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Minimum Viable Movie: How I Made a Feature-Length Film for $0

September 19 2012 – 07:03pm

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 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

Here’s Joe:

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:

  1. 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..
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

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.

The Challenges

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.

Getting equipment

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.

Here, I'm using an office chair – pushed by an actor – instead of an expensive dolly.

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

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.

Getting actors

Actors pitch in as crew. Actor Rick Stockel does sound, since he's not in this scene.

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

Joe Avella and David Kadavy
This photo pretty much sums up SXSW Interactive for me.

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:

  1. No money: Make the film with the resources I have now. Write a film that can be made for free.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

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:

And I still had money leftover for these niceties:

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:

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 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.

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This post is filed under Entrepreneurship, Movies.