both #OMGFemaleFilmmakers and OMG Studios Boise, can you tell us about the inspiration behind starting these production companies and the mission driving your work?

Steph Cullen: I founded #OMGFemaleFilmmakers in 2017. It was toward the end of my undergraduate degree program and in one of my classes, we were tasked with creating a production company. The goal was to teach us about business - how do you register an LLC? What does it look like to run a production company from a business standpoint rather than an artistic standpoint? We weren't required to register our LLCs, but after a month of building #OMGFemaleFilmmakers, the business, I wasn't about to not just register my company! So, I did! I named it #OMGFemaleFilmmakers, because there aren't a lot of females in our industry and when I would show up on set in our small town of Boise, Idaho, people were a bit shocked that I was a woman. At the same time, if I made a mistake, I would get more grief than the men on set, so I started saying "Oh my god, I'm such a female filmmaker!" And the name stuck.

During all of that, I was working at a corporate job creating video content for their customer support organization. In January of 2022, I left my corporate job to focus on #OMGFemaleFilmmakers full time. I've always wanted a physical studio space and in September of 2022, I found a space! I wasn't looking, but it was great timing, so I signed a lease that December. I had a lot of male colleagues help me build the studio and knew that while #OMGFemaleFilmmakers is a great name, it's not very inclusive. So, I called my studio OMG Studios Boise, and registered the LLC in January of 2023. The main driving force behind my work is to be able to work for myself, to not have to answer to a corporation, and to create the way I want to create based on input from my clients.

PH: You've worked with a variety of clients, from large corporations to local nonprofits. How do you approach each project differently based on the client's needs and goals?

Steph Cullen: I approach each project the way I approach people - we are all so different and unique, so no single project should resemble another project. Each client has their own needs and goals and I mold what I create for them to match those needs and goals. For example, I'm in the middle of creating video content for a few nonprofits for an Idaho Gives campaign, which is a yearly campaign that runs for one week at the end of April. This is a great opportunity for nonprofits to promote their work and raise funds and awareness. Each video I created during this time was different and promoted different aspects of nonprofit work. At the same time, I am creating DEI training for a large corporation, so I craft those videos to match the message that the corporation wants to promote internally to their employees and stakeholders. All of this is happening as I produce a reality TV show for a company out of Las Vegas, which is as different from the rest of my work as the distance in miles are from Boise to Vegas.

PH: Could you share some insights into your experience working with nonprofit organizations, and why you find creating content for this sector particularly fulfilling?

Steph Cullen: In 2022, Idaho had 9,440 registered nonprofits with 1,844 of those being financially active and employing 67,417 people, producing 48.6 million hours of service including volunteers (Idaho Nonprofit Center. Fall of 2022. State of the Sector). Nonprofits are everywhere, yet with limited funds and resources, they struggle to promote their work. I have met so many incredible people with dreams of making this world a better place through their nonprofit. These are people who believe in their mission and the people and/or animals in our community that they serve. There's something in the hearts of these people that make them shine, that we don't always find in the corporate world. They strive to make a difference in their community and creating video content for them gives me the opportunity to make a difference as well.

PH: Collaborative filmmaking is a key aspect of your work. How do you go about building a team for your indie projects, and what qualities do you look for in your collaborators?

Steph Cullen: I love collaboration and I love the people that I collaborate with. For my indie projects, my teams change depending on the project and the need along with who might be willing to take a trade over pay. There are times when I may not be able to pay my cast and crew for a passion project of mine, but I can give them time in my studio for their time and energy on my project. Many of them have taken advantage of that exchange - I've hosted weekly improv classes, music video shoots, documentary shoots, and multi-media art projects, all in exchange for time and talent on my set. For my client work, I build my team based on who works best in certain environments. Not everyone is cut out for corporate work, I've unfortunately learned that the hard way with some of my contractors, so I adjust and find someone else who can work in that environment. Any one I contract, I work with more as a collaborator, so they can feel valued and have investment in that client project.

PH: As a graduate of the Leadership Boise cohort and a Board Treasurer for Quest for Freedom, how do you integrate your leadership and community involvement into your filmmaking endeavors?

Steph Cullen: I learned so many skills through Leadership Boise! And while I've served on other nonprofit boards in the past, this is the first board that I've held an "official titled position," such as treasurer. Both of these aspects of my life have taught me how to show up both in business settings and in my personal life. While it might be a bit egotistical to live your life as if someone is always watching, it's also valuable to approach life that way, so that you always show up in a manner that you want people to remember you by. Showing up as the leader you expect people to see you as is a great way to share your brand identity. I've also brought the personal and business connections I've made through Leadership Boise and my various board services into the mix of people I know in the film industry. My ribbon cutting for OMG Studios Boise in March of 2023, is a prime example. I had over 200 people in my studio to celebrate my ribbon cutting! These included leaders from various businesses around the valley, nonprofit clients, and the friends who show up on set for my indie projects! 

PH: Storytelling is at the heart of filmmaking. What storytelling techniques do you employ to ensure your projects resonate with your audience, particularly when working on indie films?

