In the Lifetime movie “The Wrong Car,” a law student picks up an Uber-style ride only to be drugged and raped by her driver. It’s a scary tale that feels ripped from the headlines, and it’s just the kind of story line that has made local filmmaker John Stimpson a favorite at the network.
“The Wrong Car” is the sixth movie in four years that the Worcester-based Stimpson has sold to Lifetime. His previous films that have aired on the network — or the Lifetime Movie Network — include 2014’s “Betrayed,” 2013’s “Sins of the Preacher,” and three from 2012: “Last Hours in Suburbia,” “The March Sisters at Christmas,” and “Sexting in Suburbia.” His resume also includes 2011’s “A Christmas Kiss,” which sold to cable network ION Television. That feel-good tale recently got some airtime during the network’s holiday movie marathon.
“It’s a great model, these little sub-million dollar movies,” Stimpson said, of his growing catalog. “I’m really lucky that I live here and get to do what I do.”
Stimpson, 54, who’s originally from Wellesley but has lived in Princeton for decades, has been working in the film industry since he graduated from Harvard, where he was president of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals. After school, he moved to Los Angeles, where he scored some jobs as an actor, mostly in commercials. He also worked as a freelance script reader and read some doozies, which inspired him to write his own screenplays.
After about five years of living on the West Coast, he was back in New England, where he eventually made programs for networks such as Animal Planet. By the early 2000s he was ready to start making his own independent movies, starting with his first full-length feature, 2004’s political drama “The Gentleman From Boston,” which now goes by “Beacon Hill.”
Next up was 2005’s “The Legend of Lucy Keyes,” a drama about a family haunted by a the ghost of a dead child. That one, which starred Julie Delpy and Justin Theroux, of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” was taken out to distributors and picked up by Lifetime.
Stimpson said he didn’t make the film with Lifetime’s audience in mind, but the network was able to expose the film to a wider audience than it would have had on the indie film circuit. “We just sold it for the best deal we could get,” he said.
After that release, Stimpson hooked up with MarVista Entertainment, a production and distribution company that was attracted to Stimpson’s ability to produce the exact kind of film that would sell to a network.
The first film in that partnership was the feel-good “A Christmas Kiss,” which Stimpson directed from a script by Northampton writer Joany Kane. Stimpson and the Los Angeles-based MarVista went on to make seven more movies, including “The Wrong Car,” which Lifetime acquired over the past month, and quickly put on its schedule for Saturday. With all of these movies, he also works with local producers Mark Donadio and Miriam Marcus of Moody Independent.
Sharon Bordas, of MarVista, explained that her company has done well in its partnership with Stimpson and his local producers because they understand how to make of-the-moment material for TV viewers. “Sexting in Suburbia,” for instance, aired when horror stories about sexts-gone-public were all over the Internet.
“The younger members of their audience really spark to material that reflects modern life. ‘The Wrong Car’ is a perfect movie for them in that it speaks to the ever-changing shared economy in a thoughtful, suspenseful, and evocative way,” she said, via e-mail.
Stimpson said learning how to draw those viewers has been a skill he’s mastered over time. He’s not the typical audience for films that might air on Lifetime — his shows of choice are “The Leftovers” and the Emmy-winning “Fargo” on FX — but he now understands the pacing of a narrative that’s about 90 minutes, and will be interrupted by commercial breaks.
“I have to deliver something with a certain tempo,” he explains. “We have to be aware of a certain kind of attention span and the ability to keep people from changing the channel.”
Part of his model is filming close to home. It’s partly about family and convenience — his wife, Carolyn, is an owner-operator at Wachusett Mountain and two of his three kids are at the University of Vermont. He bases all of his work from a colorful office in the Printers Building in Worcester.
Stimpson says the city is an ideal setting for a filmmaker. It can look like all things — urban and suburban, from all eras. It’s also a place where one can film without drawing too much attention.
“We had a lot of long nights,” he said of “The Wrong Car” shoot. “It’s the kind of thing you couldn’t do in Boston.”
The setting also keeps things cheap. Stimpson said he benefits greatly from the Massachusetts tax credits for filmmakers. “I couldn’t do what I do without it,” he said. “That’s a chunk of money we don’t have to make back.”
He’s worked with a small group of investors who are so used to the films turning a moderate profit that they often support project after project. That consistent return has made it possible for Stimpson to think bigger for his future films. Next on his list is “Radius One,” a drama about a man who wakes up alone in a space vessel with no memory of how he got there. With “Radius,” Stimpson sees potential to make a film with a classic, big theatrical release. He expects to begin filming in February, and hopes to announce a star soon.
That isn’t to say that he’ll stop making the material that airs on Lifetime. Those films are what keeps him going.
“The fact that millions of people see our films — that’s pretty cool.”Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.