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Thunder Road

Lights, camera, advertising: Insider tips for making and marketing a movie

Jim Cummings, writer, director and star of Thunder Road, shares his top tips on using Kickstarter and Facebook advertising to sell your own film.

Jim Cummings wrote, directed, edited and starred in Thunder Road. But he didn't stop there. He also played a big part in raising the money and marketing and distributing this acclaimed indie flick.

The bittersweet black comedy stars Cummings as a troubled cop unraveling after the death of his mother. Debuting in UK theaters May 31, Thunder Road was a hit at Sundance, SXSW, Cannes and other film festivals, but the behind-the-scenes story of the movie's independent distribution is almost as interesting. The $200,000 production was financed by a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign, expanding on one of the many short films Cummings has created and shared on Vimeo (which you can watch below). Cummings and his collaborators then multitasked furiously through the feature's two-week shoot, before finding an audience using targeted Facebook advertising.

I chatted with Cummings on the phone about his involvement every step of the way through Thunder Road, from conceiving the story to raising the money to figuring out how to get it in front of audiences. These are some top tips for how to make and market your own films. 

Start small

Jim Cummings: "I see so many friends who write 10 feature screenplays and they complain about not being able to get one of them off the ground. You end up stuck in this malaise for years of not doing anything and if you can just start and make something small, if you just write something small as a short film or make a short film of your feature you'll be surprised how much happier you feel and how much more seriously you're taken."

Learn different skills

"I feel like I've worked almost every position on a film set. I was very lucky in that I had spent eight years doing many jobs. David Fincher (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network) worked every position on a film set before he started directing, and he says that allowed him to look at a lighting setup and say, 'That's going to take 15 minutes to set up,' because he'd already wrangled that cable so he knew how long that takes. For the director to also know how many lights we actually need for the scene or how many trucks we need to drive to this location... it keeps budgets low and schedules on track."


Jim Cummings in the critically acclaimed black comedy Thunder Road.

Thunder Road

Take control

"I've done 10 single-take short films in a year and a half, so I was versed in the circus of a film set. I felt like this one was relatively easier than the last few we've done, as a lot of it is just conversations between father and daughter in a house. But no, it was insane, dude. It was a lot of me running back and forth between the monitor and then jumping into the frame and putting on a Southern accent and acting. We shot it in 14 and a half days, so we didn't have a lot of time."

Prepare and plan

"I recorded the script as a podcast. I put in music and sound design and played all the characters for the cast and crew to listen to, to get the cadence and the tone of the scene so we all knew what it was going to be before we started shooting. 

People ask me [if there was improv], which is an honor because that means it seems like it's off the cuff. But almost everything was rigorously rehearsed. The improv came about in the writing process, acting it out and finding something funny and then writing that in."

Don't obsess over equipment

"I'm looking at a camera right now on my desk that's a Sony A7R II. We got it for a web series because it was cheaper to buy one than rent it for a month. It has a full frame sensor and an adjustable lens mount so with an adapter you can put whatever lens you want onto it. We've shot nine or 10 of my short films on this little puppy, and they look beautiful. And it's really not a super-expensive camera at all. The technology is there nowadays where you can just go to a Best Buy and get a camera that shoots in cinematic quality 4K. Or do it on an iPhone, there's so many filmmakers out there making movies on phones. There are ways to make that footage look cinematic."

Think about the edit

"We had a cut like two days after we finished shooting because my buddy Dustin Hahn, our assistant editor, was logging all the footage and moving it into a timeline. My buddy Brian Vannucci was there cutting. There's a lot of long takes, so it was kinda like Lego building blocks -- you drag a scene in, put them in order, and that becomes the movie."

Get your work out there

"Make something and put it online, see if it takes off. We made a 17-and-a-half-minute short film called Parent Teacher. That has no business being a viral video, but it's become this viral video about teaching in America and the public education system. That didn't play at almost any film festival. Having the stuff on Vimeo where the public can see it, engage with it and share it ... that's something anybody can do." 

Know your audience

"Visions are often mirages. Knowing your audience is the first rule of any art form. I wrote a lot of my short films thinking about the internet's attention span and how you win over people in a short period of time -- open with a bang, have a bunch of setup in the beginning and have a fulfilling payoff in the end. A lot of our stuff was intended for the Vimeo audience. I was watching short films on that platform for the last 12 years, so I know what that audience is looking for."


Indie film Thunder Road made back its $200,000 budget in a week during a theatrical run in France.

Thunder Road

Be a smart marketer

"I discovered Facebook advertising accidentally. I heard a Sam Harris podcast where he had a dude on who said in the future there will be politicians who understand Facebook ads, and there will be politicians who lose. I started looking into it. The ads manager on Facebook -- which is in tandem with Instagram because Instagram is owned by Facebook -- is a really cool, incredibly intuitive way to reach out to people. If you have a very simple understanding of profile building, and you spend some time thinking about the behaviors of your exact audience -- like you're tracking a serial killer -- you can find the exact people who might be interested in your content.

We bet big on it. I spent two months thinking about why people would like this movie. After screening the movie, people in the lobby said it made them laugh and cry at the same time. Well, Pixar movies do that. Most people who like Pixar wouldn't like this because it's not animation and there's a lot of cursing in it, but adults who like Pixar would. You're able to target people between the ages of 24 and 35 who also like Inside Out or Up, or This Is Us or any other sad-funny TV show, or Eastbound and Down or Will Ferrell or David Gordon Green or Alfonso Cuaron, or long takes or Sundance Film Festival. 

We built out this giant profile of possible interest and we narrowed that profile down to people who also like South by Southwest or movie trailers or iTunes. Then you have the exact 48,000 people who might buy your movie.

It seems like the future but it's the present. And all it takes is having a little bit of creative marketing thinking and a Facebook page."