Housed in a colorful, funky metal building near downtown Wilmington, Cucalorus Film Festival is über-independent. It awards no prizes at its showings every November. It's designed to be a meeting place for filmmakers to share their experiences with each other and with an audience hungry for offbeat, decidedly non-Hollywood fare. Cucalorus' filmmakers typically have spent $10,000 or less on their projects. Many produce documentaries, which are easier stories to tell on a low budget. Some have hopes of theatrical release in the six major cities. But mostly, says Dan Brawley, director of Cucalorus, "they're not even aiming for that."
"People make the mistake of thinking that when you speak of the film industry, that it's this one thing, like the automobile industry," Brawley says. "There's this whole class of filmmakers, like an underclass. It has a totally different set of parameters and guidelines, a different set of movers and shakers, a whole different group of people who are widely respected in that DIY or underground world."
Brawley himself is a mover and a shaker in that world, though he's also respected by the executives of Screen Gems studios, where multi-million dollar Hollywood movies are produced. Brawley says he couldn't be happier about film incentives because of what it will mean for the underground community.
"Cucalorus would never have started without the big studio," he says. The festival's first year was 1994, during the boom. "We had a collection of people in Wilmington who were making pretty good paychecks, working on big-budget films and, when business wasn't quite as busy, making their own films."
There seems to be a consensus that the surge in independent filmmaking over the past 10 years—with the number of film festivals exploding—heralds the future of the industry. Cucalorus has grown at a similar rate. In its first year, it screened 16 films. Last fall, it screened 123 out of 650 submitted.
So what kind of support do those filmmakers need? Cucalorus receives grants from arts groups, including the North Carolina Arts Council, which encourages Brawley to pass the money on directly to the filmmakers who show their work. Cucalorus also offers fiscal sponsorships, an arrangement that allows a filmmaker to make a cash-deductible contribution to the organization, which uses the money to pay bills for the project. Brawley says the Southern Documentary Fund, based in Durham, uses this tool particularly well. It helps small-scale filmmakers avoid having to set up an entire business apparatus. One recent project on Cucalorus' books totaled $800.
The festival also has an explicit goal of recruiting filmmakers to Wilmington to join the artistic community. "I don't think a lot of other festivals think about that very seriously," Brawley says. "Sundance, for instance: Nobody's trying to build studios or make a film community 12 months out of the year in Park City, Utah. But in Wilmington, that's really one of our goals."