For quite some time now, Christmas has come every day for Ali Afshar.
The actor, producer and former race car driver is founder and president of ESX Entertainment, a prolific indie film and TV production company that’s made its name in recent years pumping Yuletide content to streamers amid the pandemic.
The projects are modestly budgeted and shot efficiently and safely, mostly due to Afshar’s commandeering of his hometown — a sleepy Sonoma County village called Petaluma, where he built a soundstage from a converted barn and mines below-the-line crew from local residents. Titles include Netflix’s “A California Christmas” and its sequel “City Lights,” and the HBO Max originals “A Christmas Mystery,” “A Hollywood Christmas” and “Holiday Harmony.”
Afshar’s well-oiled Christmas machine functions at such a level that, during a recent conversation with Variety, he revealed he was in the middle of shooting another film — “A Wine Country Christmas.” The latest stars frequent Afshar collaborator Josh Swickard, Sol Rodriguez (“Grachi”), soap vet and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” alum Eileen Davison and Omar Gooding. Alex Ranarivelo is directing the project that follows a young widow struggling to keep a local vineyard from falling into the wrong hands while raising her two young boys. She may be in store, of course, for a Christmas miracle when she falls for the world’s worst carpenter.
Over our conversation, Afshar discussed the winding path to his production company, his desire to move into other genres, and expanding his holiday game past Christmas.
How did you get your start?
My first job was on “Saved by the Bell: The New Class,” and it was the second audition I ever went in for. I worked consistently but took an eight-year hiatus in 2002 to become a pro race car driver for Subaru America. I missed acting. but working with a race team I learned how to put people from all over the world together, winning many championships, and unknowingly I was learning how to produce. Around 2009 I came back. My first audition was for a Warner Bros. movie, “He’s Just Not That Into You,” and I booked it.
I met an indie film financier named Jared Underwood through the racing world, and he said if I ever wanted to make a move to let him know. Jared made a few introductions and a few months later, we made our first film, “Born to Race.” Fast forward to now, we’re finishing our 23rd movie. We also have our series “Casa Grande” releasing May 1 on Amazon. That’s like “Yellowstone” with a Latin infusion, launching as a five-episode miniseries.
How did you break into holiday content?
We started in action films. The movie that introduced us to Warner Bros. was an action project called “American Wrestler: The Wizard.” It was about my life coming to America from Iran. We made a name for ourselves punching above our weight class. I don’t come from a traditional Hollywood pipeline, we like to do things our own way. We’ve shot 17 of these 23 films in my hometown of Petaluma, where I built a barn and a soundstage. We use the same local crews over and over again. I’m Iranian-born, I don’t event celebrate Christmas that much. But COVID hit, and we decided to take a chance. We used actors who were a real-life couple and already in a pod together. I played the butler! We ended up doing seven holiday films back to back after that, some at Netflix and others at HBO Max.
How are the films financed?
The first half of our movies were independently financed through private equity and high-net-worth individuals. The last 10 have been ordered through larger corporations. Our biggest challenge is keeping the volume rolling and trying to get the stories that make sense. With all the changes happening in landscape — from the streaming retreat to the state of theatrical — it’s a game about survival right now.
Where do you see the company in five years?
We want to ramp up back to eight to 12 film releases per year. We’ve got some really great diverse stories we’d like to tell, and we’re looking to go back into action. We’re also setting a five-picture slate that will expand our holiday content into Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day and more. We’re also dipping our toes into horror for the first time. The two young girls who starred in “The Black Phone” and “M3GAN,” they are sisters. I went to high school with their mom in Petaluma. We’re developing a horror movie for them to star in together.
Do you see budgets scaling up?
I don’t see us making $200 million DC-level movies. I think we’re strong in that $20 million to $30 million pocket. We have a great biopic about the rock band Scorpions, which is our version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Their song “Winds of Change” was the theme song of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it’s so relevant now. That song just hit 1 billion streams on YouTube, the same day our writer turned in the script. That’s got to be a sign. We see a real opportunity to connect younger audiences with their message.