Combining an unparalleled drive with an unrivaled intuition and savvy business sense Marina Cappi is reinventing the movie industry with her brand new ‘Hollywood East’ studios around Boston. With the release of this winter’s Whitney Houston biopic smash box office hit, she has now positioned Boston -and herself- to take over the age-old industry.
“Y’ALL are sleeping on that Whitney Houston movie,” Public Enemy hype man and television personality Flavor Flav tweeted to his followers just before the start of the New Year.
It didn’t take long for the Whitney Houston biopic he was talking about, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” to catch on – at press it has grossed over $60 million worldwide in theaters, and digitally release on February 7th; the buzz surrounding it keeps growing.
It isn’t the first movie made about Whitney Houston, but it was approved by her estate and longtime mentor and friend, music industry mogul Clive Davis, and her sister-in-law and manager, Pat Houston, was one of the film’s producers. The personal touches show, and seem to resonate with the audience. The movie has a connection to the Boston area that people might not be aware of – and it’s not the obvious one with Bobby Brown: it was shot at Marina Studios in Quincy.
Known as “Hollywood East,” Marina Studios is a 26,000 square feet studio with an additional 15,000 square feet of multi-use production space and a three-acre backlot. Many people don’t realize a full-on, state-of-the-art movie studio is in Marina Bay; it’s easy to overlook the peaceful, quiet waterfront neighborhood.
But the moment Marina Studios founder Marina Cappi visited the location, she immediately saw the opportunity in it: 12 minutes to the airport and close to the highway, making it easy to get in and out of the city – an attractive selling point for the industry’s biggest names. Between that and the tax credits available, she knew it was perfect.
WITH such in innate understanding of the community, one would think Cappi grew up in it. But she was actually born and raised in Rochester, New York, with her parents, the grandfather who’s love and influence would shape her life, and sisters so close that when something is wrong with one of them, the others feel it hundreds of miles away. The family business was construction. While there was always a love for entertainment in her household, the movie industry growing up was the furthest thing from her mind.
“I was kind of shy, in all the AP classes,” she said. Numbers were her passion. When it came time for college, Cappi’s grandfather, an MIT alum, made his preference clear.
“He said, ‘you can go anywhere you want,’” said Cappi, “’but it’s gotta be in Boston.’” Cappi was a straight A student and was accepted to every school she applied in Boston. Her grandfather took her to the city to check them all out in April of her senior year in high school, and Cappi made her choice on that trip – or rather, her school chose her.
“I was walking in Beacon Hill,” she said, “and saw Suffolk. It was past the application deadline.” Cappi, never one to be denied, walked into the business school, filled out an application, and had her guidance counselor sent over her paperwork immediately.
“I got accepted the next day,” she said. From then on, Boston was her home.
“I’ll never leave here,” she said. “My whole life’s here, I love it.”
CAPPI briefly returned to Rochester to be with her grandfather, who was sick, before his passing. Even then, she still kept her mind occupied and fed her passion for hard work and numbers by opening and operating a high-end clothing store. It was no less than what he wanted to watch her do while caring for him.
“An empty mind is the Devil’s advocate,” he had always told her growing up.
Each Sunday evening Cappi would prepare a meal paired with a sophisticated red wine -another love passed along to her from her grandfather- and the two would share memories and reflect on everything under the moon.
One Sunday, Cappi’s intuition told her to gather the entire family for that evening’s supper and they all shared a beautiful night -and a stunning red- with grandpa. The next day, he suffered a stroke that would ultimately end his life, but before entering the gates of heaven he left his granddaughter with one last message while laid up in the hospital.
“Where’d that bottle of red go?” he asked Cappi looking around the room for where it might be.
WHILE at Suffolk, Cappi had majored in finance, and after returning to Boston began a corporate career that mixed both her college education and construction roots, working in some of the top firms in both fields. Cappi has spent almost her entire adult life (and probably her entire life) relentlessly driving towards some project. Then she had her twins.
Their arrival into the world was the fulfillment of another lifelong dream for Cappi. For as long as she can remember she has always envisioned her family with twins like George and Amal Clooney’s, she gave birth to a boy and a girl on June 6th – the Clooney twins’ birthday.
SHORTLY thereafter, Cappi met Jeff Kalligheri and Denis O’Sullivan of Compelling Pictures, a film and TV company. They had a vision for bringing a studio to Massachusetts, where temporary tax credits that looked like a good possibility of becoming permanent made it an ideal fit. And when they all got to know each other, it was clear they had the right combination.
“I know right off the bat if I connect with someone or not, and if I can trust them. I don’t recall often getting burned on my intuition. It’s been a love story with us ever since. We became a family,” said Cappi.
She had seen others try to bring the same concept to Massachusetts and knew what this one would need to be successful. The location was key and she scouted out the Marina Bay one, knowing it checked all their boxes.
“They knew with my background in finance and construction, I could build things quickly. I knew how to find the building and what it needed to be. So we basically just went for it.”
Putting three teams together from her construction days, Cappi supervised a project that was estimated to take a year and guided it to completion in nine weeks. The same day construction wrapped, the material to build the sets dropped. She began building the second studio, a campus in Canton, almost immediately. Her predictions about the draw of the location came true, and all sorts of productions flocked to the studio for convenience and ease. Plans for a third location, in Watertown, are wrapped, and the fourth and fifth studios at an undisclosed location are currently in negotiations.
“My objective is to have all five by the end of next year,” said Cappi. East Boston, she says, is another location on her radar, although not rumored to be the fourth or fifth.
A FIRST glance of the story of how Marina Studios came to be and immediately flourished, bringing opportunities for so many others it has touched, from the production crews to the small business owners in the community that supports it, it might appear success has been easy for Cappi.
