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Dream Works

A new film production company sets up shop in Virginia.


In those small towns, filmmakers might be at work trying to make the next hit like "The Station Agent" (2003), co-produced by Barry Sisson, co-founder of Cavalier Films, a new production company in Charlottesville that he runs with partner Marc Lieberman. The company recently reached the end of its initial funding phase and hopes to start work on its first feature-length project this summer.

Cavalier is an investor-driven production company, a kind of nerve center for patrons interested in making movies, or at least in backing them. Cavalier offers three levels of investment — at $20,000, $50,000 and $100,000 — promising a variety of production involvement, from insider updates on current projects to hands-on experience on sets.

Sisson is especially encouraging as the president of a film production company, because he actually likes movies. Talking by phone in early April, he rattles off a few that have really inspired him, like "You Can Count on Me" and the Halle Berry Oscar vehicle "Monster's Ball," which Sisson considers an ideal independent film. His own "The Station Agent" is another example to follow, he says, and it's not hard to see why.

Sisson invested in the project 15 years after meeting his co-producer, Robert May, one of three credited producers. The film cost less than $500,000 to make, before it was turned over to Miramax for distribution. Here's the part of the story that creates legions of wannabe filmmakers. "The Station Agent," about a man with dwarfism dealing with personal loss, went on to gross close to $6 million in domestic ticket sales, with worldwide estimates hovering close to $9 million. That's the kind of jackpot return investors in movies dream about. The energy (and money) those dreams generate could make Cavalier take off like a thoroughbred. "The Station Agent," not surprisingly, is the kind of movie Sisson wants to produce, for both its financial and artistic merits.

The state hosts about 30 production companies, according to the Virginia Film Office. Among the biggest players are New Millennium Studios in Petersburg, New Dominion Pictures in Suffolk, BES Creative in Richmond and Metro Productions in Northern Virginia. In recent years, film production in the state by out-of-state filmmakers has picked up dramatically as well. Recent productions include "The New World," starring Colin Farrell, which began filming near Williamsburg in the fall. HBO is looking to shoot a Tom Hanks-produced miniseries about John Adams in Virginia. Richmond is one of many state locales for possible production sites.

Sisson hopes his company will end up producing one to three feature-length films per year, at about $1 million each. Though it has yet to produce anything, Cavalier would become one of the major players in the state should it succeed with its goals. "We want to make films that matter," he says, "films that are a little off-center, meaningful instead of entertainment. The indie audience is the more mature audience. We like to say Hollywood makes movies for people 15 to 25, and we make movies for people 25 to 70."

But while the company would be a boon to the area film industry and overall economy, don't expect it to start churning out stories about Native Americans and Civil War battles. Sisson is excited about setting up shop in his home state, but he is not setting his sights exclusively on Virginia stories. Rather, his intent is to use the state's diverse geography to tell the kinds of stories that seem right for Cavalier's business plan.

Sisson promises that Cavalier's first film will be shot in Virginia. After that, he says the percentage drops to 95 percent, leaving himself open to the possibility of out-of-state shooting. Though not ready to announce upcoming projects, the company's own information materials suggest the first project will be written by a Virginia author.

Sisson is confident there will be no lack of talent clamoring to get in the store once the cash register rings. When you have to be in some kind of business, the old adage remains true. There's no business like the movie business. "Film is the most powerful art that there is," Sisson says. "How can you not want to be involved in something like that?" S

Investors wanting to learn more about Cavalier Films can attend an informational event Wednesday, May 11, at Art Works, 320 Hull Street, 6:30 p.m. Attendance is by reservation only. To register, e-mail (preferred) or call 1-877-974-7444.

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