How to Make a Feature Film for Less Than Minimum Wage
The journey of our feature film “Before The Dark” begins with a phone call from my good friend Benny Oliveri, Benny and I met at Film School and had stayed in touch ever since.
A few years after Film School we both found ourselves living in sunny Los Angeles, my journey to LA was short-lived, lasting only a few years out there before I found myself without the bank account I once had. So I moved back to my home state, Maryland where I found some Background acting work in Political shows like House of Cards and Veep, but my main goal was to WRITE.
I would write Spec Scripts day and night, and then 2 years ago the phone rings, it is Benny, I will never forget this phone call due to its simplicity “I Have access to a school, a teacher and a leading actress… what can you do?!” I told Benny to give me a week and Iʼd have something.
About a week later I called Benny back and told him an idea I had about a girl whose mother had gone missing and the mother had left clues for her daughter to find her. Not exactly Shakespeare, but a solid starting point.
Benny had set out to make a short film, which I LOVED! I loved this because Benny had the push through that I somehow lacked, I would write all the time, but those scripts still sit on my shelves waiting to be discovered, but Benny was actually saying “This is what I want to do, so why donʼt I just get out there and do it?!” And for me, I can never thank Benny enough for thinking of me to come up with an idea that he trusted enough to actually spend his hard earned time on to make into a reality.
So, about a week goes by and I write the first draft of this short story, I think it clocked in at about 16 pages. Benny and I had some conversations and I did a few rewrites, and then my job was done and Benny was off to the races, starting production on the short film.
So over the course of a week or two, Benny had filmed basically the entire movie with the exception of the last few pages set in the Corn Field (they had already filmed there for a day or two previously.) So they were all set to meet at the cornfield on I think a Sunday and when they all arrive, they see that the cornfield had been completely plowed!
3,000 Miles away I get the call, we canʼt film our epic climax. Benny and I start trying to figure this thing out, how can we finish it, the ending HAD to be set in an area of importance, something visually stunning. I thought about taking it to the famous Red Woods in San Francisco, I thought of several ideas that simply just were not grandiose enough to make this thing work. But we pushed on, we had some time to think of a way to end this thing in grand fashion.
How to Make a Feature Film on the CHEAP!
In that time, I had actually started outlining a feature-length version of the short story. I liked the ideas I had come up with but felt that the short story nature of it did not really let me open up the story. And then, another phone call came!
I was in Florida for my Grandfathers funeral, and my family and I were at a rented house when my phone rang, it was Benny, he had made a directing reel to try and get some work, but the producer he showed it to told him that his reel was good if he wanted commercial or music video work but in order to be considered for feature work, you need to make a feature! I know, it seems a bit catch 22 if you ask me, but that is the nature of our business!
So Benny started asking about if I had any scripts or ideas for a feature film. I thought about it for a moment and then it hit me: I am already outlining the feature of Before The Dark, it would be so easy for us to just slide right into it because as the director Benny is already familiar with it, same with the actors and crew.
So, it was settled, we were doing it: We were going to launch into the biggest thing either of us had ever done. It took me about a month or two to write the first draft of the script, it had some really solid ideas, but ultimately it lacked SOMETHING, there was just something in it, some story element that just did not work which made the whole script feel a bit off.
After Benny and I discussed this in one of our now infamous “Quick 2 Minute” calls (which never lasted less than an hour and a half!) I went back to the drawing board, which means I got my butt to the library, threw in my headphones and put on some film scores to listen to (when I write I must listen to film scores, they are amazing pieces of music that drown out any outside noise and in most cases can really get your juices flowing by how inspirational they are… because this script was a sci-fi story dealing with space, I put on what has become my all-time favorite film score, Interstellar and listened to that on repeat).
About a month or so later I had my next draft complete, I was really proud of this draft, I had spent numerous nights laying in bed trying to sleep but not being able to because my brain was working overtime trying to figure out certain beats in the script, things like if I do this, then that means this cant have happened earlier, or if I do that than this makes no sense. I honestly think I nearly had an Aneurism from this, it was a constant headache! But ultimately I figured it out!
When I sent the script to Benny I EAGERLY awaited his call. And a few hours later I got it and when I picked up i got the words that still reverberate in my head, Bennyʼs first words to me were a very enthusiastic “Mister Hamerly!” as if to say
“Wow, I did not think you had THIS in you!”
