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Minimum Viable Movie: How I Made a Feature-Length Film for $0
Today I’d like to introduce you to filmmaker, and good friend of mine, Joe Avella. Joe’s short films have appeared on IFC and Spike TV, and in the SXSW Film Festival.
Let the fact that this is the first and only guest post in the 8-year history of kadavy.net be testament to how much his energy and passion for his craft have personally influenced me over the years. If you’re an entrepreneur, I think you’ll find inspiration in his story of making the most of his resources, however limited they may be. –David
Everyone feels they have a good idea for a movie. I have, since as long as I could remember. Also, like everyone else, I never pursued it, because I thought it was impossible. The film business is a magical land that can’t be broken into, so I never entertained the thought past occasionally saying “they should make a movie like…”.
The Source of My Inspiration: Terrible Horror Films
My eventual path to making a film, unfortunately, doesn’t start with inspiration from an amazing film, but from working in a tiny Blockbuster Video (translation: only mainstream movies – no artistic indie films here), surrounded by crap. I was a night manager there for too long, and passed the time sifting through the terribly mediocre selection of bad films.
There’s an endless sea of big action films, obnoxious rom-coms, and poorly-produced direct to DVD horror films. I’m obsessed with horror, so I watched just about every one of these terrible, 4th rate horror trash movies: Draniac, King of the Ants, Bloody Murder 1 and 2, Python… all laughably bad and not worth Googling.
The amusement I got from their poor quality was quickly replaced by depression. How the hell did this garbage get made?
I spent that year cooped up at Blockbuster thinking about the awesome films I wanted to make, fueled by my distaste for the terrible films I was surrounded by.
Around this time 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead were released. Seeing these films was a revelation. Here were two drastically different movies, technically about the same thing, both with low budgets. What blew me away was their inventiveness and originality in a film genre that most people had written off as being over.
I felt it deeply. I could do something original and cool, like these guys. Or, at least, better than the garbage I was seeing at Blockbuster. But that confidence would quickly erode away when I started thinking about how to actually make a movie.
Making a Feature-Length Film Seemed Impossible
Here’s what I thought I needed to make a feature film, and also the reasons I didn’t finally do it for several more years:
- MONEY: This is the big one. I figured I would have to get at least hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, to pay for a crew, actors, location permits, lots of equipment, etc..
- Time: I thought I would have to quit my job, or at least go on a 9 month hiatus, to focus on the film full-time. Perhaps I could edit and have a part time job, but I though a majority of the production had to be done full time, without “distractions.”
- Lots of equipment and a big crew: I would also need to hire a 10+ person crew for the production and who knows how many more for the post production aspect. I’d have to provide all the equipment for them. We’d be working 8 hour days for months, so again, I’d need big bucks to pay them, insure them, rent them equipment and feed them.
- Knowledge: I would hav to be an expert on everything related to every aspect of the production. Why would the lighting guy listen to me if I didn’t know the difference between certain light bulbs or set ups? He wouldn’t! No one would! They would all pick on me on my own film set! Yeesh, I projected a lot of hostility on this imaginary crew I never hired.
- Luck: Even if I could get all of the above things, the best I could hope for is getting the movie into big time film festivals and selling it. At this point I’d be in so much debt that I’d need to score a big pay day or the debt noose around my neck would strangle my financial future to death.
All of this was easily enough to scare me out of even attempting to make a feature-length film. But, now several years later, I finally created a feature-length film. Here’s how I figured it out.
Starting Small. Starting Short.
Since I had none of the “essentials” for making a movie, I devised a plan to start off making my own shorts, and learn every aspect of filmmaking that way. I cut my teeth writing my own shorts, borrowing camera equipment, and enlisting my friends to dedicate their time to my various projects.
I made short after short, refining my filmmaking abilities. Many of the shorts I made were downright awful. But, it didn’t matter; making crappy films was better than making no films, because:
- I learned how to make films on a budget: That budget being $0. This lead to lots of creative solutions, like writing shorts around resources I had for free. One short, Scatterbrained!, is me and my friend Tim talking around an overhead projector. Why? We had a night to shoot something, an old projector my mom had sitting in her classroom, and I could print transparencies at work for free. Or Wheelchair Werewolf, which looks like an old movie trailer because I didn’t have great sound equipment or special effects so I made the video’s inevitable poor quality one of it’s strongest features. Also, There’s a place in my hometown where residents can rent, for free, wheelchairs, walkers, canes, etc. for sick family members. I told them I needed a wheelchair for my “sick grandma” for the weekend. Don’t judge me.
- I learned how to work with actors: This is an often-overlooked, but critical, part of filmmaking. Actors are people: they have lives and will be late, or have trouble following instructions. Also, actors are actors, so they want to bring their own ideas and collaborate with the director on their part and not just show up and do line readings.
