Dreaming on Cleveland

A minute in Spencer Jay Kim’s presence might earn you one of his impressions — Robert De Niro or William Shatner. Or he might tell you the entire plot of a Korean movie he thinks you’d enjoy. Or Kim might even pontificate on why Cleveland is perfect for independent filmmakers such as himself to make movies.

“Cleveland has good actors, good crew and willing and enthusiastic citizens who get excited about a film being made in their back yards,” Kim says. “All of these things make Cleveland a great place to make movies.”

Kim’s sentiments reflect a new wave of arts entrepreneurship in the city, which has one of the state’s few undergraduate film degrees, at Cleveland State University, and the kind of real-estate environment that recently spawned the Hyacinth Lofts, a historic building renovated with the needs of filmmakers and performing artists in mind.

Kim, a well-known actor in Cleveland theater since the late 1990s, believes the artistic community that nurtured his acting talents can support his filmmaking dreams as well.

In 2001, Kim and three close friends — actors Liz DuChez, Leilani Barrett and Gilberto Rivera — launched Waterstreet Productions, a film production company named after the Warehouse District apartment building where Kim lived. With one camera, $3,000 and 10 unpaid actors and crew, its first movie, “Empty Rooms,” about neighbors whose personal crises bring them together, was only half-filmed before the money ran out. The production company’s second script, “Cleveland Cons,” a romantic comedy Kim penned, garnered a negative pickup deal from Artisan Entertainment — an arrangement in which the studio agrees to distribute the film once it is made — but the lack of money doomed that project as well.

Rather than give up, the partners decided their next film would be small and affordable, one that could be finished more easily and attract investments for future projects.

But they couldn’t resist “Dreaming on Christmas.” An “indie-alternative-Christmas-romantic-comedy-with-heart,” Kim says, the film is about a businessman and an exotic dan-cer, each stranded alone in Cleve-land on Christmas, who decide to spend the holiday together.

It wasn’t small. It wasn’t finished easily. But it did manage to impress its first investor so much that he gave $10,000. The whole film was made for just less than $100,000, with all the money coming from private investors and most of it coming from around Cleveland. Not only does the film feature some of Cleveland’s top acting talent, but also it attracted nationally recognized actors, including Karis Campbell (“The West Wing”), Danny Trejo (“Heat,” “ConAir,” “SpyKids”) and Nick Mancuso (“Stingray,” “Under Siege”).

DuChez and Kim co-wrote the script and also play the central couple. The pace of filming was grueling. “While we were filming I would get to bed at 9 a.m.,” says Kim, who also directed the project. “And that’s when the phone would start ringing.” The team finished shooting this spring, and they expect the movie to be distributed early next year.

There are about two or three independent feature-length films done in Cleveland per year, says Chris Carmody, president of the Cleveland Film Commission. Most independent filmmakers working regionally are trying to create a “calling card” so they can get work in Hollywood. There are very few filmmakers who continue to make films in their hometown, he says.

But Kim and his partners insist they want to stay in Cleveland for future projects. Kim dreams of building a repertory film company of actors and crew. For Waterstreet’s next project, they are filming two consecutive thrillers called “My Soul to Take,” parts one and two. Part one already has financing in place and started shooting last month.

One of these days, Kim is determined to finish “Empty Rooms” and “Cleveland Cons.” With the funding that Waterstreet has obtained, he’s been able to quit his day job.

Kim smiles broadly when he talks about the films he plans to make in Cleveland. “I believe in the artistic community of Cleveland,” he says. “I found a home here.”

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