Charlottesville-based production company Cavalier Films released its first feature film last month. “Familiar Strangers” was filmed at various locations in the Shenandoah Valley, and a majority of the crew came from the state. The release has been limited, playing in a handful of theaters in Virginia, Tennessee and Kansas; the film opened in Richmond last weekend and will play through this weekend at the Regal Cinemas at Virginia Center Commons.
Cavalier Films was founded four years ago by Barry Sisson and has an innovative business model. The films are financed by a group of investors, but instead of investing in a specific film, Cavalier investors finance the production company’s projects for a three-year period. After their investment is recouped plus a preferred return of 20 percent, additional income is split 50-50 between the investors and Cavalier Films, according to their website.
Sisson said their first (and current) three-year fund had 40 members with a minimum investment of $20,000. The budget for “Familiar Strangers” was about $1 million.
“We operate a film fund,” Sisson said. “And people like myself – [who] all their lives want to be involved with making films and bringing them into the world – they can join us and play whatever role they want to play.”
Some Cavalier investors remain on the sidelines, while others become actively involved in the production, Sisson said. “The current film has some elements that appear on screen that were conceptualized by our partners,” Sisson said. He said a few of the investors are from Richmond.
Before getting into the film business, Sisson was in the home security business. He started a small security company in Washington more than 30 years ago. In 1993, his company was bought by Vector Security. Sisson served as an executive with that company until 1999.
For his film company’s debut picture, Cavalier was unable to find a film distributor they wanted to work with and ended up distributing the film themselves. Sisson said that many independent distributors have closed their doors in the past few years and that the ones that remain are cautious and not willing to spend a lot of money.
“We were not getting the kind of offers we thought the film deserved,” Sisson said. “Being business people, we thought we’d have the option of undertaking the distribution on our own.”
“Familiar Strangers” played at the downtown Regal Cinemas for three weeks and was No. 2 to “Twilight,” according to The Hook. Coincidentally, both films feature actress Nikki Reed. The Hook also reported that “Familiar Strangers” beat out “Quantum of Solace” during one weekend time slot in Fairfax. The film, which stars Sean Hatosy (“Outside Providence”) and DJ Qualls (“Hustle and Flow”), grossed $26,367 as of Dec. 4, according to Boxofficemojo.com. But most films, even big-budget blockbusters, don’t make money in theaters.
“The theatrical release is really priming the pump,” Sisson said. “Where you make it up is in foreign sales and DVD, cable television and all these ancillary markets.”
Sisson said Cavalier is beginning to look for a distributor for the DVD release.
The company has not begun to look for investors for the next three-year production cycle. Sisson said current investors will have first dibs, but they probably won’t start until another fund until some time next year.
“People do investing for a business like ours for a return, but they also are investing for an intellectual return – now is not the time for that,” Sisson said. But he said there are exceptions. “Even in bad times there are people that are interested in supporting the arts.”
Click here to watch the trailer for “Familiar Strangers.”