Two URI alumni – one a California businessman, the other a Westerly filmmaker – team up to create national TV commercials

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URI connection: Gnarly Bay and 1-800-DENTIST

KINGSTON, R.I., Sept. 15, 2015 – “Is it possible to be happy with this life?”

Dan Riordan, a Westerly filmmaker and 2003 University of Rhode Island graduate, ponders this question and more in videos he makes through his company, Gnarly Bay.

In the last few weeks, he’s been exploring a less existential question, but one that still has a bite – dentistry.

Riordan and his team are creating a national advertising campaign for 1-800-DENTIST, a Los-Angeles based dental referral company founded by Fred Joyal, a longtime supporter of URI who grew up in West Warwick and graduated from the University in 1979 with a degree in French. Joyal also has an honorary doctorate from URI.

“The whole process was awesome,” says Riordan. “It’s a really cool circle.”

The story begins when Riordan, 33, and his friend – and now business partner – Dana Saint picked up a camera and started making home movies to pass the time. The first was a horror flick. Riordan recalls the joy: “A couple hours to kill, and a couple friends to kill.”

Seriously, he says, filmmaking allowed him to express his feelings about life – and depict that reality in a better light. After graduating from Chariho High School, he enrolled at URI with plans to study pre-med. But film classes quickly charmed him. Faculty recognized his talent and encouraged him to excel.

His short films and documentaries, including one about the Sept. 11 attacks at the World Trade Center, garnered praise – and awards. Three years in a row, he won URI’s Visualizations Film Festival, a contest initiated and supported by Joyal, who took screenwriting courses and dabbled in advertising before starting his highly successful dentist referral business. Now Joyal donates annually to the Fred Joyal Scholarship fund that provides scholarships to students in the Harrington School of Communication and Media.

After graduating, Riordan traveled the world while planting the seeds, with Saint, for Gnarly Bay, making wedding and promotional videos and commercials. Riordan stayed in touch with his alma mater, speaking at Visualization festivals and to students at the Harrington School.

Gnarly Bay continued to grow, and one of its videos – a Rambo-inspired film about Saint’s bachelor party – impressed Joyal, 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles. Joyal’s brother had sent him the video, which has drawn about 10 million hits across the Internet.

Joyal’s reaction: Can’t wait to work with these guys!

Phone chats ensued, and Joyal invited Riordan and his co-workers to shoot national television commercials for 1-800-DENTIST. In August, Joyal flew to his home state to play a starring role in the seven spots, filmed over two days on Westerly streets and at a dentist’s office in Wayland, Mass.

URI’s very own Thomas Zorabedian, assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Film/Media faculty and occasional actor, appeared in two of the commercials as a “man on the street.”

There were other URI connections. Colby Blanchet, who started working for Gnarly Bay after graduating from URI in 2013, was in charge of casting. Shawn Tyler, who graduated from URI in 2009 and also works for the company, was assistant director.

Riordan also reached out to four other URI graduates to help fill roles on the crew: Jamie ’08 and Jesse Dufault ’11; Chris Smith ’12; and Kyle King ’11.

Zorabedian says he had a great time working on the spots.

“Dan was in my honors class, Images of Masculinity in Film, and he consistently demonstrated a keen understanding of how films communicate messages and meaning,” he says. “As the director of the film festivals that Fred Joyal sponsored, I was able to experience Dan’s extraordinary talent as a producer, writer, director and editor. Beyond his ability as a filmmaker, Dan has a wise perspective on what’s important in life – family, friends and happiness. The fact that Fred, a close friend and member of the Harrington School Advisory Board, hired Gnarly Bay to produce the 1-800-DENTIST spots, struck us all how this connection between donor, student and alumni has come full circle.”

The spots will premiere at a major dental convention Thursday, Sept. 17 in Las Vegas and then air nationally in a month.

“It was an especially rewarding experience to work professionally with Dan, who dazzled me as a student at URI, and Tom, who concocted the whole idea of the film awards with me,” says Joyal. “These 1-800-DENTIST spots are among the best we’ve ever done, but beyond that, it was the smoothest, most efficient and creatively engaged production company I’ve ever worked with.”

Gnarly Bay is thriving, says Riordan. His client list includes phone companies, cruise lines, health care groups, Lipton and the NFL. The company is shooting in Zambia this month for Bono’s charity group,, working on a regional television commercial for a bank and filming the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins for Epix Network. What’s more, Hollywood – specifically, Esquire Network – is keen on launching a reality show based on the Rambo video.

“It’s a great time to be making videos because lots of brands are looking to create unique content that people want to share on social media,” says Riordan. “And that’s a good thing for us.”

The commercial projects keep the engine running, but it’s what Riordan calls his “passion projects” that fulfill his creative side: a piece about an artist who makes sculptures with masking tape; a film about a young man’s journey to the Grand Canyon with his aging father; a deeply personal account of Saint’s travels through Chile and Patagonia.

Riordan loves what he does and, yes, it makes him happy.

“It’s the ability to inspire, to come to a topic in a new way, to interpret where we are in our lives in a different way – and capture our experiences,” he says, of his craft. “Making films helps you get out in the world. It keeps you searching.”

The company’s name looks to the future. Riordan explains: “Gnarly Bay is a fictitious body of water near Napatree Point in Westerly. The story is that the waves in that little inlet are tiny but perfect. Maybe someday they will be big enough to break – and surf.”

To learn more about Gnarly Bay’s work, visit or Merely Observations and The Important Places.

Photos above:

Dan Riordan, of Gnarly Bay, filming TV commercials for 1-800-DENTIST.

Fred Joyal filming TV commercials for 1-800-DENTIST.

From to left to right: Kyle King; Thomas Zorabedian; Dan Riordan; Fred Joyal; Dana Saint; Jamie Dufault; Chris Smith; and Shawn Tyler.

Photos courtesy of Gnarly Bay / Read McKendree