By now, I’m sure you have heard about the short film turned feature THUNDER ROAD which is written by, directed by, and stars Jim Cummings. The life of this film presents an interesting case study for those who are making short films, and suggests a possible road map for those looking to make a career as a filmmaker. Let’s take a look back at the path THUNDER ROAD took to get where it is today.
The short film version of THUNDER ROAD was first shown in 2016. According to Jim Cummings he always thought it would be something he would make and then put on the internet for the world to see. However, the film got into Sundance, which was something Cummings was not expecting. Not only did the film play as part of the Sundance program, it ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film. This turned out to be both a blessing, and a curse. With the award win, there was a lot of attention on his short film. The most attention was centered on if he had secured the rights for the titular track by Bruce Springsteen. After paying $7,000 for the theatrical and festival rights, Cummings was looking at another $50,000 to secure the digital rights for the song in order to put it online for everyone to see. After multiple attempts to reach Springsteen himself, Cummings took to the internet with an open letter asking Springsteen to grant him the rights for his film. And it worked, luckily. Let this be a reminder to everyone out there to make sure you have the rights to everything you use. Or, as Cummings put it, “if you can, don’t use a super duper famous song in your film.”
The film’s win at Sundance put Cummings on Hollywood’s radar. Shortly after the festival he signed with WME and landed a $150,000 deal to make six more one-shot shorts for Full Screen. Sundance was not the only stop on THUNDER ROAD’s festival awards tour. After Sundance THUNDER ROAD won the Special Jury Award at the SXSW Film Festival, followed by awards at the Rainier Independent Film Festival, Provincetown International Film Festival, Palm Springs International ShortFest, Los Angeles Film Festival, HollyShorts Film Festival, ECU European Independent Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, Champs-Elysees Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival, and Anchorage International Film Festival. After putting the film up on Vimeo it became a Vimeo Staff Pick and ended up winning a NoBudge Award which celebrates the best short films and features that are released online for free.
After THUNDER ROAD’s whirlwind tour on the festival circuit, Cummings received what any aspiring filmmaker seeks, steady work. While shooting the Full Screen one-shot shorts (some of which can be viewed on Cummings Vimeo page), one of the shorts entitled THE ROBBERY screened at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and SXSW. The short caught the eye of First Look Media’s director of scripted programming and content. First Looks original programming division, Topic, then hired Cummings to write and direct three more shorts which collectively are called STILL LIFE. In addition to these projects Cummings was also acting in an episode of THE HANDMAID’S TALE, writing a comedy show for FX that he sold to them as a pitch, and running a “viral production agency” called Unison LA.
Even with steady work, Cummings was trying to raise money via Kickstarter to turn THUNDER ROAD into a feature. After securing the funds, they shot the film in November of 2017 in Austin, Texas. In the spring of 2018, the film went back to Austin where it screened at SXSW and eventually took home the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature. Much like the short version of the film, that was not the only award it took home. The feature version also won awards at the Sidewalk Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, Nashville Film Festival, and the Deauville Film Festival. It was also nominated for several awards at various other festivals too.
After a successful festival run, and another prestigious award from SXSW, Cummings was anticipating a distribution deal for his film. However, the deals that came in were less than desirable. The feature version was made for $200,000 but Cummings was looking at distribution deals that would require him to turn over global rights for the film for $100,000. Luckily, THUNDER ROAD was one of three films in 2018 to receive a Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship grant worth $33,333 that could be used to assist in self-distributing the film. This would allow Cummings to hold onto the rights for his film. In addition to the money, Cummings also had access to the Sundance Institute’s expertise and connections. Cummings said, “Sundance encourages us to try all these different things a smaller distributor would have never done.”
While playing in the ACID (Association for the Diffusion of Independent Cinema) section of the Cannes Film Festival, Cummings was approached by a small French distributor, Paname, who told him to submit the film to the Deauville Film Festival. The distribution company explained that Deauville is geared toward moviegoers in France, they planned a 10-20 theater release directly after the film played at the festival. Little did they know the film would be a huge hit in France. Exhibitors in France wanted to open on 67 screens, and in the first week the film grossed $210,000 which not only exceeded the film’s cost but it doubled the best distribution offers Cummings had received.
Of all the self-distribution lessons that Cummings has learned it’s that he is well positioned to market his own films. Having run a Kickstarter for his work, and developed a sizable following on Vimeo (currently 40.1K followers). He also has experience using Facebook advertising to target his audience. The social media site’s ability to micro-target has been eye opening to him. Cummings noted that, “when I started playing up festival accolades with the trailer, my engagement shot through the roof.” He also found it effective and financially efficient to limit his ads to people who are within 10-15 miles of the theaters playing THUNDER ROAD.
If you are interested in seeing the feature version of THUNDER ROAD as well as seeing a Q&A with Jim Cummings and several key crew members, join us for a free screening this Thursday (10/25) at 7pm in the Folino Theater.
To read all of the articles IndieWire has published on THUNDER ROAD visit their website.