After dropping out of film school, I wrote, directed, and produced a critically-acclaimed feature film with a budget of less than $300. Then I secured international distribution. IndieNYC asked me to tell you how:
Two years after enrolling, I heard David Mamet say “stay out of school”. If you’re familiar with Mamet, you understand why I listened to him and dropped out. I couldn’t bring myself to reconcile the cost of a degree in film with its actual value. It felt comparable to Alicia Keys getting a degree in music. To achieve the position she wants, the only question that matters in the beginning is “can she sing?” I would argue that later questions would be answered more throughly for her through work experience than a music degree. And I’ve begun to find that this is holding true, for me, in film.
I spent two years telling myself that I was writing a feature to shoot, though all of my writings at the time were really just short little disconnected stories. At least I was writing something. Also during this period, I kept returning to a concept that I wanted to explore, but I was never able to get the log line quite right. At the end of those two years, my writing partner Hari Sathappan finished pre-med and was taking a year off before grad school. This is when we wrote ‘Memory Lane‘. Hari and I began writing short stories together 17 years ago in grade school. After I got my first camera in junior high and we needed something to shoot, we began writing screenplays.
Read The Hollywod News Review of ‘Memory Lane’ – HERE
Hari and I knew that the script needed to be the most solid thing we’d ever written. I made it clear to him that I needed a story that could be easily mentioned alongside legendary no budget debut features like ‘Primer’, ‘Following’, or ‘Pi’. We also understood that the concept needed to be clearly and easily marketable. I shared my log line with Hari, the one about the guy who killed himself to catch a killer, the one that I couldn’t get quite right after two years. We finished it together:
“A young war-veteran travels between our world and the afterlife in search of his fiance’s killer by stopping and starting his own heart.”
Then we wrote it; then Hari turned it into a short story. Then I turned his short story back into a script. Then we rewrote it again and again until it was perfect. Then we put together the package and tried to find financing.
Having never made a feature film, finding financing for a low-budget indie was incredibly difficult. I spent a year searching and managed to raise zero dollars. I moved to Kickstarter. That didn’t work either. Seemingly out of options, I spent about a month in despair. Towards the end of that month of basking in my failure, I came to the realization that I had been making short films for years. Those short films never cost more than a few hundred dollars, if anything at all. I decided to treat ‘Memory Lane‘ the same way.
We took inventory of the people, equipment, and resources that we had free or low-cast access to. Then we rewrote the script for those elements. We didn’t change the nature of the story, rather – if we needed a train, we changed it to a school bus because our high school would let us use the bus for free. When we needed to crash a car for a character’s suicide, we changed it to her jumping from a bridge.
I had written the film as a vehicle for my roommate, an incredibly talented aspiring actor, to star. We had also written in my other roommate as his best friend, not for his acting ability, rather for their chemistry. The rest of the cast was acquired through auditioning the entire theatre department at a local university and begging those who we called back to work for Copy/Credit/Meal. Luckily, they believed in the script and obliged.
Read Horror Talk’s Review of ‘Memory Lane’ – HERE
I spent $286 feeding the cast. Another $6 was spent on fake blood. Other than that, everything was borrowed or donated.
Through my experience with ‘Memory Lane‘, I have found that there are three aspects of a no-budget production that matter much more than others. Of course it must look and sound great, but I would argue that comes later. It won’t look and sound like Inception no matter what you do, so come to terms with that and make your movie.
The most important thing about your first film, and any film for that matter, must be the story. The story must be incredible. It must be marketable. It must feel personal for you. Remember, you’re making a film with no money where your story and your talent are the selling point. You are going to be with this story for at least three years, it better mean something to you.
The next most important thing must be finishing it. Too many filmmakers say they are working on a feature, and a few years later have absolutely no footage to show for it. No matter what, shoot it anyway. Finish it regardless of circumstance. Finish your film.
Finally, I would argue that if your point is to start your career, the next most important thing (even beyond camera/sound) is getting the film to market. A key component of this is generating news.
While my process, as-is, will not work for you, it will certainly give you valuable insight as to how exactly I took my $300 film from the hard drive on my Macbook Pro in my bedroom to the international marketplace.
Upon completion of a rough cut, I drove ‘Memory Lane’ to the West Virginia Filmmaker’s Guild “Open Projector Night”, introduced myself, and screened 15 minutes in June 2011. They were impressed with the product and asked if I would screen the completed film at the West Virginia Filmmaker’s Festival. Because it was a smaller festival and I wanted to preserve my “premiere status” for something larger, I instead offered an out-of-competition advance screening. They accepted, also honoring me as the youngest nominee in history for the West Virginia Filmmaker of the Year Award. After the screening in October 2011, I asked the festival director if he knew any critics that would be interested in reviewing the film. He gave me a list. I emailed every critic on the list and sent screeners of the film to those who responded. Until then, I was excited about the fact that I simply finished a feature film. It wasn’t until the reviews started to come in that I realized that I had actually made a good film. I realized that this could be larger than I anticipated and needed to take it farther.
I didn’t have a marketing budget, so I had to get creative. I set a Google alert for “‘Shawn Holmes’ + ‘Memory Lane’”. Every time a new review went up, I asked that critic if they had any colleagues who would be interested in reviewing the film. I kept sending screeners. I kept getting great reviews. I sent out press releases announcing that on 11/11/11 my now critically-acclaimed film would be online, free to watch, for 48 hours.
The release was picked up by websites including Yahoo! Finance, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. That weekend, ‘Memory Lane‘ received more than 22,000 views. This was news, so I sent out another press release, this time announcing that a movie shot for only $300 received 22,000 views in 48 hours. Numerous film websites picked up this story and it was becoming obvious that I had a movie on my hands. I was contacted, the same day, by companies who would later become my first manger, first international sales agent, and first distributor.
My first distribution deal was signed in January 2012. My first release date was for the UK and Ireland on March 10, 2014. In those 26 months between, the film world-premiered at Sci-Fi London and went to Cannes, Berlin, and Razor Reel. I also secured Australian & New Zealand (April 14), US, and Canadian distribution.
My entire process was a result of no budget. No marketing budget meant discovering innovative ways to get the film out. News means press. Press means exposure. I had to generate news. Instead of letting the idea that I had no money to market the film restrain me, I used it to my advantage. I created an environment where the success of the film required that it proudly wear its $300 price tag. In a world where $250 Million terrible movies are commonplace, the $300 great film is news.