How to Make a Movie (and get it into Walmart) for $2,700
Written by Brian Cunningham
In 2010, my partner and I began work on a script called “Overtime.” It started as a pet project…something for us to do on the side while we made our living shooting and editing commercial video at a Louisville, Kentucky production company.
Nearly three years later, that project has grown to something neither Matt nor myself could have ever imagined at the start. “Overtime,” a hit-man vs. zombie-aliens action/comedy starring TNA IMPACT Wrestling’s Al Snow, was released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 1, 2013, and it’s now available on Netflix and Amazon as well as at Barnes & Noble and Walmart.
This was our first feature film, and we made a lot of mistakes along the journey of producing it, promoting it, and finally finding distribution. Our smartest move, however, was to insist on sticking to our shoestring budget of $2,700, a figure that barely covered the cost of makeup effects and food for our amazing cast and crew. We often get asked the question, “how the hell did you pull off a movie for under three grand?” At the time we were making “Overtime,” we weren’t even thinking of how we were going to pull it off…we just did whatever needed to be done. In hindsight, however, there were some decisions we made that really helped the movie find success.
There are five major things we did differently from your average “indie” film. And those, along with a whole lot of luck, helped us make a movie that found its way into the biggest retail chain in the country.
Step #1: Be the Studio
When I was a teenager, I would read stories about those high-profile ’90’s indie directors who took Hollywood by storm by self-funding independent projects. Kevin Smith maxed out his credit cards to make “Clerks” while Robert Rodriguez made “El Mariachi,” an intense action film, for under $7,000. These directors put all the cash they had into a movie, rolled the dice, and were soon scooped up by the Hollywood system to make big-budget studio movies.
Today, though, the same approach is much more risky. With the advent of digital cinema, more people are making movies, and it’s difficult for even great indie movies to find their way through the noise. For every Kevin Smith there are twenty guys who spent their life-savings on a movie only to have it be ignored or, worse, never get finished.
So when we went to make “Overtime,” we were determined to keep the risks low. Our goal wasn’t to make a single movie and explode onto the indie film scene like Quentin Tarantino. Instead, we wanted to develop a workflow that would allow us to make multiple movies over a number of years with as little risk as possible.
The solution was to keep the budget as low as possible for each movie but maintain access to the production gear for the long haul. At the time we made the movie, we were working at Videobred, a Louisville-based production company. Our boss, Jamie, was one of the coolest bosses you could hope to have, and he let us use the equipment on the weekends and after hours. So we found ourselves in an amazing situation where we could make damn good-looking video for virtually no out-of-pocket cost for anyone.
We’re often reminded by other filmmakers that not everybody has that luxury. But my honest question is, “why not?” After completing “Overtime,” (but before selling it), Matt and I opened our own production studio. We bought all the equipment we’d used on “Overtime” and began commercial production work to pay the bills. Our total investment was under $30,000…a whole lot of money, but less than two new cars. I’ll keep driving my 2001 Toyota Camry until the wheels fall off if it will let me keep making movies.
Step #2: Define Your Movie and Never Stop Rewriting
One note of advice I got from a filmmaker friend of mine that’s always stuck with me is “Love your script.” Having a passion for the story you’re telling is an absolute must if you’re going to go through the grueling process of preproduction, postproduction, and distribution.
Before scripting even starts, however, you need to ask yourself a basic question: What is my movie? This is a question not only of plot and story, but of action, tone, and, yes, marketability.
For “Overtime,” we went through a number of drafts. At one point, the story dipped into heavy family drama including a broken marriage and the repercussions of an absent father. In the end, we decided that the movie we really wanted to make was a fun flick with a tone that let you know that everything was going to be okay. Not only was this the best story for the concept we’d devised, but it made the movie infinitely more “sellable.”
Even through the editing process, we kept rewriting, reworking, and doing everything we could to make the movie better. We were always asking ourselves “how can we make this scene more interesting?” And I think “Overtime” is a much richer film because of that.
Step #3: Build a Community
The success we’ve had with “Overtime” honestly has very little to do with us. It belongs to our talented cast and crew as well as our enthusiastic fans.
At this point it’s no secret that social media is a must for promoting your movie, but many filmmakers don’t realize that marketing can (and should) begin during the writing process. Finding people enthusiastic about your project not only promotes the film, but it can lead to amazingly talented individuals who are willing to help you out with locations, food, and production resources.