- I learned who I work well with: Much like entrepreneurs do “founder dating,” making these shorts was a form of “dating.” I started to really understand who I wanted to work with more in the future.
- I learned from my mistakes: I got chased out of a public place by the police. I filmed next to a running refrigerator (leading to terrible audio). Fortunately, I learned these things on small projects that could be adapted more nimbly, instead of having these problems lead to a tangle of other problems on a bigger project.
Here’s the before mentioned Wheelchair Werewolf. One of my bigger successes. It was accepted into several horror and comedy film fests, and won 1st place at the Abertoir Film Festival in Wales. Like I mentioned before, the style and look of the film was born from me accepting my technical limitations at the time and using them to my advantage.
It’s a good thing that I started small with these shorts, because they came with great challenges of their own, that would have been insurmountably frustrating had I met them on a bigger project, like a feature-length film.
Trying to “make it” in a non-industry town
One of the glaring challenges that I faced in trying to become a filmmaker was simply where I lived. Being in Chicago I had no access to the film industry. Not that being in LA or New York entitles people to anything, but in Chicago there’s no one looking to discover or meet with new talent. This is why most actors and filmmakers leave. Over the past 10 years some of the biggest films have been shot in Chicago, but still the industry doesn’t feel the need to look for talent other than in its own backyard.
So, why didn’t I move to LA? Because I shouldn’t have to.
The way I saw it, moving to LA would just set me back 8 years. I would have no equipment, no locations, and no personnel that I was comfortable working with. Additionally, everyone in LA is trying the same thing I am, so now everyone’s too busy working on their own films. It seemed a move would actually limit my resources.
Since my goal is to be a self-sufficient filmmaker – rather than an actor, writer, grip, or whatever, I didn’t see the point of spending 10 to 15 years trying to work my way up through industry bureaucracy. Why do that when I could stay in Chicago and work on my craft, using the resources I already had?
Skipping Film School
Another thing that went through my head as I was trying to become a filmmaker was similar to the debate you hear a lot of in the startup world: “Do I really need to go to school?” Or, in my case, “do I really need to go to film school?” For me, I decided the answer was “no.”
Every person I knew that attend film school regretted it. It’s would be incredibly expensive, it would take a very long time, and most importantly it would rob me of the very thing I was trying to do: become a self-sufficient filmmaker.
Like any other artistic or creative endeavor, you only learn by doing, and I was able to get my shorts made on my own. The only issue was to make “great” shorts. To do so I needed the experience and to keep working at it. I didn’t need to pay through the nose hoping I’d get secret tips from a film professor (who doesn’t even make films) or working alongside students who are all fighting for the same limited resource the film school promised them upon admission.
The very first short I worked on was a collaboration with a couple of friends of mine who happened to work for a video production company. We were lucky enough that their co-workers agreed to help out by shooting and editing the short with company equipment.
While it was nice for them to help, I learned from the experience that if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself. Having three people involved muddled the creative vision. Additionally, the crew members were helping out on their free time, with their equipment, and they wanted creative input as well. Everyone involved was talented and had the best intentions, but 5 guys pulling one project in 5 directions doesn’t work. Thank goodness it was just a short film, because it was a shitfest. You’ll never see that film.
Just about everyone is no more than 2 degrees away from a camera owner who’s also an aspiring filmmaker of some sort. They’re dying to shoot some stuff, as long as you ask. So, that’s what I did.
My friend Ed volunteered to shoot my next few films, and eventually he was comfortable enough with letting me borrow the camera on my own. These days, he has a new camera, and lets me borrow his old one whenever I want. Many filmmakers would scoff at the idea of using an old camera, but I always relished the opportunity. For me, it’s about the story, not the film quality.
Getting locations was approached in a similar fashion: I looked at what I had for free first, confirmed I could use them, then wrote something that took place there. For instance Sassy Cops was shot primarily at the office Ed works at, or Action City Bathroom was filmed entirely in, you guessed it: my bathroom. Other great locations were found right outside my door and all around Chicago. Frosty Heart and Chinese Star Cop both use the city as a backdrop.
Locations still fell through, in which case I would change up the script to accommodate locations I had. Stakeout, was originally meant to take place in a record store and had nothing to do with cops. The record store I was going to film in kept dragging their feet, so I changed the setting: put them in a car and gave it the opening line “Man, I hate stakeouts.” Even named it “Stakeout” to drive that point home. Notice, the stakeout element of the short is minor, it’s all about the inane conversation about the name of the band they’re listening to.