But, of course, nothing is exactly as it seems, and behind the scenes of building something impactful in business, Cappi was feeling the challenges of building something even more impactful at home, her family.
She fights hard to be the best possible mom for her children; and to raise them with the same traditions her grandfather instilled in her.
“It’s the only thing I want,” she said of providing that type of upbringing for her twins.
It is this level of responsibility, Cappi said, that all entrepreneurial mothers have and feel the weight of every day. She put all her chips into Marina Studios, amid plenty of doubts from others that it would work. Not having success with it wasn’t an option. Just as not compromising her family values is not an option.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s very hard at times,” Cappi admitted. “It breaks my heart when I’m heavy with travel and my babies FaceTime me asking when I’m coming home.”
From a business standpoint, the sacrifices are paying off. Not only has Marina Studios lived up to the potential she saw in it before its existence, but Cappi is doing it in a way that no one else in the industry has before.
“Hollywood East is about people running this industry with no harassment,” said Cappi. As the first female studio owner in the nation, and a background in two male-dominated fields, she’s not unfamiliar with the dynamics that have given Hollywood its dark reputation for what women have had to endure working in it for decades.
Cappi gets plenty of other attention that isn’t positive, from both women and men.
“The bigger you get,” she explained. “There will always be those that want to try and discredit you and stir up trouble.”
She has zero problem putting those people in their place. The public perception that the tax credits Marina Studios benefits from exist to grease the palms of A-list celebrities bothers her much more. She’s witnessed miracles at work in the lives of the small business owners in the communities where her studios are; the ripple effects of activity and demand in areas that are seasonal and occasionally desolate.
“You’re not getting that in places where there’s only a small tax credit,” said Cappi.
Serving the community where she lives and works is something extremely important to Cappi.
“When you give, you get it back ten times over,” she said. She sits on the board of the Boston Arts Academy, and has a soon-to-be-announced massive initiative geared towards providing enhanced education in arts for youth coming. The motivation behind it?
“Opportunity,” said Cappi. She drew inspiration from the friends she had growing up who didn’t have the resources to pursue their dreams or even know what they wanted to do. Having been given a lot herself, it’s important for her to give to others.
“Now I know I can support a foundation from the community for all these children who don’t want to go to college or don’t have the means or know what they want to do. And they can get a union job as soon as they turn 18. In any trade they want.”
It’s not just kids coming of age who the foundation will help. “I’m building the infrastructure for anyone who wants it, whether you’re an adult or a child.”
Building it herself is also of great importance to Cappi. “Anyone can donate money and put their name on a library, and there is nothing wrong with that” she said. “But I’m talking about the real work you do with real people. You have to put the time in. It’s about people knowing you’re there to support them. That is where success is.”
Typical of the way Cappi’s mind works, she also sees a huge need for it in the marketplace that she strives to help fill. She knows the infrastructure exists in other places, but not Boston just yet. And those skillsets are exactly what a production needs to be completed, for one.
“I want that for the new generation,” she said. “I want to build that and give the opportunity to very talented children or adults who want to be in it. There is no barrier to entry.”
WHAT truly motivates Cappi isn’t what people think. Some of it is proving the doubters wrong, wounds from her past and even family members that still cut deep. But really it’s motherhood and her kids. Her favorite time of day is 4:30 in the morning, when they climb in bed with her and fall asleep for two hours. Overlooking the ocean with one twin on each side of her, it’s the most peaceful, serene feeling.
When she’s on set, the days are long and her support system gathers to help fill in the gaps.
“I have an army of people close to me who step in to help,” she said. One of her sisters lives down the street, and their nanny is a godsend.
“It’s so much logistics,” she said, “to do everything I do to run this company and not feel that guilt of not being with them.” Whenever Cappi isn’t with them, she’ll get hourly updates about where they are and what they’re doing.
“I’m a lunatic about it,” she said. If she’s working late, she’ll still make sure to step out to have dinner with them and then return to her work into all hours of the night. She’ll drop what she’s doing to take their calls and FaceTimes.
And they love coming to the studio, which has become their personal playground – although they’ve already learned how to be quiet when the filming starts.
“When you work together every day for four, six months, you become a family,” said Cappi. And the entire production always treats her kids like their own. “As soon as I open the doors to the studio, every single person on the production knows exactly who my twins are, and they can run around and I know I don’t have to worry about them.”
As much as she loves sharing her empire with them, Cappi fiercely guards their privacy. Her daughter was offered the opportunity to have a bit part in the movie “Thug” that was recently filmed there, starring Liam Neeson, as his granddaughter. It’s a chance most families would have jumped at, but Cappi turned it down on her daughter’s behalf.
“I want her to be able to decide what she wants to do,” she said.
Meanwhile, her son, already has shown signs of the entrepreneurial gene that runs in the Cappi family. “Mommy makes movies and money,” he recently told BostonMan Magazine publisher Matt Ribaudo while hanging out during an interview with Cappi.
When asked what he was going to do when he got older, he grinned and said: “I’m going to make toys.”
MARINA Cappi’s mind is always at work on plans for what’s next with Marina Studios and the school. Whatever those things bring, rest assured she will be with her kids and working hard, finding solutions to problems, seeing the opportunities around her and building something from nothing.
“I don’t care if I have $100 million in the bank, I am going to work every day until I die,” she said. “I was raised that way. You go to work every day. It’s just how I’m wired. In what I do, I’ve been so blessed with the excitement of it. When I wake up, I can’t wait for the next day.”
And now an entire industry can’t wait to see what she does next.