We talked about how much different this version was than the previous and how the story now was a story worth telling, a story worth putting our entire lives and ambition behind!
And then came the hard part… funding!
We have the idea, we have the ambition, but both of those things mean nothing if we have no money to make it actually happen. So we decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign. Benny edited together an amazing promotional piece which he edited together using incomplete footage from the short with us explaining the vision to make it into a feature, and in my humble opinion, it looked better than the majority of the videos that are on Kickstarter, and iʼm specifically talking about videos aimed at funding films.
And then a miracle happened. For all of us trying to make our way in this film world, we all have our other jobs, the ones that allowed us to grab Taco Bell on a Friday night. Bennyʼs was Real Estate. He worked for a guy who was quite successful. Benny had told him about the Kickstarter and he went and watched it, and I think just KNOWING Benny and knowing his passion and knowing how hard of a worker he was within his real estate team, he called up Benny and basically said he would invest in Benny.
He wrote Benny a check for 15 grand and gave us an EXTREMELY fair deal in terms of what he wanted out of it (This was an INVESTMENT in Benny and his dreams, and he knew that anything Benny did would turn a profit, but he was in no way looking to make a huge profit off of Benny, more looking to make a little something by helping a person he truly believed in achieve his dream!)
The biggest advice we can offer for the funding process is this: ASK EVERYONE! You never know who you may know that is willing to invest in YOU. Obviously, you have to have passion about what it is you are doing, simply asking a person “Hey, can I have some money?” That will never work, but if you have passion and somehow to showcase it in a proof of concept, then you are well on your way.
So now we had our funding (and yes, $15,000 for a feature-length movie is NOTHING, even $150,000 is pushing it in today’s world)
Luckily Benny had made some great contacts in Northern California and we were lucky enough to find a GREAT cast and crew. Benny and I took to Backstage to cast the roles we still needed to cast. It was so interesting being on the other side of the casting process, it really is true, with most people you know within two seconds if they are right for the role or not.
We received so many auditions, some of which were downright weird (one guy sent us a video of him terribly singing Adeleʼs “Hello”) other people on there had pictures of them in their backyards smoking weed and drinking beer (Even if they were trying to be cast in such a role, would any person actually cast this person?!) and then there were the females who post half naked pictures of themselves on their professional pages, Iʼm assuming they think we are all perverts and will just hire someone that shows some skin?!
I am not sure what goes through some peopleʼs heads… but we did find some amazing talent on there and after a few weeks of casting, we had our full cast.
Then came scheduling, Benny was in charge of this, trying to work out everyoneʼs schedules. Normally scheduling isnʼt a problem, because if you are paying a person, they will adhere to YOUR schedule, but in our world, they were working for Credit, and in that case, WE had to work around THEIR schedules which proved difficult, but Benny, a few gray hairs later, was able to get it done!
Benny took care of finding most of the locations, the script called for 32 separate locations. Guess how much we spent on all of our locations? $1200. That is all! And the majority of that was from an Air B&B House we had rented for a day.
No one wants to hear this, but shooting in Los Angeles and New York is not the best option, I know what you are thinking, you spend so much to move TO these destinations to get your career going, so why are they not the best places to shoot Independent Films? Because in L.A and NY people have seen it all before, and they know how much they can get to let some indie filmmakers shot on their property.
Because in L.A and NY people have seen it all before, and they know how much they can get to let some filmmakers in their places to shoot. Most other places (at least as been my experience on this film, which was all shot within a 30-mile radius of Sacramento, CA) you tell them you are shooting a movie and they can just like the idea of their business being featured in a movie.
Granted, some people hear you are making a movie and they think big bucks, just gotta explain that you are small time, for the most part, people will understand. We shot in the largest Corn Maze in the entire world, we spent a total of $0 on this location, the owner of the field had one simple stipulation
“Can I watch?”
Of course, he can watch! And guess what, he never actually came out to watch. And again, how did we secure this Corn Maze? A simple phone call is all it took. “Iʼm a local filmmaker and our script calls for a Corn Maze”, your stomach bubbles as you dial, but once it is over, you have a location that makes your film look like a million dollars, all for free!
