Sikora — who's been making movies since 2003 — also hired a publicity firm to promote Hero Tomorrow, which tells the story who of an ordinary guy who acts on his fantasy of becoming a superhero. (The DVD includes a director's cut of the movie, a 24-minute documentary on the making of the film, and four hours of extras – just like the big-budget home-video releases.) Still, Sikora is in between movie projects now. Hero Tomorrow — which cost about $100,000 to make (he funded it with help from investors — mostly family, he admits) and was shot over the course of a year with mostly local actors in more than 40 locations — was released five years ago.
Sikora has since picked up work directing local music videos (including a clip for Cleveland guitar hero Neil Zaza), numerous spots for local museums and hospitals, and, most significantly, a string of three- to five-minute documentaries for the Cleveland Arts Prize profiling some of the winners over the years. So far he's filmed 28 of these artsy, ambitious shorts. He's also responsible for a comic book series, Apama: The Undiscovered Animal, a spinoff from Hero Tomorrow.
"You have to wear many hats," says Sikora, who refers to himself as a "freelance filmmaker." "I can be hired to shoot for a day or to direct or edit. With my own clients, I can take the project from inception to completion, which adds up to a comfortable wage. It's generally tough in this market to specialize and make a living."
Amy Tankersley Swinderman agrees. She holds down a full-time job as an editor at a trade magazine targeting the pharmaceutical industry. "At the end of the day," says Amy, "you just have to say, 'This is something that I want to do,' and be willing to make the sacrifices to do it."
Cleveland has a long history of Hollywood movies being shot here: The Fortune Cookie, The Deer Hunter, A Christmas Story, Light of Day, American Splendor, and Spider-Man 3 are among the most famous. Directors Wes Craven, Jim Jarmusch, and David Wain were all born in Northeast Ohio. And people like Ivan Schwarz (the executive director of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, which helped bring The Avengers and other Hollywood shoots to town), Laura Paglin (who directed the local fave The Nightowls of Coventry), and Matthew T. (who used to hold an annual indie film fest in Cleveland and now works for the Film Commission) have worked hard to promote the city's growing film community.
And that doesn't even take into account the entire underground of DIY horror films, like Afterparty Massacre and The Dead Matter, that were made in Northeast Ohio.
"There are challenges, but there are also so many opportunities, just because we're in Cleveland," says Sikora. "As long as you do your homework, you can do whatever you want here."
But Cleveland is only a start. "It's easier to get your name out here, because Cleveland is so small," says Alin. "The audience is limited, but I'm fine with being in the confines of a niche community of artists. They're appreciative, and they get it."
Even Babbit, who has nothing but praise for local arts and film institutions like the Cinematheque, admits that she needed to find bigger connections in New York City and Los Angeles to get her 1999 breakthrough movie But I'm a Cheerleader made. "There are plenty of rich people in Cleveland who are willing to fund the arts," she says. "But it's very competitive, and you have to work hard. And you have to continue to make short films, long films, and commercials. That's how you get better."
Still, none of them would trade a minute of their hard work. "You force yourself to do everything," says Sikora. "I'm always in story mode."
Alin even has the next four to 20 years mapped out with movies he wants to make: "I have a character study mash-up with referential stuff to my childhood, and one about marriage and crime. And I have one that's all about alchemy in the 16th century, which I'll have to be like 50 years old to make so I'm smart enough to grasp the ideas."
Amy Tankersley Swinderman says she just keeps her mind set on the big picture. Like her husband, Pengryn, and the other people who worked on Cleveland, I Love You, she believes that their film will show moviegoers all over the world that Cleveland is more than just a place for the Hulk to smash.
"It's extremely difficult to take on a project like this when you have a demanding career," she says. "It took an enormous toll on my health, but I recognized that this was something really special. Opportunities like this don't present themselves every day. I knew I had to make some sacrifices in order to participate in what I think is going to end up being a huge paradigm shift for the local independent film scene."
"The idea behind our whole project was, if we can make it and get it out there, that should shine a light on this area," says Eric Swinderman. "Our goal has always been to make Cleveland to film what grunge music was to Seattle. We want people to say, 'Wow. Look at the movies coming out Cleveland. We need to pay attention to that region.'"