The Sciolis of Novato work on films from their San Marin Drive home. From right are husband and wife Don and Christine and their daughters, Alexandra and Nicki. The family company, Zan Media, is poised to release its first feature films: a documentary and a horror flick. (IJ photo/Alan Dep)
Novato residents Don and Christine Scioli and their three kids are not like most families.

In their 50s, the couple have been filmmakers, marital and business partners since the 1980s. Their grown children, Nicki and twins Zach and Alexandra have been, as Christine puts it, "on camera or behind it since before they could move and before they could talk."

The Sciolis (pronounced Skee-oly) work from their San Marin Drive home, where they own all their own equipment, from cameras to editing and production gear. Shooting digitally for the past 10 years, they've made thousands of short commercials, political announcements and pro-bono spots for scores of clients including Autodesk, the county of Marin, Moylan's Brewery & Restaurant, Supervisor Judy Arnold, Peju Winery and giant retailers such as Wanamaker's, Weinstock's and Emporium Capwell.

Now their company, Zan Media, (named for Zach, Alex and Nicki), is poised to release its first full-length films: "A State of Vine" - a 60-minute documentary exploring Napa and Sonoma's wine industries - and "The Beckoning" - a 90-minute low-budget horror-suspense time travel flick.

"The Beckoning" evolved because, as Don puts it, "We always wanted to make a feature film. Christine and I wrote

it together while we were busy doing commercials and other things. In 2005, we had a little time and we scheduled it in, raised the money, it all came together. Now we're looking for distribution."

Don, who earned a master of arts in filmmaking from the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, does most of the editing and directing; Christine, a former lawyer, concentrates on writing and producing.

Shot in 17 days at various locations around Marin County,

Don Scioli looks at clips in his home office. His family company has created a 60-minute documentary on the wine industries of Napa and Sonoma counties. (IJ photo/Alan Dep)
"The Beckoning" features unknown young actors in lead roles. Ancillary actors include well-known Marin personalities Robert Currier, artistic director of the Marin Shakespeare Company, who plays Sir Francis Drake, and Marin restaurateur Brendan Moylan, cast as one of Drake's privateers.

"I've been working with Don and Christine for years," says Currier. "They call me every couple of years to be in one of their commercials. They're great friends of mine - a wonderful, hardworking family."

Moylan says he got cast on a whim. He's contracted the Sciolis to shoot commercials for his restaurants Moylan's, Noonan's and the Marin Brewing Co. for the past three or four years.

"I knew them first as customers; eventually we developed a business relationship," Moylan says. "We were having lunch one day and Christine said, 'Do you want to be in our movie?' It was great. It was a pyrotechnic experience. We burned a witch out at Stafford Lake, and we had the Novato fire department helping us out."

Don Scioli explains that the film was inspired by real-life stories and mysteries behind Sir Francis Drake's alleged monthlong sojourn in Marin County in the 16th century.

Telling the story of a fateful weekend in the life of a young co-ed (actress Lindsay Drummer, who has performed with Marin Shakespeare) obsessed with Sir Francis Drake, "The Beckoning" should be a kick for local viewers.

Its action sweeps the heroine on a Hitchcock-style time-and-space odyssey that swings from the theological seminary in San Anselmo to the Novato library to the interior of Falkirk Mansion to the coastlines of Tomales Bay, Stafford Lake and the derelict Miramonte gas station near the Marin County landfill. Her traumas including being captured by Drake's men to be burned at the stake and three days trapped in a pit in the here-and-now with a zoo's worth of red-eyed rats tumbling over her feet.

"We rented 200, maybe 250 rats from a company called Bowwow in the South Bay," Christine recalls. "The problem with the rats was that they were too cute."

"The ones with red eyes were mechanical," Don laughs. "The mechanical rats scared the real ones."

Completed since May 2006, "The Beckoning" is up for three potential distribution deals; the Sciolis are considering film festivals as well.

"We're still in the process," Christine says. "Production was fine. We have an amazing shorthand together. We know exactly what we need to do to get the shots. Distribution is a whole other discipline, a whole different education."

"But we're already writing 'The Beckoning, Part II,'" Don continues. "It will be called 'The Fifteenth Mission' and will involve the Donner Party and the Native American tragedy at San Juan Bautista. We don't know yet about the cast."

The Sciolis' documentary "A State of Vine" was released in May 2007. The subject matter was inspired by the couple's associate producer, their daughter Nicki, now 22.

As Christine tells it, Nicki had just graduated from Sonoma State's wine business program, which included an internship with a Sonoma wine company.

"Nicki started telling us incredible stories about the wine business and suggested it would be a great idea for a documentary," Christine says. "We agreed."

In June 2006 and working solely with ideas rather than a script or outline, Don, Christine and Nicki began interviewing a variety of vintners such as Mario Andretti and Fred Franzia, along with wine educators and scientists in Napa and Sonoma counties. Don says the material was so fascinating, "The film essentially wrote itself."

"A State of Vine" is being distributed through its own Web site, astateofvine.com, through wine clubs and through the Wine Appreciation Guild in Napa, St. Helena, Walnut Creek and Palo Alto.

"Mostly we self-distribute because that makes the best sense," Christine says.

With Nicki now a full-fledged member of the production team in her full-time job as associate producer, the Sciolis are looking forward to crafting lengthier, more complex films.

"My plan is to do a lot of the selling," Nicki says. "Right now, I'm mostly doing product as well, but want to learn more of the editing and directing sides. I want to be able to carry on this business."

Nicki feels growing up with Don and Christine as parents and spending her life in the film business has been "fantastic. I get to go to the most amazing functions. I get paid a salary and all the benefits, and I only have a 30-second commute from my bedroom to the office downstairs. But this job has benefits way beyond insurance and medical. I've had amazing experiences since I've been a kid; I've experienced more than most people."

Her tales are so numerous her words tumble over themselves as she recollects anecdotes such as making a film for Balloons Above the Valley in Napa, going up with her family in one of the balloons at 5 a.m. and running into trouble.

"It was too bumpy to land so while we were still in a little bit in the air, my parents threw us all out of the basket into a field of jackrabbits. It was pretty funny," she recalls. "I was too young to be scared, but I would never do it again."

As she sees it, the adventures she and her siblings have had, and the freedom of being part of a creative family all her life, meant they skipped the rebellious teenage years.

"My parents did a great job of raising us. There wasn't any need to act out," she reflects.

Asked if it feels strange to get her paycheck from her parents, she says absolutely not.

"I know I'm working for it, so it's not weird," she says. "My family is so close, there's none of that nitpicking. For me, the job is fun. I get to do different things all the time, every day. I love what I do. I get to hug and kiss my bosses."

Don puts it this way: "The bottom line is, we told our kids, 'If you want to eat, you'll work with us.' It seemed to work. And they're hungry."

Leslie Harlib can be reached at lharlib@marinij.com