Since I have been a part of the Chicago comedy scene for well over 7 years, I’m surrounded by aspiring actors and comedians. So, getting actors was pretty easy for me. I would make it a point to use a new actor in some capacity for each short. To my above points about learning to work with actors and “dating,” I wanted to have a large pool to draw from in the future. So, having new actors come in for an hour or two was a great way to get a feel for how they work.
Although my friends are talented and nice, they’re still human beings with lives. I didn’t want to force or guilt them into dedicating a lot of their already rare free time. I purposely would write lots of small parts in my shorts, something we could knock out in a few hours. They were helping for free, so the quicker I could get them in and out, the better. Plus, having more people in my shorts meant there were more people who were incentivized to share them once they were done.
SXSW Film: The Big Break – In My Thinking
After several years of making shorts, I finally got into my first “real” film festival at SXSW, in 2009. I was under the impression that being in a fest like SXSW would cause my view counts to soar, get attention across the film community causing a tidal wave of new fans, and would gain the notice of the industry in the form of managers, producers, or investors for a bigger project. Getting acceptance to a big time festival would surely be the crowning achievement that would propel me to the next level, or so I thought.
A Tale of Two Festivals: SXSW Film vs. Interactive
To my surprise, the film festival was a bust. Instead of the industry people I thought would be at my screening, it was instead attended by other filmmakers, who seemed to look down on my short because it was low-budget, and low-production-value.
Trying to share ideas with other filmmakers only added to my confusion and disappointment:
“If you don’t mind my asking, what was your budget?”
“I do mind you asking.”
I would have been thrilled to answer questions like these, had the roles been reversed, but the culture of the film festival was not one of sharing.
It seemed every other filmmaker at SXSW went to a film school and/or lived in an industry town, and had come with the notion of being discovered too. But unlike me, they were carrying around a big amount of film related debt and a bigger sense of entitlement.
If I went through film school and was now living in LA, I would have walked around the fest with a chip on my shoulder too. It’s sad. Even sadder, I got the sense that the SXSW film festival was considered “settling” for a lot of these filmmakers. It’s not a festival that usually sells films.
I realized this route of “being discovered” and working my way through a traditional system did not work. I was surrounded by people waiting to get picked from a crowd of virtually millions, all wanting and doing the exact same thing.
A culture of sharing
Luckily, since David was also at SXSW, I spent a majority of the time with people in the interactive portion, and the experience greatly shaped my filmmaking attitude and life today. At the same festival, intermixed with depressing self-entitled filmmakers, was a passionate group of young entrepreneurs who shared my ideas on pursuing your passion with limited resources, and finding creative ways to reach your goals. Everyone I met was so excited and happy, talking about new ideas and ways of distribution. I was meeting people who were successful at the thing I was trying to do: reach people.
They had a business, I had my movies. As I told people why I was at the fest, the conversations would sometimes reach a fever pitch about the possibilities of content online.
One thing that kept coming up was “why don’t you make a full-length movie?” Up until this point I had convinced myself it was impossible. But this was the first time I had to be accountable for this attitude, and I didn’t have a good answer.
If someone could build a business with no money, start small, and grow it to be a job they love, why couldn’t I do the same?
My business would be my movies.
Making a Lean Movie
My time at SXSW lead to an epiphany: I already had everything I need to make a movie. I was already untangling my mind – taking notes inside of a book cover – on my flight back from Austin.
I was looking at it all wrong, looking at it from the angle of all the things I didn’t have. Before, I was floundering around, with no real direction, held back by vague fears of a leap I never fully thought through. After seeing how these entrepreneurs had used their resources, I went through my list of imaginary roadblocks and dismantled them one by one:
- No money: Make the film with the resources I have now. Write a film that can be made for free.
- No time: Instead of making a big, 6 month or year commitment, work on it during the nights and weekends, around my current life, and let it take as long as it takes.
- No fancy equipment / no crew: Make it with borrowed equipment, whatever I could get my hands on. Like with the shorts, be a one man crew. Ask production friends to help out – sparingly – as to not burn them out. Same with the cast: don’t use anyone more than a few days unless they agree to work that much ahead of time.
- No knowledge: The only way to learn how to do it right is to do it wrong first. I knew this process would be an invaluable experience for making movies. I would get first hand experience in every aspect of filmmaking.
- No luck: If I make it for free, I won’t have to worry about selling it. Furthermore, I can share it generously online. I can use new tactics for getting people to see it, tactics traditional filmmakers tied to debt could not. I could use the movie as a “calling card” to make more connections with fans online, use it as a tool to build a bigger audience.
I would make this film the exact same way I made my shorts. I had been making shorts for 5 years, but instead of 3 more years worth of random shorts, why not make a full-length movie?
