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Making Indie Movies for Fun and Profit

‘Thunder Road’ caught on as a Sundance Film Festival award-winning short. Then it was an award-winning full-length feature. Then it was a box office hit in France. So why haven’t you seen ‘Thunder Road’? It’s complicated.

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In 2018, it’s harder than ever to be independent in the world of movies. With Thanos and T. rexes and computer-animated superfamilies descending upon our multiplexes, the do-it-yourself spirit of film history is being crowded out, one IP blockbuster release at a time. But there are still some fearless, indie-minded artists fighting the fight. This week on The Ringer, we’ll look at some veterans of the field and some exciting new entrants, and try to understand where independent cinema will go from here.


Jim Cummings was depressed. He’d been out of film school for years and producing small films for young filmmakers and making hardly any money. His work wasn’t getting seen by many people. His creative itches weren’t getting scratched. He didn’t know where his career was going, if anywhere at all. The closest he’d come to making art for a big audience was the work he’d been scrounging together as a freelance line producer on sketches for CollegeHumor.

“It took me about six or seven years of doing that before I got up the ambition to do something on my own,” says Cummings, 31. “It was only because I was so miserable working at CollegeHumor, making sketch comedy that wasn’t really that funny and wasn’t really that important, and trying to inject brands into it, in a shady way, that I thought, I’m doing three sketches a week. Why don’t I just focus on one, and shoot it in a month and a half?

“That was the Thunder Road short film, and I haven’t looked back since.”

It’s a classic bootstraps tale of American independent film ingenuity. The struggling artist going out on his own to make his way. Cummings submitted Thunder Road, a tragicomic 12-and-a-half-minute short, to the Sundance Film Festival just past deadline. He got in, unexpectedly. In the movie—which Cummings wrote, directed, and stars in as a downward-spiraling Southern police officer struggling to connect with his daughter—he delivers a long monologue in the form of a buffoonish, heart-wrenching eulogy for his mother. It’s an odd synthesis of melodrama and slapstick, hinging on an iconic Bruce Springsteen song. (Cummings got permission to use it from the Boss himself.) The film won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize.

So that must have been it, right? Off Jim Cummings went, riding high, into our celluloid dreams, just like 2013 Sundance short winner Damien Chazelle, whose Whiplash he adapted from his prize-winning original into an Oscar-winning full-length feature, setting up a career as the most accomplished young filmmaker of his generation. Only, Cummings didn’t become that. After he took his victory lap in Park City for Thunder Road, he took his prize and his short film and … made more short films. Six of them, for money, commissioned by the company Fullscreen, which sought more single-take shorts akin to Thunder Road. The six films cost $150,000 and employed more than 40 people across the life of their production. Cummings began posting them on his Vimeo page, where he built awareness for his projects and amassed more than 39,000 followers. One, The Robbery, got into Sundance the next year. First Look Media’s Topic then hired Cummings to make three more shorts, pushing the total up to 10. It worked. The Robbery has more than 200,000 views. Thunder Road has been watched nearly 650,000 times. Suddenly, Cummings and his friends were making a living while making the things they wanted. Utopia.

But Cummings wasn’t exactly getting famous, and certainly not rich. And after taking the so-called “water bottle tour” of Los Angeles—in which prize-winning young-talent types pitch their wares to every studio, production house, and agency around town—the filmmaker and his cohort were left with nothing but their own guile to show for it. So Cummings—who is lean and rubbery, with the enthusiastic cheer of a crossing guard—knew he needed to take another step. A bigger project, longer and more like the films he imagined he’d make in film school. But what, exactly?

“After a long time, I thought we couldn’t make anything more interesting than that scene [from Thunder Road],” he says. “So I thought that would have to be the climax of the movie. And then I had the idea to make it the opening scene of the movie, and it would become more about a father’s relationship with his daughter and being a parent, rather than losing a parent. That seemed to be the cyclical story that I wanted to tell. We had offers to [expand] The Robbery, but I wanted to do something big and emotional. I always wanted to return to that [police officer] character. It was our story. We had the rights to do it. It just was a no-brainer that we were going to make this one into the feature.”

