In New York City’s fast-growing and highly competitive film and television industry, shows and movies have scores of well-established options to choose from when planning where to shoot. So it came to a surprise to many when Project Runway chose to house their 14th season – and the first season of their spin-off, Project Runway Junior – in a brand-new, untested spot in Long Island City, Queens. But that spot, GUM Studios, promised a lot more than a big room and access to the 7 train. Its main advantage was the presence of the studio’s co-owner and manager, Carrie White.
White is a joyful, outgoing, and determined woman in her late 30s who brings a decade and a half of experience in entertainment to her new venture. Prior to GUM, she ran a boutique studio called Factory Studios, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Despite opening in the middle of a recession in 2009, Factory Studios blossomed into a success, mostly due to White’s work ethic.
“For the first year, it was just me running it,” she remembered. “I was there six days a week, 14 hours a day. I was painting everything, taking out the garbage, and dealing with all of the equipment.”
White somehow turned a one-woman business into one of the few thriving mid-size studios in the city.Factory Studios’s client list reads like a cross between a who’s-who of rap and rock stars (Kanye West, Ludacris, The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem) and your cable bill (MTV, Discovery Channel, FX, Food Network, NBC).
Being a woman makes Carrie White unusual in the vast world of show business. For example, in India, home of the world’s oldest film industry, it took until 2014 for the courts to overturn an unofficial ban on women working as makeup artists. Across all of Bollywood, there are 6.2 men working for every woman.
Both at home and abroad, though, things are changing. Several well-known Bollywood actresses have recently set up production companies, and people like choreographer Farah Khan are moving from in front of to behind the camera as well.
As for White, long before she was hanging out with Kanye or showing Tim Gunn around the runway, she was making things happen behind the scenes in her home state of Georgia. Originally from Conyers, a small city about 25 miles outside Atlanta, White at first dreamed of being a pilot like her father. She went to Auburn to study aviation, before realizing that the quickest path to her goal, joining the military, was not on her radar screen.
So a quick but fateful change of major to marketing and public relations led her back to Atlanta, with a job at a first-wave Internet company called What’s Up Interactive. The gig, putting together a PR newsletter by fax (and later by e-mail), provided important marketing and technical skills. But it was what she was doing in her off-hours that proved even more valuable.
“When I was working at What’s Up Interactive, I was booking DJs,” she said. “I went down to Winter Music Conference and did a big event, and that led to me doing little parties here and there at night clubs.”
Those “little parties” led to quite a reputation. So when Tiger Beer was looking to bring its brew from Singapore into Atlanta with a year’s worth of branded events, they got told about a young woman with her finger on the pulse of the underground. Carrie White was flattered by the attention but was unsure she was up to the challenge of selling a new beer to an entire city.
“Somebody gave them my name, and they approached me,” White explained. “I was like, ‘Wow, that sounds awesome, but I’ve never done anything like this. Go check out my friends that have this fancy marketing company.’
“They go and they talk to those people, and then a week or two later they come back to me and they’re like, ‘Well, we really want to see what you would do. Could you do a proposal?’ I guess they were looking to do guerilla marketing, and they felt like I had my hand in that. I wrote a proposal and they’re like, ‘Okay, you’re hired. Here’s a $250,000 budget. What are you going to do with it for the next year?’”
That hiring led to a frantic year of White planning, throwing, and attending 170 different events sponsored by the company. “That was crazy,” she recalled. “It was just non-stop.”
After that was finally finished, White’s best friend, who was living in New York City, had a space open up in her apartment. So she sold her house and all her stuff, and headed out for the big city.
“I moved up to New York to the tiniest bedroom,” Carrie White recalled. “I didn’t have a closet, I didn’t have a job. My roommate was a struggling makeup artist. She introduced me to the world of photography and fashion, and got me a job freelancing with a prop stylist and a producer.”
One difficult year of freelancing later, White landed a gig at a photo studio. At this point, all her past experience came together.
“I went in and the owner could see that I know how to promote and I’m good with people and I can design websites,” she said. “I ended up running the space for three years.”
That experience led White to decide to open her own space at Factory Studios. All was going well there until a very New York City problem reared its head.
“The building was suddenly shut down by the Department of Buildings,” White said, sounding upset at the memory even now. “It was not our fault. It was landlord issues. We literally had to shut our doors overnight. We had to cancel all our bookings and we lost everything.”
The sudden closing of Factory Studios was a huge blow. But within four months, White found the space that soon became GUM Studios. The space, she remembered, was “just a raw warehouse.” So she and some friends renovated whatever they could by themselves, and upgraded the electricity and other essentials. All of a sudden, Project Runway came through. Now, everything was great, except for two giant problems.
The space had two huge floor-to-ceiling columns that would be in the way of PR’s titular runway. So they had to go. With less than a month before the show was to begin filming, White was under severe pressure.
“That construction was the hardest thing I’ve ever sat through,” White said, sounding nervous even when recalling it from a safe distance of many months. “Everyone said it could never be done in time, that it was absolutely impossible. I couldn’t take that for an answer. We had no choice – it had to be done. It ended up costing a little more than we anticipated, but we got it done.”
Life with a giant television franchise proved not without challenges as well. The sheer size and scope of the enterprise was vastly different than what even Carrie White’s most famous clients had brought to her small Brooklyn studio.
“I’ve never been involved in anything as big as Project Runway,” she admitted. “We literally had to move out almost all our stuff and put it into storage, because they needed every last inch of space. I just couldn’t believe the amount of people involved in the shoot – all of the producers and production people and coordinators and PAs and camera people. It was like a beast. They just came in, took over, cleaned up, and left,” she laughed.
Now that the Runways are done, White is booking GUM with a variety of television and film projects. She’s happy, no matter the obstacles, to keep doing what she loves.
“I never thought this could be a career choice – I fell into it by accident,” she said. “But I absolutely adore it, because it touches upon everything that I love.”
Carrie White also encourages women interested in show business to keep going despite any obstacles they may face.
“Don’t let anyone tell you can’t achieve your dreams,” she enthused. “Everything falls into place. Envision where you see yourself ten years from now, and stop apologizing!”
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