James Franco Yosemite
Courtesy of Monterey Media

One of Hollywood’s enduring mysteries is how James Franco does it all — acting, directing, writing books, teaching university classes, pursuing multiple post-graduate degrees and, occasionally, (rumor has it) sleeping.

Now the multihyphenate star of “Milk” and “127 Hours” has another new venture, a nonprofit film studio that he says combines many of his passions — making films, teaching student filmmakers and benefiting his favorite charity.

Elysium Bandini Studios brings together the Art of Elysium charity with Franco’s Rabbit Bandini production banner to support the film projects of students and professionals, with any proceeds going entirely to Art of Elysium. The 19-year-old charity brings actors and other artists into contact with people in need — from hospitalized children, to the elderly and homeless to, soon, veterans and prisoners. As many as 4,000 artists work with needy clients on projects ranging from essays to poetry to plays, films and art installations.

Franco and producing partner Vince Jolivette met in an acting class two decades ago, and began volunteering in 2005 with Art of Elysium, putting on Christmas plays at a children’s hospital, making films and raising money. The duo also began making student films.

The plan for bigger things emerged in a 2012 meeting with Art of Elysium founder and CEO Jennifer Howell. “We thought we could create a nonprofit film studio where we gave talented young filmmakers a platform to do their thing and fulfill their artistic vision, plus give back to the community through Art of Elysium,” said Jolivette. “To us, that was so much.” Added Howell: “It was everything.”

The upstart operation already has finished 14 features — most directed by students from UCLA, Cal Arts, USC and NYU (all schools where Franco has taught filmmaking) — some featuring well-known names including Natalie Portman, Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Kimmel, Jessica Chastain, Whoopi Goldberg and Franco. “When these actors come back and work with the young people, it’s a great reminder of the joy of what we do, and why we got into it in the first place,” Franco said.

“Yosemite,” from director Gabrielle Demeestere, features Franco in the story of young people growing up in the Bay Area; it got solid reviews and a brief theatrical release. Other Elysium Bandini creations are available for distribution. The intent is to create a steady source of funds for Art of Elysium, a favorite charity of many in Hollywood, including Kirsten Dunst, Eva Mendes, producer Tim Headington, Amber Heard and Johnny Depp.

Jolivette, Howell and Franco are running the fledgling shingle, though they hope to eventually find an executive to take over. Funding has come from multiple donors and via innovative channels, such as an Indiegogo campaign that brought in $689,000 for three initial Elysium Bandini films. Franco says the road to positive cash flow is within reach, because the vast majority of workers on both sides of the camera donate their time. And their films typically cost $200,000 or less.

“This is students and charity coming together to make their own thing, a new thing,” Franco said. “Hopefully, it’s a model that can expand, and there can be others besides me who can take on these projects.”

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