Steph Cullen: I focus on the characters. I was a theatre actor before I ever stepped foot behind a camera. My favorite part about acting was getting to know my characters and fully portraying them on stage. I loved to embody the character and share that person with a live audience. Therefore, when I craft my indie stories for film, I focus on the character first and let the rest play out. When I put together my nonprofit projects, I do the same. I focus on the people I interview and let them tell the story of the nonprofit. Through their words, the audience gets to experience the service that the nonprofit provides. I've been told my nonprofit films often bring tears which turn into donations to that particular nonprofit. 

PH: How do you balance the creative aspects of filmmaking with the practical considerations of budget and resources, especially when working on independent projects?

Steph Cullen: Trade! If I don't have the budget to pay my cast and crew, I will offer them a trade. They get time in my studio for their time on set. I also always feed people, so my budget starts with craft services and branches out from there. 

PH: Your portfolio includes a diverse range of projects, from short documentaries to video essays. How do you decide on the best approach for each project, and what factors influence your decision-making process?

Steph Cullen: The biggest factors that influence my decision-making process on any project is budget, resources, and client need. I start every client project with a meeting where the client tells me their vision for the final product. I take explicit notes - by hand - and incorporate those notes as I start putting the project together. Creating these videos is not about me, it's about the client and the story they want to tell. Based on their need and desires, I then make the decision on how many cameras I might want to use, what crew I might include, and how I will craft that story.

PH: What advice would you give to aspiring indie filmmakers who are looking to find their voice and create impactful storytelling?

Steph Cullen: Don't let anyone tell you that you're doing it wrong. Your voice is unique to you and no one else. Storytelling is an art that takes more than following the rules. It requires you to dig into your deeper self and share that authentic version of yourself that you can only share through storytelling.

PH: Can you share any memorable experiences or challenges you've faced while working on indie projects, and how you overcame them?

Steph Cullen: A lot of challenges revolve around scheduling and weather. It's always good to have a backup plan in the event that weather might affect your shoot, or someone's schedule doesn't align with the shoot schedule. Managing those risks is key to a successful production. My memorable experiences always revolve around the people and the relationships that you build with your fellow cast and crew members. While I may not remember a particular joke that was shared, I'll always remember the laughter and joy that we all found on set.

PH: In your opinion, what role does technology play in empowering indie filmmakers, and how do you leverage it in your work?

Steph Cullen: Technology plays a huge role in the work we do! From the type of equipment and hardware we use on set to the software we use in post-production. This technology is constantly changing and can be tough to keep up with, but it is vital to our success, so staying up-to-date on all the latest gear and developments is important to future growth and opportunities.

PH: As someone deeply involved in the Boise filmmaking community, what opportunities and challenges do you see for indie filmmakers in your region?

Steph Cullen: The opportunities the Boise filmmaking community has in our area is the fact that we are a small community and we can lean on the people we know to help us succeed with our projects. Everyone knows someone with a connection to that "perfect location" for that coffee shop scene. Everyone knows someone who has that outfit from that time-period that you need to set the scene. The challenges that we face are what most towns/cities/regions face - growth. While growth is amazing and inevitable, it also makes indie filmmaking difficult. Here in Boise, we have a term called Boise kind - this translates to the film community. If a friend offers you space to shoot in their coffee shop, leave it better than you found it and be respectful of the space and the business. People who are new in our area don't always treat these businesses with kindness and the rest of us get a bad reputation. Shops and restaurants close their doors to film projects because someone new to the community didn't treat them with the respect that they deserve.

PH: How do you measure the success of your projects, both creatively and in terms of achieving your client's objectives?

Steph Cullen: I measure success with all my projects by how much better the output was from my previous project. Every project is a learning opportunity and any time I can make adjustments to create something better than I did before equals success to me. That's not to say that I didn't try my best with my previous projects - it's quite the opposite - I did my best, and now I'm going to do better than that best. Also, hitting that deadline and submitting a final product before it is due always makes me feel successful. Clients like when they don't have to wait for you.

PH: What future projects are you excited about, and what can we expect to see from #OMGFemaleFilmmakers and OMG Studios Boise in the coming months?

Steph Cullen: A community member, and now friend, has asked me to direct her documentary about her adoption. She was born in South Korea and adopted as a baby to a family in the US. She wants to document her journey as she returns to South Korea for the first time in over 50-years to look for her birth parents. As for a personal project - it's always about growing my business and becoming a better leader. I have a small project in the works, but my main priority is growth and building my production companies to be the best that I can make them with the help of my community.

PH: Lastly, what do you hope audiences take away from your films, particularly those focused on nonprofit stories and community impact?

Steph Cullen: I want people to feel what I feel when I learn about these nonprofits. The hard work and dedication that goes into every single aspect of a nonprofit are so vital to their success and to the community. I've had so many community members, once they find out that I create the video content for their favorite nonprofit, tell me how my work makes them cry. How they learn so much more about the nonprofit and the people they serve. We're all so busy in our lives that we rarely stop to listen and learn about our neighbors. My hope is that my videos provide that insight and provoke thought, change, and action.

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