Our first 2 Week shoot fell over Memorial Day weekend in 2016. I had flown out there because as the Writer of the project I had given myself a role in the film, and as the Producer (alongside Benny) I had to be out there to help Benny as he directed the project (We had a solid thing, while I was writing the script, Benny took over the majority of the Producing responsibilities, while Benny focused on Directing, I took over those duties).
My duties for those 2 weeks entailed making sure we had lunches every day and snacks and doing other tasks that would normally fall to a PA, but on Indie Film, no matter who you are, you ARE a PA!
Our schedules for these 2 weeks were super hectic, literally, it was: Wake up, get the gear ready, go shoot, grab dinner, go home, unload gear, go to sleep… lather, rinse, repeat! And yet as crazy at that schedule sounds, it was the best time of my life! I was making a feature film with my close friends (Our DP was another great friend of Benny and Mine named Augie, he knows things about shots and lighting that I will never comprehend!)
Our finale again took place in a cornfield, and we again were allowed to shoot in the cornfield that we had used for the short, but this time we were going to be on top of it, they were not going to plow this bad boy before we got a chance to get in there!
So, now we had to wait for the corn to grow to a suitable size for us to film. I will tell you this, going back to your normal life after doing something like that, living your dream, it is a tough reality! At the time I was working in Retail at a Department store that rhymes with and sells Bowls. I hated every minute of it! How could I go back to
“How can I help You?” after actually living my dream?!
Luckily the corn grew quick and we were able to get back out there to film over Labor Day weekend I fly back out West to complete the filming. Benny takes me to the corn maze, I am blown away by this place. Just from a production value point of view, this was going to make our film look like it was made with a budget far exceeding what we actually had!
Also Benny and I implemented a No texting Rule on all Disagreements, before we started to shoot, if we had a disagreement over anything we had to immediately CALL the person and talk it out, because through text the person’s tone can be lost and that is how confusion can happen and confusion can lead to anger and anger can lead to no movie!)
After filming ended, again I flew back to Maryland and waited.. back to my soul-sucking job in retail. While Benny took over the editing duties… we needed to have a semi-rough cut ready to go in just 3 weeks for the Sundance Submissions. All credit to Benny who, I don’t know how he did it but he managed to edit the hell out of this thing.
We submitted to the big festivals, Sundance, South By Southwest, Atlanta, Dallas and even smaller ones like The Boston Sci-Fi Film fest… and we got into…. NONE of them! When we saw the lineup announced for Sundance we quickly realized we were never even in the same universe as the films selected… these were movies made by A-list talent that were called “Indie Films” because they were not financed by any of the BIG studios.
They say all films are weighed equally at Sundance, but that is not true, it seems more about getting the A-list talent o GO to Sundance than it is showcasing up and coming talent, and how do you get A-listers to come to your town? Have their Vanity projects play there! I know that sounds like I am ripping into Sundance, and well…yeah I guess I am!
Donʼt get me wrong, I have seen a ton of movies to come out of Sundance and they are truly phenomenal films, but they just are not for the little guys like us who donʼt have any weight behind our names but went out there and made a go at it.
So, I must admit, after not getting accepted into ANY festivals, I was a bit dejected. I mean, did we just spend a ton of money (not just the money from the investor PLUS the extra couple grand from my own Mother!) but it also depleted my own bank account (and I’m sure Bennyʼs as well).
But Benny never wavered… Benny knew what we had and he researched his ass off finding alternate ways to get this out there. We started seeing Self Distribution as the most viable route. We could put the movie on Amazon and they would take a cut of the profits. This seemed like the best option to get the movie out there, get it seen (hopefully) and make back some of the money.
Then we started looking at getting distribution, we figured we could do this on our own, but why not give some professionals a cut of the profits in return for their masterful skills (and more importantly CONTACT list).
So we started searching around, and we submitted to one place that immediately got back to us. We signed a form allowing them to view our film, they liked it and wanted to sign the film for distribution. We then got the contract… now Benny and I are not super legally inclined, but we are both pretty intelligent people, intelligent enough to know this contract was a bit funky.
For starters, the company was started by a woman who when you went to her Facebook page had NOTHING about her distribution company, but looked like the Facebook page of an actress who never worked but thought she was amazing! Now how did we end up on her Facebook page? Oh, well in the contract there was a clause that specifically said we HAD to LIKE her Facebook page and get at least 50 of our friends to LIKE her page as well!
