The story usually goes like this: Filmmaker delivers promising work, scores an agent, and lets them take charge. Jim Cummings is on a mission to change that. After turning his Sundance-acclaimed short film “Thunder Road” into a feature with crowdfunding, he secured a Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship grant to support his self-distribution efforts. Eventually, the movie made back its $200,000 production exclusively in France, which exceeded any traditional distribution offers he’d received. The director came out of the experience intent on retaining control of his work without any representation — and eager to convince other filmmakers to do the same.
“Agencies don’t actually care about independent film,” Cummings said in an interview last week. “They care about money and power. The way we make films is by completely circumventing that system.”
Now, Cummings and co-director PJ McCabe have made the case with a new movie. With “The Best Test,” the pair follow the outrageous misadventures of Jordan (Cummings), an avaricious agent at an unnamed agency who stumbles into a nightmarish blackmail scheme against the backdrop of the 2019 WGA battle against packaging fees. When Jordan receives a mysterious purple envelope inviting him to a hotel room tryst, he grows increasingly paranoid about how it might impact his career.
“When we knew this movie was going to be about agents and the shifting dynamics of Hollywood, it also became about this purple envelope system, which revolved around lying and cheating,” Cumming said. “It was a perfect thing to take place at a talent agency.”
While the movie’s eerie premise has the hallmarks of a sleek erotic thriller, its backdrop is ripped straight from the trades and doubles as an explainer on the efforts by major agencies to control every facet of their clients’ work. Cummings and McCabe conducted extensive interviews with anonymous sources at Hollywood’s biggest agencies, threading those stories alongside some of their own experiences to create a furious indictment and a cautionary tale.
“You have to have some business savvy in order to do anything,” Cummings said. “The film industry is no different, and you shouldn’t give your movie to people who don’t really care about the thing.”
Cummings elaborated on his intent with the project and how it reflects his ethos as a filmmaker going forward.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The movie is so specific about how agencies package deals with their talent. How did you become invested in that?
PJ and I read all the [packaging battle] coverage in the news, so we found it weird when it didn’t come up in meetings. People were pretending not to be frightened, or purposely misunderstanding what it would mean for the industry. It was this obvious seismic shift happening. The power dynamics were very interesting to us, to think about how we could infiltrate this world by both humanizing it and humiliating it. The point was to inoculate independent filmmakers to not want to participate in that world — to not be fucked over by the way this culture is built. That has been my raison d’être over the last 10 years.
Was it hard to find people who would talk to you?
It was actually kind of easy. We had 11 people total and some of our friends’ experiences were valuable as well. I tweeted asking if anyone would like to talk about the agency war with the WGA. People reached out who said things like, “My roommate is an ex-agent,” or “My ex-wife was an agent.” Bob Woodward makes it seem quite difficult, but once you get one anonymous source, the next one is competing with the previous one to tell the even crazier shit. We’d say, “Oh, this person at this other agency told us there was rampant cocaine use in the offices.” Then another person would say, “That’s nothing. I can tell you all sorts of stuff.” I’d just take notes on the vernacular and the stresses of these people; how they use flattery to get what they want. It felt like sociopaths had gotten copies of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
How much of the movie is drawn from actual stories?
It’s kind of cathartic to watch the movie and realize how much of it comes from real people. There’s an assistant at one of the top four agencies who gave us [a] screaming match verbatim. There’s a moment when I’m on the phone and I’m trying to get a deal with somebody [and] PJ puts up a sign that says, “Make sure it’s cable and not a streaming platform, because that makes us more money.” That’s true. The agent’s job will be to kind of usher people away from Netflix because there are less derivative payments for these agencies. We wanted to make sure that people still going to agencies realize that this is a con game they’re trying to pull on you.
What sort of experiences have you had with agencies that made you skeptical?
Anytime you go to a meeting with an agent, they usually end it by saying, “You know, we have some development funds. If there’s ever a foreign film or a comic book or even an article that you’ve read, we could get the rights to it and package it.” That’s a con game where they have the money to then buy the rights and then you have to work with them for your dream project. They can lay out all that financing in the contract so that they make the majority of the funds and then you’re working for them. So many filmmaker friends have fallen for that. Anytime somebody asks me, I always that there’s a lot of stuff in the public domain. It ruins their day. And it’s great.
There’s a whole sequence where your character tries to lure a Chinese billionaire, who shrugs off the idea of a packaging deal. Where did that come from?
China is this gold rush that’s happening now. A few agencies have set up divisions in Beijing because there are so many people over there that buy media, but China realizes that they don’t have to play these games. They don’t need packaging. To have a billionaire media mogul kick this agent in the nuts at a party is just fun. It’s different from an independent filmmaker saying that packaging is bullshit. It was important to have that come from someone at a higher level.
At one point, your character says that agents are all still trying to “be like Harvey,” meaning Harvey Weinstein. Where did that assessment come from?
He still comes up in meetings. I was talking to an agency at one of the top four who said, “Sundance was really great, but Harvey really put that festival on the map. You should submit to Cannes [instead].” It’s this strange thing where he was such a role model to these suits. He’s in prison, but a lot of the infrastructure that allowed him to be who he was is still there. They’re not fired from their jobs. They just have to pretend that they’re changing and more progressive. It’s really pathetic. They want to have all the power and abuse. They grew up watching “Entourage” and want to be those cool fuckers. That version of Hollywood is dying, so they’re becoming more desperate.
If the movie is a cautionary tale, what would you like to see filmmakers do instead?
