Can a short film tell a full story and still be under 60 seconds? That’s the unique challenge posed by Dogma Cape Fear, a collective of roughly 40 Wilmington-based film industry veterans who make movies exclusively for Instagram. The group began in 2017, when its founders were without jobs. “We were having weekly beer meetups, because we were all out of work,” says Mary Cocuzza, who, along with her husband Nick, is among the group’s longest tenured members. “Film had died.”
Nick Cocuzza moved to Wilmington to study film at UNCW in 2009, when the city’s film industry was in the middle of a renaissance. The popular teen drama “One Tree Hill,” shot in and around the Port City, was enjoying a lengthy, nine-season run. Major projects like “Iron Man 3” and “The Conjuring” were just on the horizon. Opportunities for recent graduates were abundant; by the time Mary arrived in 2013, it felt like the boom would never end. Then former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory decided to let the state’s film tax incentive program expire in 2014, starving Wilmington of millions of dollars in potential business. Industry professionals—from directors to casting agents to caterers—were stunned.
Instead of fleeing to neighboring Georgia (which stood to gain the most from North Carolina’s loss, and which made more major feature films in 2016 than even California), the Cocuzzas stayed put. In their peer group—many of whom met on the sets of indie films—they saw an opportunity to prove Wilmington’s film industry still had life. They met with producer and UNCW film-studies grad Robert Cummins, who had an idea to make films for Instagram. In 2016, when the platform increased its maximum video length from 15 seconds to a minute, they knew they were on to something.
To date, Dogma Cape Fear has posted 25 60-second films to Instagram, all shot in and around Wilmington. They just released a dark comedy, “Oh Dear!,” last week.
The group takes its name from Dogme 95, a Danish filmmaking movement that started in 1995. Led by directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, it sought to “purify” filmmaking by stripping it of expensive production and special effects, putting power back into the hands of auteurs. The movement was extreme in its aims, and followed a set of 10 rules (known as the “Vow of Chastity”) that included a peculiar decree: The director of a film must not be credited as such.
Dogma Cape Fear’s rules are equally defined, if intended to be flexible. Potential projects must be capable of being produced in 24 hours and cost less than $100 to make. In general films should feature only one to three actors and be filmed in no more than two locations. Members typically rotate roles (as to gain experience in a variety of aspects of film production), with no one person directing two films in a row. Like its Danish namesake, Dogma insists its films go uncredited. Cummins acknowledges the last point may rankle some, but says it’s all in the name of togetherness.
“The guidelines are there to make sure it stays fun,” he says, noting projects are usually shot on weekends, to allow for various work schedules. “We’re not interested in making a 15-minute short film where everyone’s working on it and the director is getting all the credit.”
“Oh Dear!” is a good example of the Dogma ethos. The script is less than a page, contains no dialogue and was written collectively in the Cocuzzas’ living room. Filmed during a weekend trip to Lake Waccamaw, it tells the story of two hunters who encounter misfortune in the woods. The idea spawned from a pair of deer hooves that belonged to the grandfather of Dogma member Delanie Gilliss. Because the props had sentimental value, Gilliss was asked to direct.
Dogma saw its audience grow after three of its films (“The Biologist,” “In Summary” and “The Collection”) were featured at Cucalorus in 2019, but its members insist their goals are to have fun and enhance fellowship, not gain followers. To wit, Dogma members celebrate each other’s birthdays, and regularly appear in each other’s films (the Cocuzzas met on one such set in 2013). They also gain valuable experience directly related to their chosen careers. Mary Cocuzza served as locations coordinator for recent Wilmington-based projects “Swamp Thing” and “Halloween Kills,” and will soon begin work on the second season of the HBO series “The Righteous Gemstones.” Nick was a camera assistant on “Swamp Thing” and Hulu’s “Reprisal,” and has aspirations of becoming a cinematographer. Cummins runs a video production company that focuses largely on corporate clients; Dogma gives him the chance to let loose.
Each has seen their work lives flourish thanks to Dogma. Mary points to the 2018 Dogma film “Believe What You Want” as an example. The script was selected through a contest with the NC Film Forum and was written by Faith Kim. Though Kim was new to Dogma, she and Mary later ended up working together on a project at Screen Gems Studios.
The connections help with logistical matters too. Members work on a volunteer basis, and much of the equipment is donated from other projects. “If we had to rent for even a day of Dogma, it could be thousands of dollars,” says Nick. “We’re lucky to have friends who have these toys they’re happy to [loan] us, and knowing it’s just for a day makes it easy to commit to.”
Those interested in getting involved can private message them on Instagram. The group is open to all interested parties, and meetings are held weekly in evenings, either at members’ homes or local bars. Says Cocuzza, “Bring a beer and come on over.”