While shooting, we posted production stills almost daily, tagging our actors and crew on Facebook to encourage them to share their work. Not only was it a fun way to keep everyone excited about the project, but it let everyone know that they were a crucial part of making this movie work. When it came time to premiere the movie, this Facebook strategy helped us sell out a 900-seat theater–which made the distributors at our first film festival (one of which we ended up signing with) take notice.
Building this kind of a community is more than just posting pictures and tagging videos. It’s phone calls, emails, and getting drinks with your actors and crew whenever possible. No filmmaker works completely alone, and the more you can help and support fellow filmmakers, actors, and crew members, the better it is for everyone’s project. Become part of your local film community, and, above all, leave the ego at home at all times.
Step #4: Find a Name Actor
This is the tricky part. There’s no easy answer to how an unknown, unproven filmmaker can find a name actor. But I assure you, it is possible.
In our case, we lucked into finding former WWE superstar Al Snow.
I wish we had a cooler story of how it happened, but the truth is Al actually called us and asked to audition. He had heard about the audition from another actor (Ben Wood, who portrayed Dennis Goodman in the movie) and was looking for a project to work on. And, even luckier for us, he was a hell of an actor.
We were extremely lucky to find Al, but I’ve talked with other filmmakers since wrapping “Overtime,” and they all agree that finding name actors for ultra-low-budgeted movies is not out of the question. The trick is to think outside the box about who you approach and to give the actor some incentive to be in your movie, whether that be a modest day rate, a short shooting schedule, or a really awesome role they just can’t resist.
As proud as Matt and I are of “Overtime,” and as much as we’d like to take all the credit for its success, the reason the movie is in Walmart is Al Snow. Without his fame, his talent, and his willingness to do the movie, “Overtime” would still be sitting on a shelf waiting for someone to give a damn.
Step #5: Find a Good Distribution Partner
Let me say up-front that there is no single answer to the question of distribution. Some movies might benefit from a major distributor, and others will make more cash and reach a bigger audience being sold through self-publishing platforms.
For “Overtime,” we knew that our movie wasn’t going to find itself in theaters nationwide. That’s just the nature of the type of movie we made and the budget we had. Our goal, then, was to find a distribution partner who would truly support the movie and who understood its strengths and its limitations. We ended up going with VCI Entertainment’s “IndieGo!,” a new label for independent movies.
In the process, we talked with some “larger” distribution partners, but VCI gave us the most fair and straightforward deal. And while they were one of the first companies to show interest in “Overtime,” I’m glad we went through the process of submitting the movie to dozens of other distribution companies. A good deal becomes really clear when you have it sitting on your desk next to two or three questionable deals.
To find the right distribution partner, you have to think long and hard about what you want. We were lucky enough to sign with a hardworking, practical distribution company that was also able to get us placed in some major retailers…the best of both worlds. Not only that, but we found a team who actually wanted our input when it came to artwork and marketing, and for the control-freak filmmakers that most of us are, that’s worth a lot.
The Biggest Question: Why?
When we showed “Overtime” for the first time, we had the pleasure of being able to share it with other filmmakers screening at the Fright Night Film Festival. Over drinks that night, I broke the cardinal rule of low-budget production and shared our budget with one of them. When I told him we made the movie for under $3,000, he just looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked “Why?”
It took me by surprise for a second. Until I figured out that there was only one good answer to the question. “That’s all we had.”
And on that front, I have to thank my partner Matt Niehoff for pushing me to do the smartest and stupidest thing I’ve done and commit to making this movie. I have a tendency to always wait for everything to line up perfectly before jumping into any big project. I was dedicated to making movies, but I hadn’t shot as much as a short film in three years when the idea for “Overtime” came about. If it weren’t for Matt saying “I’m going to make this, right now. Are you in, or are you out?” I never would have had the guts to dive in.
We didn’t start “Overtime” with an agenda. It was a movie we felt compelled to make, and while we knew we needed to make a marketable movie that lots of people would enjoy, we never really let ourselves think of the possibility it would be successful in any sense of the word.
I hope I can hold onto that passion for as long as I can, because that’s the only legitimate reason anyone should ever pick up a camera and make a movie. And I plan to keep making movies for a long time to come.
For more information about “Overtime,” visit our official site at http://OvertimeTheMovie.com.
Brian Cunningham has written and produced numerous award winning short films as well as the feature film “Overtime” (2011) and the unreleased documentary “Monsters Wanted.” He currently owns ThoughtFly Studios, a commercial video production company, with partner Matt Niehoff and is beginning preproduction on his next feature to be shot in 2013.