Producer Sean Hanish Refines DIY Filmmaking Model With ‘Sister Cities’

Cynthia Littleton

Director-producer Sean Hanish broke into the movie business by pursuing a passion project that could not have been closer to his heart.

During the past three years, Hanish and a team that includes actor Alfred Molina and CBS executive Kelly Kahl have crafted a business template that has allowed Hanish to make more movies on his own terms — and even turn a small profit for investors.

Hanish’s most recent film, “Sister Cities,” heads to Netflix on Oct. 2 following its Sept. 17 debut on Lifetime.

An adaptation of the play by Colette Freedman, “Sister Cities” was financed independently with many of the same investors who supported Hanish’s first project, 2014’s “Return to Zero.”

“Sister Cities” revolves around four estranged sisters brought together by their mother’s suicide. The material attracted a strong cast that includes Jacki Weaver, Stana Katic, Jess Weixler, Troian Bellisario and Michelle Trachtenberg.

“Return to Zero,” which also aired on Lifetime, told the story of a couple grappling with the pain of a stillbirth, an experience that Hanish and his wife endured a decade ago. The movie earned an Emmy nom for star Minnie Driver.

With “Sister Cities” already in the black thanks to the Lifetime and Netflix deals, Hanish is at work on his next project, “Saint Judy.” The film will document the groundbreaking work of Los Angeles immigration attorney Judy Wood that led to women being given protected status when seeking asylum in the U.S.

“These are truly independent productions on every level,” Hanish told Variety. The films are shopped to buyers only after lensing is complete so as to give Hanish and his creative team complete control over the creative process.

Hanish had established himself as a commercial director before embarking on the quest to make “Return to Zero” with financial help from family and friends. Those friends included his former college roommate, CBS senior exec VP Kahl, who serves as an exec producer on Hanish’s pics and helps guide the TV licensing deals. Molina enjoyed the “Return to Zero” experience so much he returned as a co-star and an exec producer of “Sister Cities.”

At first, Hanish wasn’t sure if his Cannonball Productions, which he runs with partner Paul Jaconi-Biery, could re-assemble the same participants to fund “Sister Cities.” But after the “Return to Zero” investors saw their money returned and then some, a few more came in for “Sister Cities” and “Saint Judy.”

The key is to make the movies “at a price” (read: low seven figures) and to be creative with TV and digital licensing windows, Hanish said. Between Lifetime and Netflix, “Sister Cities” will reach an audience that is far bigger than most independent films that make the festival and art-house rounds, he notes.

Cannonball’s movies are not a high-yield venture, of course, but an outlet for people who enjoy a particular breed of character-driven films that have a larger social message. The focus on issue-driven material also helps drive social media attention for the titles. And it doesn’t hurt to have stars with big social media followings such as “Pretty Little Liars'” Bellisario on board.

“With each movie, our budgets go up a little bit and our investors become more diverse,” Hanish said. “We are appealing to a group of people who want to be part of something that becomes a lot bigger than it might be because of the messaging.”

(Pictured: “Sister Cities”)

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