‘The Beta Test’ Hyphenate Jim Cummings on DIY Filmmaking and Tribeca Premiere
Art and Experience:
Like his films, Jim Cummings is hard to classify. He’s a true multi-hyphenate, having worked pretty much every job one can on a film set. For his acclaimed 2018 feature “Thunder Road,” he not only served as writer, director and star, but editor and composer as well. That film, which was funded partially by a Kickstarter campaign, went on to win best narrative feature at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival and had several distribution offers before he opted to self-release the movie. That bold choice, and the quality of his work, has caused Cummings to become somewhat of a guru of indie filmmaking, particularly on social media where he is known for giving both encouragement and no-nonsense advice to fellow artists.
While he isn’t a household name yet, Cummings might be something better — a creator who can make unique films with his distinctive voice by his own rules and not get too swept up in all the other stuff that often comes with Hollywood. And the audience is there for him: When tickets for the North American premiere of his new film “The Beta Test” were released at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it sold out in less than an hour. The film is already set for a fall release from IFC, having been acquired in March just prior to its premiere at the virtual Berlin Film Festival.
Hitting Tribeca on June 11, “The Beta Test” shares some DNA with both “Thunder Road” and Cummings’ 2020 film “The Wolf of Snow Hollow.” All three seamlessly blend genres and can veer from breathtaking suspense to laugh-out-loud hilarity in a split second, the tricky balance of tones kept in perfect equilibrium by a high-wire performance from Cummings. Not bad for someone who currently doesn’t have acting representation and who claims, “I’m not a very good actor, but I know what good acting looks like.”
But Cummings’ range is clear as Jordan Hines, the slick agent he plays in “The Beta Test.” The role is a far cry from the lovable loser Officer Jim from “Thunder Road.” Whereas Jim endured all kinds of humiliation, Jordan is mostly doling out the abuse. Full of bravado and swagger, Jordan finds his life unraveling after accepting a mysterious invitation to have an anonymous encounter with a stranger in a hotel room. The no-strings-attached liaison becomes a quest for answers, and his obsession threatens his work, his sanity and his engagement to fiancée Caroline, played by Virginia Newcomb. Like “Thunder Road,” the film also features some great meltdown monologues from Cummings. “I had to seem a bit more competent,” Cummings says of the character. “But it’s still a movie where I’m going crazy and screaming by the end of it.”
Cummings says he never set out to become an actor – he seems to struggle even now to call himself one. He began by appearing in friends’ shorts and sketches, including some from Tony Yacenda, who would go on to create “American Vandal” for Netflix and who Cummings credits as his “first champion as an actor.” A few years ago, he was making a living as a teacher in San Francisco when he went through a divorce. “I was like, ‘You know what, I’ve always wanted to make movies, I have friends who are doing cool stuff in L.A.’ And I just moved down.”
Cummings moved in the Summer of 2014 and landed in North Hollywood, just down the street from a group of friends, and they formed what he calls “a kind of development firm – it was part fraternity house, part film studio.” He was also working as a producer at the website College Humor, but, in his words, it wasn’t the cool stuff. “I was a branded producer,” he notes. “So I was trying to shoot sketches about Captain Crunch and Mentos. I had a very soul-sucking job.”
Still, working there taught him about producing and assembling a team. “They kind of broke the timidity I had about making my own stuff,” Cummings says. “It primed me as a producer.”
Soon, Cummings and his friends were working on short films; he works primarily with the production company Vanishing Angle, where he serves as VP of creative initiatives. And
Along the way, he often found himself stepping in front of the camera. He admits that part of the reason was the material could be somewhat embarrassing. Take the short film of “Thunder Road.” It’s a simple conceit – a police officer attempts to eulogize his late mother by singing her favorite Bruce Springsteen song at her funeral.
Shot entirely in one take over nearly 13 minutes, the film runs the gamut of emotions as the awkwardness turns to hilarity then dissolves into grief. It’s a brave and bravura performance from Cummings, and one he wasn’t completely comfortable asking someone else to do. “The stuff I like to write is about humiliating these characters,” says Cummings. “It’s about making something that is humiliating to do, which is impressive and endearing and earnest and human. That’s the kind of stuff I love to watch. I’m somebody who puts it all on the line. And I probably couldn’t ask a lot of people to do that.”
Cummings’ commitment paid off; the short was released in 2016 and went on to sweep film festival awards, including the Sundance Film Festival’s Short Film Grand Jury Prize. That led Cummings to make the feature of “Thunder Road,” and the birth of an indie icon.
Asked if the choice to self-release “Thunder Road” was by choice or necessity and Cummings says it was a bit of both. Made on a budget of $200,000, Cummings says the highest offer they received from a distributor for global rights was for $125,000 – and that was after the short won Sundance and the feature won SXSW and had gotten into a program at Cannes. “It was a bad state of affairs for independent film,” says Cummings. “And so it was sort of out of necessity that we had to create our own pseudo studio distribution company. And I encourage everybody to do it. It was the best financial decision of my life to do that.”
The film was awarded a Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship grant of $33,333 designed specifically for the cost of self-distribution and Cummings worked with the group to learn everything about distribution. In its first week of distribution in France, the film made its budget back.
Cummings notes that the story of self-distribution became part of the narrative of the movie. “It was helpful to us in a way because people saw it as a true independent movie,” he says. “In many ways I think we made a bigger splash doing it this way.”
Cumming also credits social media, where he is active and available on both Twitter and Instagram, not just to promote his films, but to engage other hopeful filmmakers – kind of an “influencer” for indie films. “When I started out, I didn’t have that and I thought maybe I could be that inspiration, that person that would make someone feel less inadequate – the way I felt for about two decades before actually getting a camera and making stuff,” he says. “And if you look at Hollywood, it is a social network. And it’s very cloistered and very segregating when you’re not allowed to be in the club. I just found social media to be this perfect way of circumventing of that system where you can actually reach an audience and have a career for yourself.”
For “The Beta Test,” Cummings actually pursued IFC for distribution, noting that all his favorite movies were released by the company. But president of IFC Films Arianna Bocco says the interest was mutual; they had worked with his producer Matt Miller, president of Vainishing Angle, and were more than familiar with his breakout feature. “We were big fans of ‘Thunder Road,’ so we had been tracking him for a little while,” Bocco reveals. “If you’ve seen that movie, you can tell he has a star quality to him – not only as an actor, but a director. And then when you meet him, he has that singular focus that is such a trait of the successful filmmakers we work with. He is just a magnet.”
Acknowledging that “The Beta Test” is a unique film to market, Bocco points to the fall release. “We have some time to really play other festival and lay the groundwork,” she says. “We all felt like this film – it’s not a studio film, it’s not going to be a blockbuster. But it’s really fun and he has a hardcore fan base. And part of our job is to take him to that next level.”
It’s also a film that should have the industry talking for many reasons: One plot point revolves around the recent Writers Guild of America fight against packaging, something that affects Jordan and his fellow agents. Cummings jokes that he’ll be “radioactive” after the screening, before adding that the response from the few industry people who have seen it, including director David Fincher, has been hugely supportive.
It’s further evidence that Cummings is better off outside the system, doing things his own way. For “The Beta Test,” that necessitated raising money through the crowd equity platform Wefunder and completing post-production (Cummings is the film’s editor) from his home in North Hollywood. He also intends to be very involved with marketing, including a first pass on the trailer. “We have completely circumvented the system,” Cummings notes. “And I think everybody should. More and more people in the system are leaving now to do it our way because they realize that there’s so much value in doing stuff on your own and not going through the rigmarole of talking about movies for 20 years instead of making them.”