“Get out of the way! My sister just ate a shawl!” It might not be the most sensible line ever uttered in a film, but it’s fitting for the climax of a five-minute short shot in an attic and scored by a flamenco guitarist. To some viewers, The Shawl is a weird and wonderful example of Southern storytelling. To others, it’s just stupid.
But like it or not, Shawl director Jeff Sumerel is an inspiration to many. Under the banner of his company Spontaneous Productions, he’s created no-budget flicks that prove filmmakers can work virtually anywhere, tackling any subject. He’s the video-age version of a traveling troubadour, amazing audiences with his tales of diving mules and circus peanuts.
Sumerel took a step in a more unusual direction (for him) when he joined 83,000 fans at Clemson University’s Memorial Stadium for the 2002 Clemson-USC football game. Some of them came just to watch some high-class sportsmanship; others came to support their team and claim bragging rights from rival fans.
It was the 100th annual showdown between the two college teams, the apex of a rivalry that’s intensified over the decades to become an ingrained part of S.C. culture and has achieved national notoriety. The outcome was by no means certain. The previous year, Clemson’s Tigers had suffered a stinging 20-15 defeat to the Gamecocks. Yet 2002 marked a bad streak for the Gamecocks, with four straight losses, including a 23-0 humilation against Arkansas.
Sumerel was there to capture the tense atmosphere for his feature film Bragging Rites. The final result, first released on DVD and VHS in 2003, was compelling enough that three years later the documentary has been snapped up in a deal with Southeastern Wal-Mart stores — a groundbreaking achievement for a small independent producer.
“We spent a year and a half negotiating with Wal-Mart,” says Sumerel, “but we got our way in there. It’s an indication of the company understanding how popular the rivalry is.” After initial deals with BI-LO and individual mom-and-pop stores, Sumerel went through a college goods supplier in Ohio to get to the big box boys.
“The film was good and well-received,” says Columbia-based co-producer Chris White, “and we saw that DVD-related sports items were about to explode. We worked through a nightmare of red tape with The Computer Group, a big huge company that buys media product for Wal-Mart. They act as a kind of broker for everything from big Hollywood movies to the kind you find in the $5 bin. They called us and said that the S.C. stores wanted it, and fast. We shipped the product up to Ohio and within a week it was in all the stores.”
As small fries in a big retail supply pond, Sumerel and White are right in seeing the deal as a coup. “It’s so hard to get on the shelf,” says White, a full-on Gamecocks fan, “so I’m proud this film has done what it’s done. It’s cool that the thing that broke through for us is a movie. It’s our artistic statement — what we wanted to put up there, not edited by someone else.”
“People with no interest in football found it entertaining,” says Sumerel, “with the historical aspect and the relationships between players and fans. The supporters have the same seats every year, passed down from father to son. It was the rivalry that intrigued me; I wasn’t a fan of either team.”
For Sumerel, it’s the quality of the film, as well as the subject matter, that has fueled its success.
“We decided that the project deserved to be treated as a major motion picture, with a substantial amount of money spent on packaging and distribution. We used what we’d learned over 20 years of filmmaking — to think about the long term, planning everything out ahead of time.” After test screenings at both colleges, Bragging Rites was launched with statewide screenings in 2003.
“We’re still interested in the movie because it’s about the state, the culture, and the people, not just a football game,” says White, who also sees the feature as the ultimate research tool. “We were working on a screenplay for a regular feature, centering around one football game. We still want to do that, and when we pitch the story to people, we know what we’re talking about thanks to Bragging Rites.”
White’s enthusiasm for the screenwriting process received a boost recently when he and Sumerel met with Brian Frankish, executive producer on Field of Dreams and associate producer of Stuart Little.
“We’ve focused on writing lately,” says White, “because there’s a lot less overhead when we’re writing a screenplay. But we’ve also found that people in L.A. and New York are less on their guard with writers than with producers or directors. We asked Frankish, ‘Why are you meeting with us? Don’t you have bigger fish to fry?’ and he told us, ‘I’d have no job without screenwriters. There are no good ideas here in L.A., only copies of ideas. I’d be a fool not to listen to you.'”
White acknowledges that not everyone in Hollywood’s as receptive as Frankish, “but our legal rep thinks the same way. S.C.’s going to make its mark on the world of film, not by having tax incentives to bring Hollywood films here but by having the best stories to tell. I’m tired of the Film Commission concentrating on building up locations and resources like grips and gaffers. I want people to be getting story ideas from us, not just our labor. There are great storytellers here.”
The seminal football game featured in Bragging Rites ended badly for the Gamecocks, with the Tigers winning 27-20. Worse was a brawl between the teams at the end of the game. “It was a major disappointment, as my team lost both the game and their sense of sportsmanship,” says Chris White. “2002 will go down as an aberration in the history of the rivalry — one not worth remembering for either team.” Yet it will be remembered thanks to the DVD project, which White and Sumerel developed along the lines of a business venture as much as a tribute to the teams.
The film’s success with Wal-Mart is a result of hard work and negotiation rather than a new willingness by retail giants to work with indie filmmakers. The box pushers know that a product aimed at fans will sell a certain number of units, and the filmmakers’ smartest move was gauging the upturn in the athletic market. But by creating commercially-minded documentaries alongside quirky scripts and shorts like The Shawl, Jeff Sumerel’s going one step further, using his creative talents to build a fan base of his own.