Of the "rags to riches" narratives comprised in the American Dream, one variation seems to be recurring with the regularity of sprocket holes on celluloid. It's the tale of the independent filmmaker, rebuffed by Hollywood, who manages to make a movie on little to no budget, often maxing out credit cards and the goodwill of friends and family along the way. CUT TO: An alignment in the stars that results in a heap of money made by the filmmaker and, ironically, the Hollywood machine that originally passed.
A decade ago, The Blair Witch Project set the gold standard with a $60,000 budget that bloomed into a $240 million profit worldwide. Technically, at $25,000, Deep Throat is still considered the most profitable independent film ever, having grossed around $600 million. In dating terms, that same cost-benefit ratio would be the equivalent of throwing a penny at someone's window and getting blowjobs for the rest of one's life.
"You might say that Deep Throat was the film that started the independent film movement," director Fenton Bailey once remarked. He was right; independent filmmakers have remained on their knees to creditors and distributors to make and release their product since the days of the Lumière Brothers—that is, until the digital age ushered in production and distribution means that emancipated filmmakers from industry gatekeepers. A recent example is filmmaker Shane Carruth's 2004 sci-fi thriller, Primer. Famously made for a mere $7,000, the film became a darling of the festival circuit and landed international distribution.
In terms of lowering the budget-bar, however, Santa Rosa's Lee Cummings has Carruth beat by $6,750. His upcoming feature film, Date for Hire, will be released on DVD by Maverick Entertainment Group this fall, streamed by Netflix and available at such retailers as Blockbuster, Best Buy and Wal-Mart. The film cost $250 to make.
The unrated flick centers on "Marcus," a romantic schlemiel who bets he can score a date with the next woman who walks into the bar frequented by him and his male cohorts. Of course, the femme fatale who sashays in (the gorgeous Jennelle Harris) brings with her a host of complications and plot twists. "Now a simple bet has turned into an all-night adventure, where money, stalkers and craziness collide," reads the official synopsis.
"We shot it in 17 days straight," says the 39-year-old Cummings, who began production a year ago. "It's like when the lightning strikes you; it's like a one-in-a-million shot. I mean, everything can happen badly on a movie."
Especially when that movie's total budget is the price of an iPhone. Though Cummings already owned a camera and could rent the lens packages he desired, he couldn't afford the monitor necessary to view the resulting image right-side-up while shooting. Consequently, he shot the entire film upside-down. And the rest of the budget? Cummings reckons much of it went to the "lighting guy" and Calumet Photographic, an equipment rental house in San Francisco.
Fortunately, Cummings had after-hours access to his primary location, Santa Rosa's Round Robin (aka "the dirty bird"), on the house, as it were. This meant that he and his cast and crew worked from 2am to 10am for more than two weeks. He credits the long-standing friendships between him and his principal cast—Romas Reece, M. Jennings and Scott Fitzgerald—for enduring their turns as swing-shift Stanislavskis.
Remarkably, Cummings scored his distribution deal without any festival screenings to stoke the market. All the festivals to which the film was submitted rejected it, likely because the rollicking dude-driven comedy didn't match the higher-minded profile of typical festival fare. Moreover, after Cummings had sent Date for Hire to Maverick Entertainment Group, he wasn't confident that it had registered on the distributor's radar. Fortunately, he found their company page on Facebook and was able to fortify a connection through the social network.
Will the film be profitable? The relatively low capital investment suggests that Cummings could redeem the beer cans from a screening party and be out of the red. Will it pay back on the estimable sweat equity invested by all involved? Perhaps, but then friendship is its own reward.
Daedalus Howell makes media at DHowell.com.