Feature films are expensive to make. Even in a time of dual 12-megapixel cameras with telephoto lenses attached to iPhones, making a credible-looking movie with a professional crew—one you would watch in a theater—costs a lot. Tens of thousands of dollars, at least. So in August 2017, with his producers Natalie Metzger, Zack Parker, and Ben Wiessner, Cummings applied a common practice: They launched a Kickstarter. (“It’s PR that pays you,” Wiessner says.) With their prize-winning short as a proof of concept and a plan to target adult fans of Pixar movies, the trio set a goal of $10,000 with the secret hope of raising $20,000. There were rewards for the donors. For 50 bucks, backers would get an exclusive filmmaking class with Cummings and the team. For $3,000, they’d get an associate producer credit on a feature film. They raised more than $36,000.

With that commitment, the trio compelled six more investors to kick in for the film, including Matt Miller, whose Vanishing Angle production group had worked with Cummings on several projects before, to contribute approximately $64,000. Cummings kicked in $50,000 of his own savings, Parker another $50,000. With that, Thunder Road had met its $200,000 budget. Now all they had to do was make a movie.

Vanishing Angle’s Atwater Village outpost has become a gathering space for independent filmmakers on the east side of L.A. Inside the dank, mazelike office space, writers and directors craft personal stories and also shoot commercials and branded content to pay the bills. When I met Cummings, Wiessner, and Miller there in September, they screened their film for me in a private den, hustled around checking in on projects, hopped on calls, and passed out beers. It was a place to hang and do your work, simultaneously. Miller’s work as a producer on films like Patrick Wang’s 2015 The Grief of Others, and Cummings’s experience on indie breakouts like Trey Edward Shults’s 2016 Krisha set a template for Thunder Road: work fast, smart, and within the boundaries of their own creativity. To strategize, the group pored over a case study compiled by the Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution program for the 2017 film Columbus. The Kogonada-directed project starring John Cho as a man who finds himself in Columbus, Indiana, admiring the ennui and architecture of the city, cost $750,000 to make but used a targeted strategy to find potential filmgoers and spread awareness in unique ways. Cummings ate up the data, which showed a path not just to viability, but to a new tier of filmmaking creativity. When you’re independent, the selling is as important as the showing.

“We were trying to make more of a movie than a film,” Cummings says. “We thought we would be able to license it to different territories. Reading up on the stuff Matt had done previously, the selling to different platforms, different territories in certain areas, we knew that keeping the budget as low as possible is the best-made plan. And because of all of the potential energy that we had from the short film, we had people that wanted to come on and work and help out. And people who were composers who wanted to give us better deals. Or people who were in color correction wanted to give us good deals because they wanted to support the project.”

“Really, the goal is to keep the cost as low as possible while still having it be a fun set and a good movie.”

Thunder Road was shot in 14 and a half days, under budget. It features several long takes, like the shorts, and a few monologues that let Cummings flex his Buster Keaton–on-meth brio. When I asked Cummings about some of the difficulties in shooting the film, he said there weren’t any. He’s confident and blasé about roadblocks. After building a creative community that had worked together over and over again, their shorthand made for a breezy shoot. But it wasn’t all cream. One role had to be recast eight hours before shooting began. Rain wrought havoc on shooting schedules. Having five producers on the set of an indie is uncommon, but in the case of Thunder Road, it was vital.

“A big part of that, too, was making sure we had as many foreseeable problems out of the way as possible,” Wiessner says. “So that when something went wrong on set, as is inevitable, we just had the bandwidth to be able to deal with it. You really get into trouble when you are solving issues you could have foreseen.”

After they wrapped, just days shy of Thanksgiving, Cummings spent nearly four months editing. His friend, independent filmmaker Danny Madden, helped him perfect the color correction and sound design. He was secluded, but surrounded by friends—a common arrangement.

Cummings doesn’t talk about his movies like an agonized artiste. Thunder Road is an affecting, strange movie about a confused man that finds its creator channeling his own feelings of loss and regret. But in discussing it with him, you wouldn’t get the impression it’s any more meaningful than the werewolf movie he’s trying to get made, or the outer space sitcom he sold last year. Cummings is a Hollywood hustler in a true and rigorous sense. He just wants to keep moving, making more things. He’s been told no thank you many times, and his shell has hardened to rejection. He’s fond of saying, “Make movies that you can make right now. People think there’s this anonymous group that is Hollywood that’s going to come along and help out and that there’s going to be this big production. You just have to do it yourself.”

