Cleveland, I Love You — which its producers say is the largest independent film project ever shot by local filmmakers – managed to secure most of its budget from investors. (They won't disclose the total budget, but it was less than $50,000.) The biggest chunk, says Swinderman, went toward "I @#$% Love Cleveland," starring the project's only non-Cleveland actors, Busy Philipps (who's in the ABC TV show Cougar Town) and Gillian Jacobs (from NBC's Community), and directed by Jamie Babbit, a Shaker Heights native who now lives in Los Angeles and whose long list of credits includes the movies But I'm a Cheerleader and Itty Bitty Titty Committee and television's Gilmore Girls.
Babbit is one of Cleveland's success stories. But she admits that her career could only go so far in Cleveland. "I felt I needed to legitimize myself by working for a big filmmaker, but there are no big directors working in Cleveland," she says. "I would never have my résumé or experience without working with people in New York and L.A."
Ask any local filmmaker, director, writer or actor, and they will tell you the same thing: It isn't easy to make a living doing this in Cleveland. Almost every single one of them has to hold down a day job of some sort, whether as an account representative at a bank or doing commercial film work for local corporations. They make their movies when they can: after work, on weekends, whenever a spare hour or two allows them. What they have in common is that they all love movies and wanted to make them for as long as they can remember.
"When I was younger, I messed around with two VCRs and a PlayStation," says Keitj T. Alin, a 29-year-old writer, director, and cinematographer who has made four movies over the past few years. His latest, and most ambitious, is Last Plain, which he calls a 90-minute "sad, depraved western set in an alternate reality of history." He's planning to premiere it at the Capitol Theatre at the end of September.
Alin — a high-school dropout from Salem who now lives near Gordon Square and works at Jakprints as a multimedia designer — spent $6,000 of his own money to make Last Plain. It was shot in Northeast Ohio over a four-month period late last year with almost all local actors.
"I've invested myself 1,000 percent in these projects," he says. "I'm playing every single role: location manager, producer, director, cinematographer, editor, sound designer. I'm finally getting to the point where I can let other people, who are better at this, do some of it so I can focus on writing and directing."
Alin has self-released all of his movies on DVD. Most of his public screenings are filled with friends, family, and people who worked on the shoots. For Last Plain, he's hoping for some sort of online or even Netflix distribution after its premiere next month. It's the only way an audience of substantial size will ever get to see his work.
"I want to use Last Plain to say, 'Look what I can so for six grand — imagine what I can do if I had a million or $500,000 or even $100,000,'" he says. "It's really a sales pitch for my first feature."
And it's an ambitious plan.
"Most Cleveland filmmakers will rent a theater and just show the film to their family and friends," notes Pengryn. "And then it dies there. They don't do anything more with it."
Ted Sikora got lucky with his superhero movie Hero Tomorrow (pictured on the cover) a few years ago. The 44-year-old filmmaker, who grew up in Cleveland but now lives in Akron, signed a distribution deal with iTunes – it was one of the first indie films to go up on the site without a traditional distributor attached. It also played at a dozen film festivals and comic book conventions around the country, where it racked up a bunch of glowing reviews. It recently became available on Amazon Instant Video.