Over the years, I’ve done what I can to support and promote independent filmmakers. In that vain, today another in an occasional series of guest posts called Dispatches from the Front Line: Dan Benamor shares his experiences in co-writing and making the movie Initiation which is being released tomorrow August 9 by Gravitas Ventures. In this Dispatch, Dan offers several key insights for anyone interested in making low-budget movies. It’s a really good read:
As writers, a piece of advice we often hear, sometimes thrown out as a sort of last resort, is, “just go make your movie”. This is advice that I would catch and release. It just always seemed like an impossibly huge challenge. The logistics of it alone, and the amount of people you’d have to marshal together, especially for a writer, felt overwhelming. I’d ignore it, block it out of my mind, and write my next big-budget action spec script.
But as digital cameras became cheaper and cheaper, this notion kept coming up. After I graduated from the Vancouver Film School in 2010, I had my first opportunity to “just go make your movie”.
My cousin (Oren Benamor), a filmmaker in Los Angeles, had called me about putting together a script with a story based around some locations he knew he could get in LA. We worked on it together, but ultimately the financing for the LA version didn’t look like it would come through.
I looked around and realized something. After film school, I knew makeup artists, actors, directors of photography, producers. I knew basically at least one person in every department I would need to make a film. So I asked my cousin if he’d be comfortable with me shooting it in Vancouver.
He said sure, and the result was my first feature, “Betrayed”, a movie I wrote, directed, edited, serving as casting director, location scouted, and with the help of an incredibly supportive cast and crew that worked for free, made for literally less than 5K. The film ultimately screened at a festival (Worldfest Houston) and won an award there (best Suspense/Thriller).
But (and if you take anything from this post, fellow micro-budget filmmaker, take this) we later learned there’s something you pretty much have to buy called “E&O insurance” (Errors & Omissions), and the cost would likely be close to the cost of the entire film. So “Betrayed” ultimately did not gain distribution.
What it did do though, I believe, is prove to myself and other filmmakers in my orbit (like my cousin, who I of course updated every step of the way) that this really was achievable with some elbow grease and a boatload of favors.
I moved to LA afterwards, and had a good run working as a development executive at a production company making independent films. While I was there, my cousin again approached me, with a similar notion of retrofitting a script around existing locations. That script was “Initiation”.
We ultimately wrote it together. And I had learned some things along the way. Instead of doing another suspense/thriller (as my first film was) this one was straight up action/horror (the two most marketable genres for low budget films both domestically and in foreign markets). Also, ironically, given the notion of doing a second micro-budget feature, my first big idea for the script was to add a second primary location.
This, at a surface level, doesn’t make any sense. A one-location script is much easier and cheaper to shoot. Adding a second location adds complexity and cost. Why do that? But I had learned the hard way this was important.
In both my own first feature and the various independent features I had developed, I realized something. When you only have one location, there’s a claustrophobia to the story that can be a little suffocating, narratively, and also make the “micro” part of micro-budget feel REALLY obvious.
So what we did was open the story up. “Initiation” takes place in two different locations, and during two different timelines. The second location? The woods. It’s about the cheapest location you can get.
This small change made the film “feel” bigger, both in physical scope and the ambition of the story. It also added depth to our hero, played by our friend, a great actor and also a producer on the film, Adam Rennie.
That’s another lesson I learned from working in development. There are hundreds of cynical, obviously written with no real emotional investment, lowbrow horror scripts and movies out there. I don’t think that can ever make for a great movie.
So we really strove to take this story – at face value a death match horror riff on “Bloodsport”, and give it real emotion. There’s a narrative to it about what true strength is that’s all psychological. And it’s that aspect that makes me (and hopefully audience members upon our release) passionate about the movie.
Adam Ryan Rennie in Initiation
We were ultimately able to raise the money and shoot the movie, largely through private equity and some fantastic producing from our excellent team of producers. This is a whole different skill set than writing, which I wasn’t really involved in but still marvel at, and huge kudos goes to all our producers, especially the extraordinary Mike Kopera.
One big note here on the production itself for writers is that if you aren’t particularly experienced in shooting films, and you want to do a micro-budget feature, you may be better off pairing with a more experienced filmmaker. The years I spent writing script after script, my cousin Oren spent shooting everything from weddings to music videos to reality TV to shorts to web series. He brought a level of filmmaking craft to this as a director and editor that I would never have been able to.
Once it was finished, as a result of spending years as a development executive, I knew who all the buyers were (something I had no knowledge of when I made my first film). We sent the movie out, were fortunate to get numerous offers, and ultimately Gravitas Ventures is releasing “Initiation” on most VOD platforms August 9th.
A scene from the movie Initiation
The last takeaway I want to give there is that distributors WANT content. I had a leg up because I had contacts due to my job, but there were many other distributors who we reached out to cold and they agreed to screen the film, and in some cases made offers on it.
If you make your movie, and it’s good, people will want it. The barrier to entry with a completed film is extremely low. You’ve done the hard work for them. Whereas with a screenplay, what you’re really saying is, “Hey, want to give up years of your life and millions of dollars to produce this film?” with a completed film it’s a product ready to go, and distributors need to keep pushing new content through the pipeline.
After doing two of these films, I’m living proof that there’s really nothing stopping you from doing it. You, reading this blog post, can get up, write a script that expresses whatever themes are important to you in a contained (translation: cheap) way, find a director or appoint yourself director, then beg, borrow and steal some money, and make your script into a living, breathing, movie.
If you want to see an example of that type of process come to fruition, check out “Initiation” on any of the VOD platforms (ITunes, Amazon, etc.) August 9th. It could just as easily be your movie.
In the past, I’ve talked about how a writer ought to be able to wear several ‘hats’ – producer, executive, actor, director. Dan’s dispatch demonstrates how he wore all of those and more in crafting and making Initiation, then critically how he used his experience in development to help steer the movie to a distribution deal.
The last point Dan makes is a big one: Distributors want content. As writers and filmmakers, we need to be smart about our creative and production choices – genre, locations, budget, and craft a script which plays to a project’s strengths so a distributor will see a potential to generate revenue.
Thanks, Dan, for your insights and best of luck to you and your cousin with the movie Initiation.