Scott Hansen shares the story of how they made The Possession Experiment for $35K and have gone on to sell it internationally to major distributors in 25 territories. This interview is rich with details and information, invaluable for any microbudget filmmaker.
Tell me about the gestation of the project. Why did you decide to make a film about exorcism and what inspired the crowdfunding conceit?
Honestly I just wanted to make a film in general. I’ve been dabbling in music videos and shorts for the past 8 years and felt it was time to do a feature. I’ve always longed to do a feature film but I always considered music videos great practice to do big concepts on a small budget. Horror has always been a favorite genre of mine as well as Thriller, Comedy and even Action. So making Possession Experiment is a great mix of all of that to be honest. It has a lot of comedy which people might not expect, we try to not take ourselves too seriously and thats usually a big problem with modern horror movies. I’ve always been a Sam Raimi fan at how he mixes horror with downright comedy. Using the crowdfunding just seemed to be “in” for when I was conceptualizing things; left and right all you see is other bands, filmmakers and entrepreneurs using crowdfunding. In the past 5 years its really been taking off. [The story idea] seemed to be a first: where someone would [allow themselves to be possessed] on purpose in the name of science. That’s a concept I’ve never heard about.
Did you know you were going to make it for this budget when you came up with the idea or was it the result of necessity?
We wanted to just make a film, not worrying about big budget actors and sets. I had spent 3 years trying to raise money for bigger films but most of the deals fell through. Meeting fake investors and people who were not who they said they were. I think someone should make a movie about film finance because that’s the biggest reality show of all time. Our budget was tiny, so tiny. It did help that I had bulked up some gear from working in the music video world for 8 years prior, so I had lights, dollies and the basics.
What were some of the ways that you saved money to keep the costs so low? I’d particularly love to hear how you pulled off the special effects as there are lots of filmmakers – myself included – who would love to be able to try out genres that require effects.
I rented a warehouse space to build our sets, we had 3 main sets to build for the film. Instead of utilizing a Hollywood studio, which we couldn’t afford, we used a basic warehouse for the shoot. We were close to a jet base in Virginia Beach, VA so a lot of times we had to wait for jets that passed over head which was hilarious and annoying but hey you are balling on a budget.
Constructing the set in a rented warehouse
We used a harness system that was about $900 dollars to rig off the beam of the top of the warehouse to get our “levitation” effects. These were done by our stunt coordinator, Jason Tuthill. To have a whole stunt team would have costed thousands but we got away with some great effects just buying the rig ourselves and doing a lot of testing on it. We used mats for safety.
For special effects I’m a stickler for anything FX. Being a huge fan of Rob Botin and Rick Baker along with films like “the Thing” and “The Exorcist” we did tons of concept drawings and make-up tests for the shoot. In the film we had some complicated shots but we took our time. I think a lot of people trying out effects make mistakes by not experimenting with different materials. I had two special fx friends on the shoot who both went to Make Up Effects schools so working with them and constantly trying different make-ups was key. “Less is more” is always better.
The Possessed girl in our film was done very well but it was minimal. We wanted to find a good medium. Instead of going over the top like Exorcist we kept the color pale and worn. Wet the hair and used lots of glycerin sweat techniques, which keeps the sweat long and lasting. Sweat on the characters always catches the lens better. We also used transfer-effects techniques for the scarring so it felt and looked very real. They were made by Harold Clark and Poffo Ortiz our effects guys.
We also had a few scenes that required casting the entire actors face which I have done for music videos and other things before so just knowing the process and being patient as a director is always key. I tend to give my special fx guys all the time they need and a bunch of time in pre-production. If the effects come out bad it’s usually due to rushing or bad planning. Our effects in the film were on point and we took a bunch of time to make sure of that.
Rehearsing with the harness they bought
Did you do the post yourself, go to a post-house or go in another direction?
I have a background in post-production which really helps. Coming from the music video world was very helpful. We did edit on an iMac with another screen. We colored in Da Vinci. We actually used FCPX, which some people are against but I’ve always been a fan of the proxy format. We did finish in Adobe Premiere though since XML’s for audio do work better with our sound designer who was using Pro Tools. There are a few programs for using XML from Final Cut X but they get finicky. That is the one downfall of FCPX is the XML system for post. But like I said: we utilized both programs. With DaVinci Resolve just coming out with their own editing platform for the next movie we might just go that route. We shot the film on a Red Epic 5k.
