The Tipping Point: How a Bartender Used Take-Home Cash to Self-Fund His $15K Feature

On my last day of film school, my class had a career advisor come in to take a sort of census of our realistic goals.

He’d call out different career paths and hands would go up: “Editors,” a few hands. “Gaffers,” a few more hands. “Location scouting,” a few more hands. My hand never went up. I was waiting to hear “Get a flexible job at a bar and work on your own self-funded films during your off time.” It never came up. Years later, I still don’t understand why that wasn’t presented as a viable option for an aspiring filmmaker. I have a feature film making the festival rounds and a lot of my peers work 60+ hour weeks as an AC and talk about how they need to find more time to write.

Before I go further, this all needs to be met with a disclaimer. You probably haven’t seen my film and very few people have. I’ve accomplished very little. This isn’t lost on me. Crew guys/girls work really hard, there’s room for creativity in that field, the money can be good and you sort of decide when you want to work and when you don’t want to. There are great reasons to work full time on crews. They even sometimes meet producers who want to invest in them. I knew a guy who got a feature film funded after meeting someone on set while he was location managing (incidentally he became a bartender after that to save up for a new film).

I know this stuff happens and you and I both know that there isn’t one way to get a movie made.  I’d also be wise to point out that while I considered being a crew guy a dead end, there are just as many examples, if not more, of how bartending is a dead end too. So I guess it all depends on the person.  I don’t know how other people get movies made, but I’ll tell you a few things about how I got mine made.

“When they ask about the budget just be vague. Say under $100,000 or something.”

This is something you’ll hear from people who apparently know more about this stuff than you do.  You see, you want to create the illusion that people have already invested in you. This, presumably, will attract other cream guys who may want to hop on the ship before it leaves the port. I get the logic, I guess. But screw that, man. I spent $15,000 on a movie that a lot of people said I wouldn’t be able to shoot at all.  Film school friends say you don’t have enough money to shoot the trapeze scene and they don’t want to work on a dead end project? The scene stays, you’ll make new friends.

Yes, you may ask, but how did I even get the 15?

Cast and crew of Life of Significant Soil, from bottom left: Sound/gaff Josh Archer, writer-director Michael Irish, lead actor Alexis Mouyiaris, DP Brad Buehring, PA Jeff Hendricks and lead actor Charlotte Bydwell. Photograph by Derek Miazga

Look, bartenders are infamous for making a huge amount of cash but never really having any. You’re going to need to set a budget for yourself and stick to it. If you leave work with 300 bucks walk straight to the ATM. Cash tends to disappear quickly. If you need a little scratch on your way home to pop into the other bar for a quick shot and to float a 20, fine, float it. But, you know, the floating 20 only works if it comes back to you some other night. A lot of bartenders don’t seem to get that and they float them all over town, which needless to say, is a net loss.  Of the 300 you made that night, 150 goes into a “new film” account. You’re supposed to struggle. You’re supposed to have to batch meals on a lazy Sunday and eat the same thing all week. You’re an artist, and if you’re going to fund your film, you’re going to have live like the starving kind for a while. If you save 300 bucks a week that puts you just over 15,000 in one year. You can do it.  Incidentally, if you’re working at a bar where these numbers seem outrageous, keep looking for a better gig. They are out there, and there’s no reason to bartend, in my opinion, unless you’re making legit money.  It takes several jobs to find the one that sticks, so don’t get complacent.

Open a brokerage account. Don’t put your money in savings. There is no interest in those and you’re just leaving money on the table. Put it all on an ETF, a low risk investment that will likely net you about 10% in a year. That’s 10 times better than a savings account. For all the cash you can make as a bartender, you really need to learn how to manage it. Too many times when I was younger I’d clean up over the weekend and by Wednesday I’d sort of be broke (and hungover). You probably need to limit the six a.m. nights, but I’m not here to tell you how to live. If you can party til the sun comes up and still save, what do I care? Just save.

Buehring shooting Bydwell on her first attempt at a flying trapeze. “After making a lot of calls and prepared to make some compromises, we got this location for free,” says Irish. Photograph by Jeff Nash Hendricks

Here are some other tips on making an ambitious feature film on tips:

1. You’re gonna need very cool, flexible, understanding actors and crew.

Actors need to keep track of their outfits and continuity on their own, they may need to adjust the C-Stand because nobody else can in that moment, the sound guy may need to gaff for a day, and the DP may have to build his own camera.  A small crew like this, you’re all going to be family after this thing is over. It may be stressful, but it’s a very real love that you’ll feel for these people and it’s worth it all in the end.

As for pay, remember this: Your film is an asset. Nobody can make a film the way that you can make a film, and that makes it an asset. You wouldn’t buy a house and let people live there for free, so why do all of these people throw around points so willie nillie? I get that you have to make concessions to get the film done, but a lot of indie film-makers get pretty giddy about giving away cuts of their work. That goes against principle for me. If you are getting a name actor who increases the commercial viability of your film, you can give him/her points. The rest you can afford with the $15,000 budget.

