It’s well known that independent filmmaking has hit a rough patch in the US of late, with companies disappearing or being gobbled up by the major studios. But some people are gamely trying to buck the trend by fashioning new production models, and one of them, Barry Sisson, visited Dallas recently to promote the opening of “Familiar Strangers,” an intimate drama about a young man who returns to his small hometown after an absence of four years to spend Thanksgiving with his family. The picture is being self-distributed by Sisson’s Virginia-based Cavalier Films.
“There are two of us sort of full-time in Cavalier Films—Marc Lieberman and myself,” Sisson explained. “And then of course we bring in other people on the projects, to fill all the various roles that there are.
“Our business plan sort of comes out of our background. I’ve always loved films, always wanted to be in the film business. But I got caught up in the regular business world. I had some success. My first plan was I was just going to be charming and become an actor and become very successful—and it would be a great way to meet girls. That didn’t work. So then I was going to write the great American novel and sell it to Hollywood, and they’d have to put me in the movie and I could meet girls. That didn’t work. So then I got a little older, I got a wife and kids and a business. So I decided the only way I’m going to get into films is to buy my way in.
“Ultimately that plan worked. I financed my first film, which was ‘The Station Agent,’ along with another gentleman that was in the same business that I was—Robert May and I were both in the electronic security business. And that’s how I got into the business. I retired young, and we set about looking for scripts, trying to learn as much as we could about the industry. We felt like we could make intelligent business decisions, and decided to make a movie. And ‘The Station Agent’ had been brought to us by the folks at IFC. They’d looked at it and were passing on it. But they thought it was the size of movie we were looking for—we were looking for a movie we could do for a half a million dollar budget. It came to us with a million and a half budget, but we were able to work with Tom [McCarthy]…and it turned out to be a very magical movie. That became sort of my model.
But there was one problem. “Titles are everything in this business,” Sisson said. “I didn’t know that when I first got in. I didn’t realize the importance of that. In fact, on ‘The Station Agent,’ my only credit is a thank-you. For strategic reasons we didn’t want to have executive producers, which would have been the appropriate credit. And I didn’t care—it didn’t matter to me. Now I realize that credit is very, very important.”
“Well, coming out of ‘The Station Agent,’ I knew I wanted to make movies—there are elements to making movies that are magical to me, the whole development process, finding a story that touches you in the heart that you have a passion to tell. I love that—it feeds me.
“I figured there must be other people like me that had the passion and would love to put together films…people who had the financial resources to do it but not the time, but the passion. So I went out and started looking for them. And we pulled together a group of like-minded people, and they became the Cavalier Films fund. And then they all actually participate in the making of our films. We gave them a vehicle where they have no responsibility, and yet they can be as involved as they want to be in the making of the films. Some of them, from the day they join our fund, read our newsletter, send on the e-mails and talk on the phone, but I haven’t seen them since. Then there are others that put their lives on hold, and when we were in production they came out and took a job on production. It’s vehicle that allows people to be as involved as they want to be without having an absolute responsibility. So when life gets in the way, the show goes on.”
“The script came to us—we actually found it, or other producers found it—on Inktip, which is an Internet-based script service. And it was brought to us, brought to my partner and me, simultaneously from two different people that didn’t know they were both giving it to the same company. And my partner read it and called me up and said, ‘Man, this film just touches me—maybe this ought to be our first film.’ And I said what’s the name of it and he told me, and I said it sounds familiar, I know that name. So I flipped through this pile of scripts that I tend to always have, and third from the top is a film called ‘Disconnected,’ which was the original title. So I read it and frankly wasn’t that moved by it most of the way through, and yet the ending just hot me—there was a tear in my eye when I got to the ending.
“It was set in kind of a neutral town—it could have been anywhere. The whole Virginia things is that most of our investors are from there, so if they’re really going to be involved on the set, we would like to shoot our movies close. We don’t say we’ll shoot them all in Virginia, but Virginia just fit for this story.”
Sisson spoke warmly about finding crew and cast, scouting and securing locations, and actually shooting throughout the Shenandoah Valley for twenty-two days. “I am sure that among very small independent producers, there are very many who work just as hard as I do and do all the various things that I do,” he said. “I’m very passionate about this. I love doing it. There’s nothing better than being on a film set and bringing something to life. There’s a tragedy every day, and emergency every day you have to deal with. Things always go wrong. I thrive in that environment—I love it. We intend to produce a film a year.”
When asked whether self-distributing the film is fun, however, Sisson admitted, “No. It’s not what I want to do. But the independent film world is broken. At the same time, there are more people that profess to love independent film. What’s happening is they’re getting them off Netflicks. It’s a great thing, but for the producing world and independent film, it’s not so great. It’s sucking the audience out of theatres, and it’s theatres that allow a film to find its audience. Distributing is much more like my old job. But I do it because when you make a film you want to get it out there and give it every chance.
“But it’s not what I want to be doing. I want to be making movies. I love that creation.”