How One Sundance Short Led to a $150,000 Production Deal (and Much More)

Jim Cummings' short film "Thunder Road" didn't get a distribution deal, but it did open all the right doors for a career in filmmaking.
Jim Cummings in Thunder Road
Jim Cummings in "Thunder Road"
Jim Cummings

The music hasn’t stopped playing for Jim Cummings. The 30-year-old writer-director-actor who won Sundance’s short film grand jury prize in 2016 seems to have found the holy grail for up-and-coming filmmakers: steady work. A former freelance line producer for College Humor in Los Angeles, Cummings recently transitioned into writing, directing and acting full time, and now has so many projects going simultaneousy that it’s hard to believe he was an unknown filmmaker just 18 months ago.

Shortly after winning Sundance with the 12-minute comedic drama “Thunder Road,” which takes place at a funeral and was shot in just one take, Cummings signed with WME and landed a deal with subscription streaming company Fullscreen to shoot six additional shorts, all of which would be also shot in a single take, for $150,000. The money covered a month of shooting with a 40-person cast and crew. Known together as the comedy series “The Minutes Collection,” the shorts follow six young people at pivotal moments in their lives that lead to various breaking points. All six can be streamed on Fullscreen’s website.

Jim Cummings
Jim Cummings

One of the shorts, “The Robbery,” about a girl who robs a liquor store to help save her dog from the pound, screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and at South by Southwest, where it caught the attention of First Look Media’s director of scripted programming and content, Nicolas Borenstein. First Look co-financed the 2016 best picture winner, “Spotlight,” and helped produce Laura Poitras’ Julian Assange documentary “Risk.” The company’s original programming division, Topic, hired Cummings to write and direct three more shorts, together called “Still Life.” The shorts follow a man who gets arrested immediately after saving someone’s life, a woman having a mental breakdown on a film set, and YouTube influencer undergoing an assisted suicide.

“The thing that people reach out to me for is that tone of comedy and drama,” Cummings said. In “Thunder Road,” he plays as a police officer who delivers a tearful eulogy to his mother while also performing a song and dance routine set to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” one of her favorite songs.

The Robbery from Jim Cummings on Vimeo.

Cummings’ recent projects include acting in an episode of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and in Julia Bales’ interactive short called “I’m Here” for Adaptive Studios. “The opportunities that came from making ‘Thunder Road’ are what built my career,” he said.

Cummings is currently trying to raise money for a werewolf movie he wrote and a feature version of “Thunder Road,” which he says is the best thing he’s ever written. He’s also writing a comedy show he sold to FX as a pitch that’s partially set in outer space. “It’s about mankind and space and where we fit in the universe,” he said. “It’s also about the American South and Florida.”

When he’s not working on his own projects, Cummings and a small group of friends run a “viral production agency” called Unison LA, which shoots short-form work like music videos and commercials. What’s his advice to other emerging filmmakers? “Make movies that you can make right now,” he said. “[Young] filmmakers think there’s this anonymous group that is Hollywood that’s going to come along and help out and that there’s going to be this big production. You just have to do it yourself.”

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