The story is always about the character, so let me tell you about the independent film industry through Shaun Peter Cunningham, an actor, screenwriter and producer who lives in Dallas.
First, independent filmmakers are like indie writers; they often produce great work, but must compete against big money.
Nobody hears about them.
Argo played on most U.S. screens, while independent films like The Note played at film festivals.
Festival committees must invite moviemakers to show at their venues, but not all festivals are created equal.
Sundance, the Toronto Film Festival and Tribeca are prestigious festivals, but others..not so much.
Many independent films are worth sitting in the dark for two hours munching a bag of popcorn, and moviegoers don’t listen to as many explosions as they do while enduring the endless “Die Hard” sequels.
But most independent films are financed on a shoestring–sometimes out of the filmmaker’s own pocket– and make shoestring profits (if any).
Think David and Goliath.
So why would anybody want to spend free time on this kind of glorified hobby?
Cunningham, 42, originally from Manchester, England (and with an accent to prove it), said he’s in the movies for one reason: Love.
He said he grew up “on a veritable feast of American movies” and was “intensely obsessed by them and fascinated by the process of script-to-screen; how a concept on paper could turn into a plausible, living reality.”
So Cunningham–a dark, rugged-looking guy–moved to the U.S. as fast as he could, in 2006, to work in the movie industry.
Since, he has had roles in 12 independent films, five of them leads, written numerous screenplays and founded his own company, Picto Films.
Cunningham wrote The Note and played the leading role. The film was subsequently nominated for five 2012 independent film awards.
The Note was also screened at the American Independent Film Festival in Hollywood and is still making its way on the independent film festival circuit.
But Cunningham, a Dallas resident, has to make a living, so his day job is working (think endless travel) for an IT company.
On top of work travel, he hops planes for film commitments. As if that isn’t enough, he escorts his actress daughter, Emma Lou, to auditions.
When I recently caught up with him, Cunningham had not slept for 36 hours.
Yeah, he said, snagging financing for an independent film is “as difficult as trying to arrange lunch with the Pope” because “it carries a very high degree of investment risk.
“Even the big studios are getting burned and slashing development budgets” so they need to invest in “dead certs,” like sequels, to make money.
And since the 2008 financial collapse, money is a lot harder to come by.
“…Typically, investors want to know the answers to three main questions; How much do you need, when will I get my money back and who’s in it?” he said.
It’s not all bad. Films can make a lot of money with DVD and video on demand.
“Some movies make much more via domestic and international distribution than they make at the box office,” he said.
And it’s not unusual for major production companies to buy films they spot at festivals.
The Weinstein Company bought My Idiot Brother after it showed at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011.
And some independent filmmakers have amazing luck.
First-time filmmaker Oren Peli shot Paranormal Activity in his own house, for $15,000, in one week.
Paramount picked the movie up, gave it major distribution, and it made more than $190 million.
“That’s what keeps things exciting,” Cunningham said.
Some independent films do achieve fame: Silver Linings Playbook Star Jennifer Lawrence garnered a best actress Oscar this year and Amour earned a best foreign film award
Silver Linings Playbook, however, was filmed with a $21 million budget.
What does Cunningham want?
Not money, although that would be nice.
“Independent film making is typically a stepping stone on a creative path to something else. You’d be crazy to be an independent filmmaker if your only motivation is to make money,” he said. “My motivation..is to entertain people through visual storytelling.
“If I can make a living out of it too, it’s a bonus.”
Also, “I like to differentiate myself on quality,” he said, adding his movies are being made on tiny budgets but “you wouldn’t know it.”
“I surround myself with good people who take pride in their work. When you make a good product, someone will always notice.”
Cunningham hopes a film he appeared in, Between the Strings, will do well on the 2013 festival circuit. He has high hopes for Stranger, now in pre-production, which he wrote and produced. He’s currently writing Seven Deadly Sins and starring in The Unwanted.
Cunningham is a busy guy. He’s also co-producing and appearing in The Long Run, a movie about a mixed race family.
Julia Robb is author of Saint of the Burning Heart. Please click the book cover below to read more about the historical novel or purchase a copy direct from Amazon. Julia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, venturegalleries.com, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.