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How Making A Movie Is Like Launching A Startup

In act one of our series, Adam Penenberg has the idea for a percussive film called Beatbox, but very little idea how to make it.

How Making A Movie Is Like Launching A Startup

It was a frigid November afternoon.

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We were shooting a movie inside and in front of a beverage distribution warehouse in the still-semi-gritty Gowanus section of Brooklyn, when a beefy pickup truck screeched to a halt. Out streamed a crew of hard hats, plopping down orange cones and toting jackhammers, shovels, and other road-ripping machinery.

My fellow producers Jon Furay and Chip Hourihan and I greeted the crew before the last man could exit the truck.

“We have a permit,” Chip said, after we explained the situation.

“So do we,” replied the crew chief, producing what appeared to be a work order from his tool belt.

Dueling permits, and no one knew whose should hold sway. It was a tense moment. Deafening jackhammer noise would ruin our sound recording and completely shut us down for the day. This was a key location and one that we could only shoot on Saturdays when the business wasn’t open. For us, a stoppage would be catastrophic. Every day of shooting was costing us $12,000–a huge amount for a film with a budget of around $200,000.

We were in the midst of a tight three-week shoot for Beatbox, an independent feature film that takes place in the percussive world of beatboxing. In development for six years, the film, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Andrew Dresher, was shot entirely in Brooklyn with a diverse cast that reflects the global melting pot of the beatbox demographic—and my home borough.

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Beatbox tells the story of Pete, a DJ and musician in his 20s, who isn’t ready to give up his dreams of making music for a full-time job. The film culminates in the national beatbox championships where some of the finest vocal percussionists on the planet face off in battles, each pushing the other to fantastical ear-popping performances. Think of it as a kinder, gentler 8 Mile, without gangs.

So, back there in Gowanus, we did what any self-respecting movie producers would do under the circumstances: We begged and cajoled.

“Okay, okay, I’ll call my dispatcher,” the crew chief finally said. After a quick word he told us he and his crew had another job a few avenues over and would return when we were done. Crisis averted.

And that brings me to this four-part series. Over the next few weeks I’ll tell you the story behind our movie—its humble origins, working out a concept, preproduction, casting, the shoot, post-production, and much more. What I learned, among many other things, is that making an indie film is a lot like launching a startup. And let’s face it: Many people would love to make a movie, or launch a startup, or both. My hope is that when you finish this series, you should have a much better idea how.

Before you decide to do it, though, I suggest you pour yourself a stiff drink, lie down on your sofa, and don’t get up until the feeling passes.

The Big Idea

Before you can make a movie—or launch a startup for that matter—you need an idea. Travis Kalanick came up with Uber while searching in vain for a taxi in Paris on a cold, snowy night. Mark Zuckerberg thought up Facebook when he realized he could take Harvard’s social network and put it online. The same goes for a movie.

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For Beatbox, it began in May 2009, when I came across a YouTube clip posted on Facebook featuring a Japanese beatboxer who called himself Daichi. Shot inside a drab office with an analog wall clock and color printer behind him, Daichi ripped through a two-and-a-half minute long beatbox performance covering a stream of popular songs—all with his mouth.

It led me to race through dozens more beatbox videos, and because it was spawning an entire online community, it dawned on me that it might make a good documentary. Thanks, in part, to YouTube, I could see that beatboxing was fast becoming a global phenomenon, with some videos topping 50 million views. I emailed a bunch of clips to Jon Furay, a budding producer who had helped me option my book, Tragic Indifference, to Michael Douglas. He replied: “It’s a movie.”

It turned out the Beatbox World Championships in Berlin were only a week away. Jon and I booked tickets and a hotel online and off we went. There, we immersed ourselves in the culture. After three days hobnobbing with beatboxers from around the world and learning the rules of the competition, we were convinced we were on to something.

Staffing Up

Everyone knows that directors direct and screenwriters write, but what exactly do producers do? Well, just that. They get movies made. Just like a startup founder, a producer comes up with an idea, forms a company, raises money, hires writers, finalizes a script, brings a director onboard, retains a line producer, auditions actors, secures permits, rents equipment, scouts and secures locations, licenses music, finds extras for crowd scenes, handles myriad tax and finance issues, hires the crew–on our payroll we listed more than 60 people as independent contractors to work 12-hour days–and, as my anecdote above illustrates, fixes things when they go awry (and they often do).

Along the way we faced a cornucopia of challenges. We suffered the inevitable technical difficulties, ran through four music composers before settling on a soundtrack, and almost ran out of money before we could complete post-production.

Then there were the rip-roaring arguments, some of which would make a sub-Reddit comment thread seem genteel in comparison. There’s nothing uncommon about that–in moviemaking and launching a company. As David Schisgall, a documentary filmmaker who cowrote the screenplay for Our Idiot Brother (starring Paul Rudd) told me: “If none of you have been charged with manslaughter by the time you finish your movie, consider it a success.”

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Schisgall knows of what he speaks. He wrote Our Idiot Brother with his wife, the Vanity Fair writer Evgenia Peretz, while his brother-in-law, Jesse Peretz (now a producer of Girls), directed.

Fights are also legion in the world of startups. Mark Zuckerberg famously shoved Eduardo Saverin out the door after attracting Facebook’s first major investment. Noah Glass was given the boot from Twitter with six months severance and some Odeo stock. Then there’s the sordid tale of Khalid Shaikh, the first president of YouSendIt (now Hightail), who was tossed out even though he had created the original code and built the servers from scratch. Irate over his treatment, Saikh unleashed a series of distributed denial of service attacks against his old company, crippling site traffic for hours on end.


Related: Can Two Amazing Beatboxers Make Corporate Jargon Sound Cool?

Kaila Mullady and Mark Martin (aka Mandibul) are two of the beatboxers who appear in Beatbox.

Next Shaky Steps

Now that we had an idea, we had to strategize. How could we get a movie made using beatboxing as our arena?

We didn’t yet have the resources to create an MVP (or “minimally viable product” in startup speak)–a script or short movie–but believed we could skin this differently. Since beatboxing is considered the fifth element of hip-hop and music was central to our story, we figured one possible route could be to partner with a music producer with strong Hollywood ties.

A few days later, Jon and I jetted to Los Angeles to meet a man I’ll call Mr. Smooth. He was producing a song for a big-budget movie, laying in the tracks himself. We killed time at his studio for several hours with his entourage, until he crooked a finger and told us to follow him upstairs.

There we met his Rastafarian barber, and while Mr. Smooth got his hair cut we pitched our movie. Forty-five seconds in he got so excited he slapped the scissors away, jumped up and started tossing out ideas. This could be an entire 360-project, he said. He could line up this director and that producer for the movie. There could be a reality-TV show, a documentary, book, movie, worldwide concert tour.

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He dialed a friend of his, a young director who was finishing up his first big-budget feature.

“Dude,” he said, “You gotta hear this. I’m telling ya. You will want to be involved.”

The director arrived less than an hour later. We pitched our idea again. He had a lot of suggestions and said he was definitely interested.

After returning to New York, I drafted the various elements of Mr. Smooth’s 360 plan: a book proposal, reality TV show, concert tour, and movie outline. And then we waited,

And waited.

We emailed, called, and in New York even met with Mr. Smooth at a glitzy midtown hotel. He seemed as enthusiastic as ever. But when we followed up, all we heard was more silence. Despite all of his promises, we were making zero progress.

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After blowing through an entire year, we finally cut Mr. Smooth loose from the project and began to hatch a new strategy, one that we could control.

We were down, but not yet out. And we had no intention of giving up. In fact, our journey had barely begun.

About the author

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and author of several books.

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