When Troy Whitehurst moved to Charlotte two years ago, he was impressed by the number of independent filmmakers he met. At the same time, he said, he was disappointed that so few moviegoers had seen their work.

Whitehurst, a graduate of North Carolina A&T and a filmmaker himself, decided to do something.

Two months ago, he launched First Sunday Cinemas, a Charlotte event that showcases independent films by local and national filmmakers. The 31-year-old Whitehurst said the venture is driven by his competing passions — business and filmmaking.

“I wanted to be a catalyst or vehicle to get those films seen in the market,” he told Qcitymetro.com “I’m a proponent of self-distribution. If filmmakers can work together and help build each others’ audience, that will help attract (major) distributors.”

Whitehurst launched First Sunday Cinemas in October with one of his own projects, a 70-minute film titled “Victim of Circumstance,” the story of a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship with her live-in boyfriend. He chose October, he said, because it was Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

All First Sunday screenings are followed by a Q&A session.

In December, Whitehurst screened “Byrd: The Life and Tragic Death of James Byrd, Jr.,” a 75-minute documentary about a black man in Jasper, Texas, who was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck. Three white men were convicted. The defendants testified that they had seen Byrd walking along a highway and picked him up.

About a dozen people attended the screening. Atlanta filmmaker Spurgen Brown, who edited the documentary, was there to answer questions.

Like most independent films, “Byrd” had all the traits of a low-budget production. Told mainly through the victim’s friends and family, the story was slow to build — painfully slow at first. But by the film’s conclusion, any early frustrations were forgiven.

“Byrd” offered viewers a sometimes painfully close look at the consequences of racial hatred and how Byrd’s murder affected his three children, the town of Jasper and even the brother of one of his killers. “Byrd” ends where all good stories end, with redemption. With help from Martin Luther King III, his children eventually forgave their father’s killers.

Whitehurst said he’s working to secure a First Sunday lineup for ‘09. The February film, he said, will be “SoulMate.” Soulmatefilm.com says the movie delves into the “realities facing today’s successful, saved, and single African American women” as they seek lasting relationships.

First Sunday Cinemas began in a small theater inside the Afro American Cultural Center, but Whitehurst said he’s seeking a new location for 2009.

Whitehurst got hooked on filmmaking while a student at A&T, where he majored in marketing and entrepreneurship. He was shooting short takes on the campus one day, he said, when a friend joked that he was like a cross between Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg. The joke caught on, and Whitehurst now goes by the moniker “Spike Spillberg.”

A native of Hampton Roads, Va., Whitehurst spent the first five years after college working at various radio stations, primarily in sales. He had brief stints at Charlotte’s Power-98 and V-101.9.

The work was good, he said, but his creative side wasn’t being fed. That’s when he remembered advice a mentor had given him years earlier: Select a career you enjoy so much you’d do it for free.

“I wanted to get back into the thing that I lived,” he said, “which was filmmaking.”

Whitehurst said he owns a Charlotte marketing company, I Do Marketing Agency, that works with small- and mid-size businesses. Each weekday at 9 p.m., he hosts a talk show on blogtalkradio.com. Whitehurst described it as a 90-minute conversation about films, life and positive thoughts.

Asked if he preferred filmmaking more than business, Whitehurst said he’d be hard pressed to pick one.

He joked that he produced “Victim of Circumstance” with “lots of blood, sweat and tears,” but no budget.

“It was whatever I could pull out of my pockets,” he said, “or whatever we could negotiate for free.

“This is a passion for me,” he said of the film industry. “Of course I want to make a living from it.”

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