And here's the same harness in action to create awesomely scary possession effects
Now, I’d really love to know how you got distribution. It’s a horror genre, which is an “easier” genre to market than, say, drama or even comedy.
I hear that all the time about horror and how it’s “easier” but then again a movie is a movie. Anyone these days can tell a story with technology and all the gadgets available to filmmakers. But it all starts with a script. Is horror easier to sell than a drama? Most times I would say yes. But making a film is hard work and 50% of films that go into production don’t see that finish line. Its a very tough business but it’s a labor of passion and you have to live, eat and breathe it if you want to succeed.
But, still, with a budget this size it’s hard to get big distributors to even talk to you.
Did you get a sales agent or go directly to distributors? Or did you go to festivals and get attention that way?
So I’ve heard of the film festival route but I haven’t been a fan of film festivals. The costs associated with festivals skyrocket when an indie filmmaker is taking out loans to make a super low budget film. Then you have to apply to 30-50 film festivals and spend thousands of dollars. I was against all of that. We used the viral approach to get our trailer out there.
A link to our original trailer: The Possession Experiment
First off, make sure your trailer is great, watch others and make sure its fast and too the point. A trailer is everything now-a-days. I actually had to make a trailer to find more money to help finish the film because we started with less than 30 thousand when we first started filming. I was adamant about just filming it and we filmed 75% of the movie and then showed off the footage to attract more investors, which totally worked. When the trailer came out I used a very viral approach to the trailer and it caught on.
The trailer caught the eye of some executives and I was flown out to LA by a few distribution companies; and it was an incredible experience. Without naming names I will say a lot of companies eat up filmmakers and spit them out. I have a strong business sense so without being intimidated I stood my ground. While most companies thought we had 750-2 million for our budget they didn’t know we had less than 3% of that. I can talk about the budget now since the film is coming out but that is your calling card when you first go into the meetings. A lot of the deals offered to us were terrible. Like 90% Distribution and 10% Filmmaker type terrible. So I kept saying no and stuck to social media and building the film up as we were in post-production.
We did try a sales agent out but they ended up not doing anything for us until I met another Sales Agent who got the film in front of some really great executives. We started getting a lot of deals and really good ones with a good MG. MG is a “Minimum Guarantee” and its what a lot of filmmakers strive to lock upfront so you can immediately pay back your investors. We ended up getting a great “MG” for our international company and then we locked a different domestic company as well which ended up being EONE/Momentum Pictures. They were a great fit for us. So we signed and now the film drops on December 6th. 2016.
I do want to note that if you do sign to a sales agent which most filmmakers will do, do yourself a favor and go check in on them. A lot of directors sell the film and just go relax but its important to keep pushing your film to keep selling. We didn’t have a budget to fly to festivals or a marketing budget so we saved up to go to follow the film. We actually flew to Cannes since we were selling internationally there and we dropped in just to make sure our company was doing their job and they were. It was expensive to get to France but we went to our screenings at Cannes and passed out fliers and spread the word to other countries that were there buying films. We actually sold 9 territories while there at Cannes. We are up to 25 now currently so following the film and championing the film as a director or producer is extremely important.
I know from personal experience that deliverables can be a hellish experience so that even once you get interest before you can get any money you have to jump through some fairly expensive and time-consuming hoops. How did you find this part of the process?
All I can say is oh man: “DELIVERABLES”. If anyone goes to film school or wants to learn about making movies make sure you educate yourself about deliverables. I’m glad you brought this up because wow, that is literally the worst part about making movies. Paperwork, paperwork!!!. If you are on a 50k budget or 100k budget definitely set aside 20-40k to spend on Deliverables alone or raise money knowing it’s going to cost. You can’t sell your film without it. It was a hurdle to figure all of them out but we stayed steady and got through them. It took about 4 months alone to finish all the deliverables and then we had to do it all over again for our Domestic Release. International and Domestic both require different things. I highly recommend you do all the deliverable you can “BEFORE” the film because it will save your ass when you are in post production.
When is the film being released and what kind of roll-out is it getting? Any theatrical or straight to VOD, etc?
Right now the film is out internationally.
our USA domestic release is December 6th, 2016!
Middle East: currently in theaters.
Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile 10.16.16
South America: 11.17.16
Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador 11.17.16
Japan: January 2017
more territories to announce very soon!
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