At an advance screening of The Avengers at the Valley View Cinemark in late April, the first of many cheers from the packed audience came about 45 minutes into the movie. That's when the Terminal Tower and a section of Euclid Avenue showed up onscreen, subbing for Stuttgart, Germany, during one of the blockbuster's big set pieces.
The Avengers is the biggest movie ever shot in Cleveland (it's also currently the third-highest-grossing movie ever made). But a few other high-profile films were also made in the area over the past couple years, including the 2011 indie hit Take Shelter — which was filmed in Elyria, Grafton, LaGrange, and Oberlin, and produced by Chagrin Falls' Tyler Davidson — and Alex Cross, which opens next month and is best known as the movie Lost star Matthew Fox was shooting in Cleveland when he allegedly punched a female party-bus driver.
But there's a whole other movie scene happening in Northeast Ohio, burgeoning without the benefit of gazillion-dollar budgets, tabloid-magnet stars, or disguising Cleveland as some European capital. A handful of these local filmmakers will be showcased next week at a special event at the Capitol Theater previewing the upcoming anthology film Cleveland, I Love You.
The film — which gathers 11 short vignettes shot in Cleveland, written by and starring (mostly) Clevelanders, and directed by Clevelanders — is scheduled for a theatrical release either later this year or sometime in 2013. (The film's producers are still lining up distribution, which they hope will lead to screenings at some of the major film festivals on the planet.) The movie's trailer will premiere at the event, which will also include screenings of some of the other short films made by the various directors, many of whom will be at the event to talk about their work.
"I had been looking for a way to unite and showcase some Cleveland filmmakers," says Eric Swinderman, the film's co-producer, as well as the writer and director of a few of the shorts. "With The Avengers and Alex Cross filming here, there was a perfect storm brewing where Cleveland had movie fever."
Cleveland, I Love You was shot in late 2011 and early 2012 at a number of locations around town, including the Lakewood Public Library, Slyman's restaurant downtown, and even a Drug Mart in Highland Heights. The shorts — which run anywhere from six to 20 minutes — all deal with the theme of love, though they don't always head in the direction you'd think (a dead soldier and a domestic dispute figure into two of the narratives).
Swinderman and Mark Pengryn, the movie's other producer, are also the co-founders of CINEMA Cleveland, a group that helps local filmmakers fund projects. Cleveland, I Love You stemmed from the same independent-minded roots.
"We wanted to create a project where we could take people we respect in the area and get them some recognition and national distribution," says Swinderman. "We reached out to people who were doing this for the right reasons — not because they wanted to be famous, but people who are making meaningful films that we felt would be in line with the kind of films we wanted to put out."
It's not easy, says Amy Tankersley Swinderman, Eric's wife and the director of "Love of Country," one of Cleveland, I Love You's most moving chapters. "There are a lot of people in the community who don't feel that film should be something you do as a career or for profit," she says. "They feel like it should be a hobby. But we're very serious about it. We're trying to make it a viable industry here."
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.
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.'"