That was a massive red flag, plus they were asking for a percentage of profits that far exceeded what a normal contract should take. There were enough red flags to where Benny and I discussed it and we decided that we would rather NOT sign with this company than risk being tied to them for a EIGHTEEN YEAR CONTRACT they wanted us to sign!
Luckily a few weeks later one of the actors in our film pointed us to this other distribution company, I am not sure how he heard of them, but we submitted our film to them, they liked it enough to offer to sign the film. I did my due diligence with this company, I looked them up online, I found things people had written about them, I searched their company through every database I could, everything checked out. Then they sent the contract,
Then they sent the contract, nowhere was a contract we could get behind, there was no hidden language, no clauses that would require Benny and I to hire a lawyer just to understand, it was straight and to the point and their commission rate fell inline with everything I had researched a commission rate SHOULD be.
So Benny and I discussed it over a “2-minute” phone call and we decided this was it, letʼs sign on the dotted line and secure distribution for our film!
And now, here we are, our film BEFORE THE DARK is released on DVD (September 12, 2017)(With Filmmaker Commentary) and Amazon Streaming! We are beyond excited to have this thing out in the world!
A few pointers about making your own film for a very limited budget:
• Utilize your local film commission! Every state has one and most places are eager to help you get your project off the ground. We got lucky with the Sacramento Film Commission and our contact (Whose name I will withhold for the sake of Anonymity, but if you are in that area, you will find this person and she will help you more than you could imagine.} I will say, I have dealt with other Film Offices and they have been nowhere near as helpful. I guess it, is just the luck of the draw. But be persistent! Get what you need to get!
• With your locations, use every square inch of the location, you may find that a single location can be used for 4 or 5 different scenes. For us, we used 1 location for 3 different “Locations” in the movie. We got on the roof, we used the Break Room, if you can use it, then use it! It will save time and money and save you massive headaches in the process!
• When you do casting, doing in-person casting is a cool idea, setting up your own space to actually MEET the talent. That takes time and money, do self-taped video auditions. Give a deadline to the Auditioning Actor and then you can view their submissions on your own time, you can make casting decisions at 2am, in your pajamas, and really that is what we all strive for!
• 2 Positions that we would recommend either paying a few bucks for or just doing your due diligence and getting the very best… Director of Photography and Sound. If you are trying to make your film look like a million bucks, using great lighting and camera tricks, you need a DP who does not just TALK the talk, but actually knows his/her stuff! And again, having people in charge of your sound be top notch, it is imperative.
Nothing can possibly be worse than finishing a great experience of making a movie and then getting into the editing bay and your audio is complete garbage, you really have no way of moving forward. People are more willing to forgive something that looks a little off than something that they can not hear or understand!
So that is it, I know it was long, but I hope it was informative. We are the people who just wanted to make a movie and were fortunate enough to do it!
My main goal for seeking distribution was that hopefully it would lead to the next project, one I am actually in the middle of writing right now. As much as I loved the process of making Before The Dark, there are a lot of things Iʼd like to avoid on the next one, one big thing is sinking every penny I have into it! Iʼd like to get to a place where someone sees the talent we all have and fund our next project(s)!
The next project is a film titled “One Lane Road” which follows four strangers as they embark on a cross-country road trip. The Kickstarter is live now.
So uh.. anyone out there want to give us some money?!?!
Author Brad Hamerly is a Writer/ Producer who currently resides in Maryland. After coming up short in the pursuit of acting, he decided to follow the Ben Affleck/ Matt Damon, Kevin Smith, & Sylvester Stallone models and make his own fate. This led to him writing BEFORE THE DARK, an ambitious Science Fiction feature shot for only $17,000. Brad is currently hard at work getting his next project, ONE LANE ROAD off the ground.
You can buy Before the Dark on:
- Werner Herzog’s Filmmaking MasterClass
- Filmmaking Hacks: Filmmaking Master Course
- Directing Actors Film Workshop
- USC Film School’s ONLY Online Course: Directing the Actor
- Film Lighting MasterClass
- Recording Sound for Indie Film
- The Art of Micro-Budget Filmmaking
- Cinematography MasterClass
- Film Festival Hacks: Submit Like a Pro
- Self-Distributing Your Film Online
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