Hidden among the Frozen 2s and the Jokers at this year's Academy Awards is a short film called Hair Love, about an African-American father who must style his daughter's wild hair for the first time. The film, funded mainly by Kickstarter donations, received widespread critical acclaim and was nominated for a 2020 Academy Award for Best Animated Short. It's also a breakthrough for director Matthew Cherry, who went through an unconventional path on the way to Hollywood.
Cherry played football at Akron University
While Cherry earned a degree in media at the University of Akron, movie-making didn't seem like it would be in his future. His prospects in football looked promising, especially after he set a school record for punt return yards in a season with 305 in 2003, and was named second-team All-Conference.
He had a brief, journeyman NFL career
Cherry's career as an NFL wide receiver did not go according to plan. In three seasons, he criss-crossed the depths of pro football with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers, and Baltimore Ravens, while also spending time in NFL Europe. While the Bengals did place him on their active roster for the final two games of the 2004 season, he never saw the field. During his brief stint with the Ravens in 2007, a shoulder injury put him out of the game for good, and he used the $30,000 settlement to move to Southern California.
He transitioned to Hollywood through music videos
Among his first gigs in show business was behind-the-scenes work on the NBC series Heroes. On off-days he would use the equipment to shoot music videos for local rhythm and blues artists on Myspace. Eventually, Cherry leveraged this into a permanent pursuit, directing music videos for Michelle Williams, Snoop Dogg, and Jazmine Sullivan, among others.
His second film was shot entirely on an iPhone 6s
Cherry's first short film was The Last Fall, based heavily off of his experiences on the fringes of the NFL. It debuted at SXSW in 2012 and received mixed-to-average critical reviews. However, his second film takes the cake for low-budget innovation. 2016's 9 Rides, a film about an Uber driver pulling a long shift on New Year's Eve, is said to be the first film shot entirely on an iPhone - specifically, the 6s model.
"We had a lack of resources and it was the easiest way for us to shoot a movie fast and cheaply," said Cherry. "But we wanted to prove, specifically for filmmakers of color, that it doesn’t matter what camera you shoot on."
Hair Love received a record-breaking Kickstarter
The seeds for Hair Love were planted in 2017 when Cherry began the Kickstarter campaign for the film, setting the donation target at $75,000. The project far exceeded expectations and pulled in $300,000, becoming Kickstarter's highest-funded animated short film project of all-time. In 2019, Sony Pictures Animation picked up the film for distribution and placed it alongside The Angry Birds Movie 2 in theaters.