Do it yourself. This is an axiomatic philosophy that has roots in Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Jane Campion, the Duplass brothers, and dozens of other independent American filmmakers. It has become a living example of the conundrum of indie movies in 2018: True freedom is a risky and expensive proposition; partnering with a studio or corporation brings ease but little room to maneuver. But first he needed to show the movie to the world. “The festival thing is a very careful game of wanting to make sure you are at the places that you should be at and not overexposing yourself,” Wiessner says. So, having missed the window for Sundance, in March the team took the movie to a safe space: the South by Southwest Film Festival.

“[During] programming season we’re getting 2,500 feature submissions looking for maybe 130 films, tops. … It’s always a grueling, fatiguing process, and of course we pay a lot of attention to the alumni, particularly people that are making the jump from shorts to features,” says Janet Pierson, director of SXSW Film. “Then, there are the films that just get you so excited that it makes it worth it. Last year, Thunder Road came in. Jim was a known person, so we made sure to see it right away. I loved it. He’s so original, and what he’s doing is so hard. That line between comedy and drama, I’ve never seen a character like it. To be able to sustain what he’s done, that was the moment last year when I said, ‘We have a festival. We got it. This is just fantastic.’”

Thunder Road played like a dream at the festival, winning the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize. I could describe Cummings’s convulsive, overwhelmed acceptance speech, but it’s better if you just watch.

This clip captures Cummings’s essence in full—warmth, mind-blur, gratitude, determination, and antic energy. After the SXSW win, it felt like destiny was imminent: Little Miss Sunshine. Juno. The Kids Are All Right. These are the industry forebears of Thunder Road. The world had seen his film and liked it. Surely someone would buy it, and big. Would a taste-oriented young distributor—maybe A24 or Neon— swoop in with a check and a powerful marketing strategy?

Some of those companies sniffed around, but none exceeded a $100,000 distribution purchase price. Cummings feared being the 14th out of 15 distributed features on a boutique studio’s slate, and the benefit that comes from the imprimatur of one of those companies wasn’t enough for the Thunder Road team. Cummings feared losing control of his baby. So the producers decided all that Columbus studying, the Kickstarter campaign, and a career spent finding internet audiences meant there was a way to do it on their own and still succeed. When the film was selected to take part in the 2018 version of Sundance’s Creative Distribution Initiative, a fellowship that provides not just analysis but $33,333 in funding, they doubled down.

“[While at SXSW] we were having these kind of loose philosophical conversations about doing it yourself and not waiting for a distributor to come along,” says Cummings, “and then when none of them did, we kind of had to put our money where our mouths are and just do it. When it became a necessity to self-distribute, it was like, ‘Yeah, OK, we were joking about this last week, let’s just fucking do it.’”

For Sundance, Cummings is an ideal test case, a lifelong independent operator questing for better answers to solve the dynamic problems of indie film.

“We had been tracking [Thunder Road] really since the short premiered at the Sundance Film Festival,” says Christopher Horton, director of Sundance’s Creative Distribution Initiative. “For the second year of the program, we had an open application process where any film could apply to be a part of it, whether it played Sundance or not. Me and my team went to South by Southwest and saw the movie, fell in love with it, fell in love with Jim, and that was just a case of a filmmaker and a team in Vanishing Angle being singularly focused on, ‘We can build a better mousetrap.’”

“The film is not an easy or obvious choice for marketing,” Horton says. “Who’s the target audience for this movie? How do you identify that? It doesn’t tick the obvious boxes. And that excited us, and the team’s vision and ideas they had for doing it was something that we really responded to.”

There was also a hidden agent in this process: France. The French love Jim Cummings, and they love Thunder Road. It sounds like a bit of Jerry Lewis fanfic, but it’s true. After playing the public-friendly Deauville American Film Festival this summer, French distributor Paname encouraged the Thunder Road team to open the movie in 67 theaters in September. In its first weekend, it grossed $210,000, earning back its production budget. The $2,733 per-screen average ranked fourth in the country. The following week, it pulled in $110,000. The movie was profitable before ever opening in America.

“I think that the French see the movie as this comic slapstick and emotional depiction of a flailing and clumsy American authority figure, and that is what the movie’s about, but I think American audiences see it as a comedy about a dad trying to get his daughter to like him, like a generational comedy,” Cummings says. “But the French, because they don’t have much direct access to behind the curtain of small-town Americana, they see it play more as a documentary of what’s going on in these small towns and the opioid epidemic and angry white cops. That doesn’t mean that they don’t cry just as much as American audiences, but they tend to look at it as this tapestry of what’s happening in America, whereas American audiences see it as a comedy and a drama.”