Getting money for my movie
I raised $2,000 using Kickstarter. This is, of course, nothing compared to some of the more recent success stories. To be honest, I could have done the film without it, but raising money on Kickstarter gave me some important side-benefits:
- A built-in fan base: The little amount of money each backer donated was enough to keep her paying attention without being concerned about her investment. This built-in fan base also gave me all of the following:
- A feedback loop: I knew I would be releasing parts of the film as they were completed (more on that later), so I automatically had people to show that content to. Based upon their reactions to pieces of the film, I could make tweaks as I worked.
- A marketing team: Each backer got Executive Producer credit – and many of them were in the film (for reasons I’ll talk about in a bit). So, they were incentivized to tell others about the movie. Did I mention that David is an Executive Producer? Mwahahahaha!
- Personal accountability: This was a big and daunting project, but having those backers helped me realize that this was a real thing people actually cared about, and made it something I couldn’t back out of. I didn’t want to let my backers down.
Just like my short films helped me get better at filmmaking, marketing to my Kickstarter backers also taught me about how to treat a fan base. I gave out fun things that would hopefully give the backers more incentive to share and talk about the movie: digital downloads, posters, producer credits, voice-mail messages… Stuff related to the movie we could give away and not spend a lot of money on but the backers would feel they were part of something.
I used the meager Kickstarter funds for these filmmaking necessities:
- DV Tapes
- Parking (for city shoots)
- Props and wardrobe (all from thrift stores)
- A Vimeo account to host the movie
All of the short films I made cost me nearly nothing, and with the Kickstarter backers, I had ample funds to make this entire full-length film using $0 of my own money.
Marketing while making
The movie I made is called “Master of Inventions,” and it’s about the world’s worst inventor. From the beginning, I thought about how this subject would help me break down the production of the movie into more manageable chunks, while making it easier to market online:
- “Invention” commercials: Since the movie is about an inventor, it would naturally include many of his terrible inventions. So, I could release complete “commercials,” and produce them just as I did my shorts. The commercials could help me build a following – and my MailChimp email list – as I made the movie.
- Digestible scenes: I made sure to write some scenes that could stand by themselves, because I knew I would be releasing them during production. Since I was producing scenes in short spurts (with a small number of actors, at a particular location, completed in one day), production was nimble enough to accomplish this.
- Lots of actors: I had worked with tons of actors over the previous 5 years of making shorts. So, besides the few major parts there were in the film, I also had plenty of smaller parts. Since shooting would be sporadic – mostly on weekends – I wrote parts small enough that an actor could come in for a few hours, do their part, and their commitment would be over. The added benefit to this was that more actors = more people sharing the movie once it’s done.
- Outtakes: With shooting being sporadic, (for example, the lead actor absent-mindedly shaved his head and put our production on hiatus for 5 months) I would have to use the time in between shoots to edit and market the movie. So, in addition to the invention “commercials,” I also released outtakes of the film.
This more iterative approach to making a film – which would be shunned by traditional filmmakers – not only helped me produce and market the movie on an extremely tight budget; but it also kept me motivated throughout production.
The positive feedback kept people talking about the movie and served as leverage to get more people on board. The frequent releases of material showed the Kickstarter investors I didn’t take the money and run. Most importantly, their support gave me the energy and inspiration to keep moving.
Here’s an example of one of the outtakes I released during production:
I knew this film was not going to be of perfect quality. But utilizing the skills I developed from all the shorts: losing actors, props, location, or whatever didn’t faze me too much. I could deal with everything that was thrown my way.
My Minimum Viable Movie is finally complete!
Now the movie is finished, and I present it to you for free! It’s already a success because it’s completed, it looks how I want it to look, the response from the fans has been overwhelmingly positive, and most of all I can share it with the world for free and not worry about paying off a debt. I’ve proven it’s possible – and to future fans and investors, Master of Inventions is the proof I know how to make a full-length film, and market it to the world. If this is what I did with $2,000 imagine what I could do with $2,000,000. Yooooo!
Check out the first 5 minutes above, and if you’re hooked:
- watch the full movie at masterofinventions.com
- Sign up for my email list: get bonus features, a welcome-pack collection of my short films, and to stay up-to-date with my future filmmaking endeavors
- Keep up with my blog, where I share my experiences in film making and marketing
Watch Master of Inventions: Win a Copy of Design for Hackers!
I’m actually one of many, many, actors in this film – I even have *one* line. Watch Master of Inventions, and email my line to david at kadavy dot net (include “MOI” in the subject line). The 10th person to email my line to me will win a copy of my book, Design for Hackers. –David
P.S. I may be biased, but I really think it’s a great movie. Like any Minimum Viable Product, the production value is definitely rough around the edges (which Joe will openly admit), but Joe has proven that he is a great storyteller – and hilarious, as always.
Thinking of writing a book?
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