$15,000 really isn’t that small of a budget when you consider you aren’t paying any union rates. Here’s an example:

$2,000 for actors

$4,000 for crew

$5,000 for post-production (trust me on that one)

$2,000 production costs (locations, transportation, food)

$1,000 art direction/costumes/props

$1,000 festival submission and marketing materials*

*Don’t carpet bomb FilmFreeway, either. Will the festival like your film? Look at past winners and always ask for a waiver first. $1,000 should be more than enough. The difference between being accepted to eight festivals and 80 is totally pointless. I really think I wasted 300-500 bucks on submitting to things I wasn’t qualified for. I got so excited to have a completed film, and I thought, “Hey, maybe I’ll get in to Sundance!”. That’s 100 bucks. I was never getting in to Sundance. I know it’s hard, but you have to try and be really realistic about your festival goals.

Mouyiaris going over his scenes for the day while working on Life of Significant Soil. Photograph by Derek Miazga

2. You Can’t Pay Day Rates (And Other Money Stuff)

We went all the way to Jones Beach to shoot a scene at the airshow and half-way there we heard on the news that it got rescheduled. So, what, I cut everyone because there’s nothing else we can shoot for this reason or that reason and plan to shoot it the next day and just give everyone their 200 bucks for the day because they’re guaranteed 10 hour days? I can’t do that. Flat rates only.  It’s a 28-day shoot, pay x amount for the whole month. Half up front half at the end (I actually pay all up front, if trust is an issue than they probably shouldn’t be on your crew either way). I like paying up front because it takes money out of the relationship. Your payments are current, your cast and crew know they’re taken care of, and now let’s get to work.  There is bound to be a sort of lack of professionalism on such a small set, so I kind of think I learned to embrace that. But that doesn’t mean you can get flaky with money…

Always be up front with money. I did have one actor who we decided would be on a day rate, and at the end of the day I walked up and gave him cash and thanked him. He told me I was one of the few directors he ever worked with that didn’t make him ask. If you’re doing this thing for $15K, you’re probably not paying people what they’re worth. The least you can do is respect them and their time.

3. A Short Day of Shooting From 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sounds Like You’re Giving People a Break From the Long Days and They’re Getting a Half Day But Really It Means You Don’t Have to Feed Anyone

$$$.

4. You Don’t Have to Write With Budget in Mind. Everyone is Lying to You

Of course it makes it easier. But not everyone wants to write like that. When I was looking for a DP I reached out to a college friend who I remembered being really good. He read the script and pretty abruptly declined. He said there was no way I’d be able to shoot it and it wasn’t worth it for him to take time off of working the equipment cage at school to try and shoot it.

You’ll find someone who believes in you, and that’s who you want on your crew anyway. I got really lucky. My DP is now a very good friend, and we work on stuff together every chance we get.

It’s also worth noting that I didn’t shoot in my bar. I of course could have shot for free there, and bars are pretty hard to get for free in N.Y.C. But the story just didn’t need it. I know that a lot of people will disagree with this, but you really should feel empowered to write whatever story you want.

Obviously the house that explodes got rewritten in my film. You’ll have to compromise some stuff. But it’s good to work on your problem solving. In this production we worked out a way to sneak all of our gear onto the Cyclone and shoot an entire scene illegally on a rickety rollercoaster without being caught. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself.

Mouyiaris and Bydwell shoot a scene from Life of Significant Soil. Photograph by Derek Miazga

5. Bartender/Filmmakers Perks

One of the biggest perks of this whole thing is the undoubted relationship you have with your own bar as well as others in the neighborhood. We went out for a cold one pretty much every night and it never counted against the budget thanks to my friendly neighborhood bartenders. I scraped together a lot of resources through regulars and coworkers. My shifts got picked up pretty easily so I didn’t have to quit my job for taking a month off.

Every indie filmmaker feels like they need to write a book about how they got their films made—by hook or by crook—because in retrospect it feels kind of impossible. But I’m not the only one that’s done it which makes me think anyone can. So I’ll resist feeding you all of the things I stole or got lucky with, but rest assured, you’ll have to do that stuff too.

In fact, with everything I’ve learned through this process, I could probably make the same film for $8,000. I just really don’t want to. Indie filmmaking is a desert until the right person likes you and decides to open the flood gates. If that happens, and someone wants to give me a real amount of money to make a commercially viable film, will I be ready? The good news is, working around copious amounts of alcohol for 10 years has taught me one thing: I know how to swim. MM

Life of Significant Soil has won awards at a number of festivals and is now being distributed by Candy Factory Films. It is available for purchase on June 27, 2017. E-mail the film’s crew at Lifeofsignificantsoilmovie@gmail.com, or visit them on Facebook here.

2 Comments

  1. Gregory Green

    July 13, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    Great article. I want to see your film! I had a similar experience with my film 3 OF A KIND. It’s on Amazon now. Here’s the trailer: http://bit.ly/3ofaKindonAmazon

  2. James Tweedie

    July 1, 2017 at 6:02 pm

    Thanks for sharing! Im producing a film called Float Trip with Carter Reynolds this summer and everything you mentioned is helpful and true.

    Ill check out your film. Float Trip will launch on Amazon.com in October 2017!

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