On the movie’s homepage, the number of French theaters in which the film is being shown far outweighs any other country.

“I think there’s only 160 [independent] cinemas in France, and it’s in 128 right now,” Cummings says. “It’s insane. We’ve been very lucky. It also became a release date for us of—if the movie’s coming out in France on the 12th of September, what does that mean for America?”

What does that mean for America?

Jim Cummings doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but it’s working.

“One day [Jim] puts on Facebook, ‘Hey, do I know anybody at Netflix? Do I know anybody who knows anybody at Netflix?,’” Pierson says. “I’m like, ‘Jim, that’s not how it works.’ Then I sent it to the acquisitions guy at Netflix. I’m like, ‘I told Jim this is not how it works but this film is great. It won a prize. Is it on your radar. Do you want me to connect you? He was like, ‘Absolutely, I’m happy to connect to him.’ It didn’t work out, but what’s so funny about that story was Jim has been doing that every day. Who do I know who can review my movie? It makes me laugh because he’s doing it so much his own way. He’s just going out there and creating this different paradigm, but it’s working for him. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Cummings’s aw-shucks charm goes a long way, particularly in France. But cracking the box office code in America is far more difficult. And costly.

“We really focused on places we could deliver the film to as cheaply as possible,” Wiessner says. “One of the big issues that you have with theaters now is virtual print traffic fees, VPFs, which can be $700 to $800 just to get your little film in the theater. And then a lot of these theaters also have mandatory print spends, so if we were going to be in the theater for just a week, we would have to spend $750 or $1,000 just on local print advertising.”

On the one hand, digital film projection and viral marketing make it feasible for virtually any movie to find its way into theaters and then capture an audience. On the other, there is a massive apparatus in the film business with rules that few consumers have any awareness of. If you made a movie tomorrow, and it was as good as Black Panther, you would not be assured an audience. The Thunder Road team opened the movie in a select few theaters in the U.S. Friday, brokering a stand-alone deal with the independent theater group Alamo Drafthouse. It will open in 25 theaters this week. By October 30, it will be on iTunes. That same day, you can rent it on Netflix DVD. Within days, it’ll be democratized and out of the moviegoing cycle.

“This [run in theaters] is just an opportunity for us to have an audience, get to be with people who want to see it in this really interesting, public way. It’s a beautiful experience,” Wiessner says. “But that’s not necessarily where our business is going to be. Theaters are very hard to earn money from in any real sense. Those are just people who we hope will be evangelists for the film because the of the experience that they were able to have. And we’re mostly only playing in theaters where we’re actually able to go and support and be at a Q&A.”

When I ask Cummings where he goes to spread the word about the movie, he has a lot of answers, and one of them is “Reddit, dude.”

“Posting stuff on Reddit, engaging with other filmmakers who were struggling like we were for years and saying, ‘Hey, this is how it’s working for us.’ We’re so lucky to have as many champions as we do in film schools, because they were able to send the ladder back down,” Cummings says, “We were able to give people insight and help when nobody else does, and, really, using the websites like Reddit and Imgur to share content, it’s been very useful to get people to see our longform content.”

This seems silly, but maybe in the haze of data-mining, social media terror, and an ever-watchful fleet of Russian bots, the internet could save independent film. “And Facebook ads,” Wiessner says. “They work.” Cummings is now trying to identify Eastbound & Down fans, Training Day fans, just about anyone who has evinced interest in even a shred of his film’s identity. Wiessner says the bar for success is clear: “if we get more work.”

That this is all changing so quickly and the Thunder Road team seems prepared is a testament to a kind of admirable hucksterism. “There’s a lot of false analysis or false equations,” Pierson says. “Well, if Amazon isn’t spending $15 million, then what does that mean for the marketplace? Yes, things are different. Things are always changing. They’re not the same as they were two years ago. They’re not the same as they were five years ago. They’re not the same as they were 20 years ago. … We love the people that are always trying to figure out new things as everything else is changing rather than defaulting to conventional wisdom.”

For Cummings, it’s a modus operandi.

“I spent a long time traveling the festival circuit and trying to understand the landscape of film,” he says, “all the while reading [Amazon film head] Ted Hope and all these other famous producers who are talking about the shift in Hollywood toward independent filmmaking. Seize the means of production yourself, instead of waiting for someone to produce your film. And just fucking do it yourself.”

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