Exactly what we did. The story of the movie is that agencies don’t actually care about independent film. They care about money and power. But the way we made the film was completely circumventing that system. We ran a Wefunder campaign. It’s a crowd equity platform. We made the movie in our offices with our friends cast in all the parts. We did all of the distribution by ourselves without sales agents. The future is going to be a lot more like talented YouTubers making 90-minute pieces of content. That’s what real democracy is. You can waste a huge amount of your life working for people who don’t care about you.
You popped up in the first scene of “Halloween Kills.” How do you feel about filmmaking on that scale?
David Gordon Green called me after watching “Thunder Road” on an airplane and asked me to come out. I’d grown up watching “All the Real Girls” once a month. So I said absolutely. But look, Marvel isn’t calling us.
If you’re not opposed to filmmaking at the studio level, how do you possibly navigate the studio system without an agent?
I don’t think agencies created that opportunity. Studios and banks did, along with filmmakers. Especially now, most of the agencies are spread so thin. They’re doing NFTs now. It’s just about money and never about film. Most of the connections we make are through Instagram or film festivals or seeing a really good Staff Pick short on Vimeo. It’s through real social networks, not the fake ones established by this one town in California.
At a certain point, you did have representation. When did that unravel for you?
At the beginning of the pandemic, four of my six agents left the agency to start production companies. They realized that if the WGA won this war, they would have to start producing content outside the agencies. If you can own IP, and create your own content, you get derivatives and residuals. As of now, I’m not with an agency. An agency has the package for one of our TV shows, but that’s it. Legitimately, everything else has been my buddy Ben, [who’s] my producer, calling a studio or platform saying, “Hey, would you be down to hear the boys pitch their new thing?” And it’s been working out.
How do you justify pitching something to a streaming platform when you aren’t guaranteed money if it becomes a huge hit?
You don’t, basically. We’ve had friends who’ve done things with Netflix and the money that they make upfront is the only money that they make. However, right now, Netflix is Madison Square Garden. Part of me wants to have our movies screened there. “Thunder Road” got on Netflix UK on Christmas Day in 2018 and more people saw it that weekend than probably everyone who saw it during its entire U.S. theatrical release. On the money front, we’ve been fine. I’ve been able to make movies in my garage and raise the funds through crowdfunding or crowd equity funding. I’m not trying to become a millionaire making these things. I’m just trying to tell fun stories.
Some filmmakers only want to handle the creative side. How do you talk filmmakers out of the mentality that the business aspect of their work isn’t their concern?
I’ve seen directors do that. It’s another shell game that many people in sales will tell filmmakers. They’ll say, “You don’t want to focus on that stuff, you want to focus on your career.” That’s how they remove you from your property. It’s the equivalent of being an architect, designing a building, and as soon as it’s ready to be rented, somebody comes along and gives you half the cost to make it before removing you forever. And they tell you to go work on your next building. We got lucky, because we found out through the Sundance case study for “Columbus” that you can use an aggregator to get onto any of these platforms and self-distribute. It’s an educational issue. Most people won’t tell you that because you can do it on your own. You’re the competition.
Still, distributors will invest in marketing your movie, right?
Even if you do partner with a distributor who’s going to screw you over, you’re still going to be spending the next two months doing deliverables for the movie. You might as well self-distribute. I see that as a no brainer. You have no retirement fund.
What do you make of theatrical purists like Christopher Nolan who commit to big-screen releases and substantial theatrical windows?
Going to festivals and having screenings for cinephiles who love the theatrical experience has been fulfilling for us and it’s a great way to activate a crowd that will talk about the movies. We make movies for that audience. It’s also a technological question. Within the next 10 years, the glasses you’re wearing could have a 4K camera in their lens. All it’s going to take is someone wearing those and record the screen that could change everything, and then it doesn’t make sense to go theatrical first.
How concerned are you about piracy?
It does affect us. We lost a deal in China because of that. We had a distributor for “Thunder Road” in China, but when it leaked 10 days early because of a glitch in the UK system, we lost it. At the same time, piracy is a great commercial for the movies. That audience isn’t paying for the movie anyway, so it’s nice to have early audience attention. But in order to fight that, you have to have it available all once in 4K for anybody. I am becoming very platform agnostic as what I really want to do is get to people all at once.
You made a big deal out of recouping your investment on “Thunder Road” overseas. How did that change your approach to the global market for independent film?
Half of the money that has come in for “Thunder Road” has been with airlines and theatrical deals overseas. It’s very rarely iTunes, although that has been helpful for us in the past. The film industry from our perspective is going to become more like the music industry. I started producing for a rapper named Little Dicky [aka Dave Burd, star of the sitcom “Dave”]. He’d have these music videos go live and the first line of the description was where you could buy the song on iTunes. Anytime he’d put out a music video that he spent $500,000 on, he’d become a millionaire because of how viral it went. I think the film industry is going the same way. You can use these platforms to get your film on YouTube or Netflix or Amazon independently. Having a global release is absolutely the future.
There’s a scene in the movie where someone discovers that they can contact studio executives through Venmo, circumventing industry interference. There’s a brief shot of Ted Sarandos’ account, which seems to be genuine.
When the trailer launched, we released that little segment, and people kept screen-grabbing that they had requested two cents from Ted Sarandos, asking for his two cents on what he thought of the trailer. Now, you can’t do it. I feel a little bad about that. But whatever. He’s a billionaire.
“The Beta Test” opens in theaters and VOD on November 5