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Lights, camera, funding: Northeast Ohio indie filmmakers tap into the entrepreneurial spirit

A production crew films a scene for "Shooting Stars" in Shaker Heights, May 2022.
Carrie Wise
Ideastream Public Media
A production crew films a scene for "Shooting Stars" in Shaker Heights, May 2022.

Cleveland filmmaker Nick Muhlbach wants his stories to be relatable – the same slice-of-life humanity that Muhlbach’s cinematic hero Kevin Smith accomplished with his 1994 Gen X slacker comedy, “Clerks.”

Muhlbach’s contribution to this genre is “Calendar,” a Cleveland-shot and produced drama about a young woman’s struggles with family and relationships. Muhlbach hopes his movie can be a touchstone for audience members encountering similar issues.

“I want to leave an impact on someone’s life who might be going through the same things that I am,” said Muhlbach. “That’s where I delve into drama a little bit more.”

 Cleveland filmmaker Nick Muhlbach shot “Calendar” in locations in and around Cleveland.
Nick Muhlbach
Cleveland filmmaker Nick Muhlbach shot “Calendar” in locations in and around Cleveland.

It’s one thing to envision a film, but quite another to make it a reality. Muhlbach, who lives in Highland Heights, shot his small-budget affair at The Five O’Clock Lounge in Lakewood and Miss Molly’s Tea Room and Gift Shop in Medina. Shooting also took place at a Cleveland Heights AirBnB, with Muhlbach and production partner Lou DeNardo scouring the Greater Cleveland Film Commission website for additional location assistance.

Muhlbach and other Cleveland-based creators believe independent film can thrive in a region already making headlines for big-budget blockbusters. With ongoing education and investment, Northeast Ohio can enter the upper echelon of filmmaking hotspots in the vein of Atlanta or Austin, Muhlbach said.

“(The region) is filled with people that tell amazing stories,” said Muhlbach. “I want Cleveland to be a place where not only are these stories being told just for the sake of the independent filmmaker, but worldwide as well. I want Cleveland to be a staple of the film scene in general.”

Location, location, location

“Calendar,” which premiered May 27 at Atlas Cinemas Lakeshore in Euclid, quite literally uses a calendar as a framing device. Crucial points of the protagonist’s life are conveyed on birthdays and holidays – a journey of growth that took about two weeks to film.

A Thanksgiving scene from “Calendar.”
Nick Muhlbach
A Thanksgiving scene from “Calendar.”

On the location side, the self-funded project found generous support from area businesses.

“The nice thing about Cleveland is that a lot of people want to get their locations out there,” Muhlbach said. “They want to showcase their places for when a bigger budget project comes through.”

The Greater Cleveland Film Commission website is a resource for potential settings, thanks to a customizable page searchable by name, proximity and geographic area. Muhlbach used the home of the Cleveland Restoration Society as a prime location for “The 1:38 Train,” a silent short that follows a newlywed couple as they set off on their honeymoon. A small donation was all it took for the young director to utilize the space.

Money is also on the mind of Greater Cleveland Film Commission president Bill Garvey, appointed to the position in 2021 after a long career as a movie locations manager. Over the last decade, Ohio has served as the centerpiece for everything from short films to costly tentpole projects like “The Avengers.”

As a job creation and development entity, the commission has no budget-level requirement for projects – documentaries, blockbusters and indie films all receive the organization’s backing in finding cast, crew and shooting locations, said Garvey.

“I recognize independent film as an important component of this business, because that’s where I got my start,” said Garvey. “You have to work with everybody in order to grow that crew base and build the industry stronger.”

The film commission does not have specific information on the number of smaller independent productions in the region. Although the organization tracks projects through the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit - which refunds 30% of what productions spend in state -indie budgets are usually much lower, Garvey said.

Anecdotally, there is substantial independent commercial, documentary and scripted production in the region, added Garvey.

“We advise on the logistics of filmmaking and guide people through the permitting process,” said Garvey. “This is such a collaborative industry. Growing talent, sharing ideas and problem-solving among the local industry only makes us all stronger.”

Just say yes

TJ Sandella of Lakewood shot his sibling drama “Battersea” in North Carolina due to a confluence of nearby industry friends and a free house used for primary shooting. “Battersea” – named after a street in Rocky River – is a single-location endeavor now closing a $30,000 crowdfund on the Seed & Spark website.

Battersea poster
TJ Sandella
“You just have to be a psychopath,” says Sandella, recalling his 10-year journey to get “Battersea” made.

Money will go into post-production editing and sound mixing costs, as well as a future foray into the film-festival circuit. Sandella, by day a content development director with Sherwin-Williams, took 10 years to write and produce the film. Sandella says he and co-creator Jad Adkins, both first-time movie makers, learned a lot in making their film.

“We became producers, directors, script supervisors, and had a million other hats we had to learn how to wear,” said Sandella. “I watched YouTube videos on filmmaking every night for a year and a half.”

Sandella expects to finish production in six months. By year’s end, “Battersea” will ideally be accepted into a film festival, then find its way to a distributor.

Preparing a movie for public viewing has Sandella excited about shooting a future project at home. Getting to that point means building a strong foundation of resources, among them a thriving artistic community centered around talent-generating academic institutions. A deeper well of cast and production crew can push Cleveland to emulate a city like Austin, home base of “Dazed and Confused” director Richard Linklater, said Sandella.

“There are directors who made it big and didn’t run off to LA or New York,” Sandella said. “They wanted to keep telling regional stories, or at least keep production in the area. You can hit big enough where you start attracting talent and keeping it.”

 TJ Sandella headshot
TJ Sandella
TJ Sandella’s sibling drama “Battersea” is named after a street in Rocky River.

It also helps to be a little crazy when considering a career in show business. Writing hundreds of drafts, spending innumerable hours on the phone, and getting 99 “No’s” before that first priceless “Yes” takes a special personality, said Sandella.

“You just have to be a psychopath, because there will be a million opportunities to give up,” Sandella said. “My partner and I are artists, not businessmen, so we had to learn that side of things, and put ourselves into situations that made us feel dumb and deeply uncomfortable. We had to admit there was stuff we didn’t know and ask for help.”

Updated: June 15, 2023 at 2:52 PM EDT
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Jad Adkins first name.
Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.