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Creative space pulls plug after COVID

Joe Granato and Austin McKinley had started something big. It was all coming together in 2020. What could possibly go wrong?

Joe Granato and Austin McKinley pulled the plug on their creative studio after COVID hit. (Photo by Matthew Holler)
Joe Granato and Austin McKinley pulled the plug on their creative studio after COVID hit. (Photo by Matthew Holler)
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As John Lennon observed, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Joe Granato and Austin McKinley know what he’s talking about. They had very big plans. But life had other plans for the two working artists.

McKinley and Granato describe themselves as “Swiss Army Knife creatives.” Cartooning, screenwriting, camerawork, audio editing, voiceover recording, videogame creation, whatever. If it’s creatively edifying and (ideally) profitable they’ll do it. But some collaborations are more profitable than others.

Their NESmaker software of 2018 allowed users to design 8-bit video games that ran on modern computers. It was a smash hit with the old-school Nintendo gaming community. Thanks to that big love, Granato and McKinley launched a shared multimedia studio near Gulfgate Mall in early 2019. “NESmaker Studios” was its official name. But they always called it “The Treehouse.”

The "Treehouse" featured a classroom learning space to help creatives come together and "play".

“That’s what it was to us,” says McKinley. “Like two big kids, Joe and I created our own tree fort. It’s the place we’d go to play — and maybe invite our friends.”

“Play.” As-in: create comic books, podcasts and other original art. But it wasn’t all play and no work at the Treehouse. Commercial gigs kept rolling in. And software sales never slowed down.

2019 was a very good year. 2020 dawned, and the future looked bright. A perfect time to invite all their creative friends to the Treehouse.

That’s when their big plan crystallized.

“We wanted to be a lightning rod for area talents and draw all that energy here,” says Granato. “Creatives of all descriptions would get together, share ideas and bounce off each other.”

“That was our goal,” says McKinley. “We talk about ‘playing around’ — but it doesn’t mean ‘fooling around.’ Art-making is a form of play. When artists play together, a synergy happens.”

That was the end-game. And the opening move was simple.

How do you fill your Treehouse with playful artistic talents?

“We wanted to be a lightning rod for area talents and draw all that energy here. Creatives of all descriptions would get together, share ideas and bounce off each other.” — Joe Granato

Give them plenty to play with, natch.

They’d already packed the place with tech toys — including a recording studio, a three-camera soundstage and a multimedia classroom. Just add a few more and get the word out. The best creative minds in town would quickly pack the place. Then let the games begin!

By March of 2020, the beautiful toys were waiting. And their beautiful plan was coming true.

“The rocket was on the launch pad,” McKinley. “The countdown had started.”

“Yes, it had,” says Granato. “Then — literally two weeks later — the lockdown took hold.”

No launch. Just months of isolation.

The pandemic stretched on. The Treehouse stayed closed to visiting friends. No friends tried to visit. People stayed away in droves.

But McKinley and Granato still had plenty to do.

“The pandemic turned our Treehouse into the Fortress of Solitude,” says McKinley. “People left us alone — and we got a lot of work done.”

“Ironically, the lockdown made us even more productive,” adds Granato. “We generated tons of gamework. Austin created an entire graphic novel. We taught students on remote video. We did some very cool things in that studio.”

COVID or not, their Treehouse was still multimedia dynamo. They worked, they earned, and they still had fun. Business was still good. But going nowhere.

 “Our studio was still an epic place to create,” says McKinley. “As a purely business proposition, it didn’t work.”

“We’d hit a wall,” adds Granato. “We saw no way to make it grow.”

The pandemic subtracted their artful ambitions from the Treehouse equation. The business side was all that remained. And it just didn’t add up.

They’d reached the same conclusion. And made the same decision.

As W.C. Fields once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again—and then quit! No use being a fool about it.”

Not being fools, Granato and McKinley quit.

Their beautiful plan became a beautiful memory.

The landlord could look forward to some empty office space.

His former tenants had made other plans.

And got out of town as soon as possible.

If that sounds like a sob story, I’m giving the wrong impression. Both landed on their feet. Toronto, Canada, is Austin and Sherrie McKinley’s new home. He’s now sharpening his multimedia skills in a graduate program at Centennial College. The Granato family moved to Providence, Rhode Island. Joe Granato now makes a living doing product development for M-Audio. It’s a very good living. On top of that, they found an insanely cute, improbably affordable house.

No regrets about leaving Sarasota?

“No regrets about that decision,” says Granato. “But plenty of regrets about pulling the plug on our dream. We had a really great studio concept. And we were so close to making it happen. The success of our NES project made it possible. Then COVID made it impossible. We just couldn’t do it.”

McKinley feels the same way.

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” he says. “The ‘Treehouse’ was exactly the right idea at exactly the wrong time. If I have to, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to re-create it. I was right where I wanted to be, and I’ll get back there if I can.”


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