In the 1950s, couch potatoes surely fantasized about a magical device that would allow them to change channels without having to roll off the sofa and trundle to the television. But it took Zenith engineer Eugene Polley to invent the Flash-matic, the first wireless TV remote.
As anyone who has built a company from the ground up knows, ideas are cheap. It’s all about the execution. For a newly minted startup, standard operating procedure is to devise a down-and-dirty demo (called a minimally viable product in lean startup parlance) that can be test-marketed to consumers. For those of us trying to make a feature film, that meant conjuring an analog to that in the form of a script.
Unfortunately, we faced the same catch-22 that many startup founders do: We couldn’t make a demo without money, but no one would give us money to create one until we had a product, ideally one that showed traction with consumers. Since we couldn’t afford to pay anyone, we had to convince a scriptwriter to work on spec. In exchange, we could offer the equivalent of equity in our nascent production.
This did not, at first, go well. Seeking recommendations, I emailed a veteran screenwriter with several finished films to his credit. He was aghast. Did I work for free? he asked. (Well, yes, every time I write a book proposal in the hopes of selling it to a publisher, but I digress.) He was sick and tired of screenwriters putting downward pressure on fees by agreeing to work for nothing. Which, to be fair, was a completely reasonable stance on his part. (See Harlan Ellison’s famously tart jeremiad, “Pay the writer!” for a taste of what I endured.) He predicted only newbie, third-tier screenwriters would even consider it. I received similar replies from a couple of others.
Then I thought of Andrew Dresher, a screenwriter I knew from my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where you can barely walk a block before passing another writer soaking up free W-Fi in a cafe. A USC film school graduate, Andrew had been knocking around the industry for a decade, and was part of a class of screenwriters who had sold scripts to Hollywood but never had a movie made. Two of his projects were in “deep development”—a term that means no one has any idea if or when a movie would be greenlit. One he sold to Universal; the other to Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B.
Andrew was far from alone. Some 25,000 scripts a year are registered with the Writer’s Guild, but thus far in 2015, according to Box Office Mojo, fewer than 600 movies have been released—and many of those at the low end of the list appear to be little more than vanity projects. After reading How to Love a Republican, a romantic comedy that Andrew wrote, my producing partner, Jon Furay and I agreed that Andrew seemed an excellent choice. He obviously knew how to create strong characters, understood story structure, and his dialogue was punchy, funny, and believable.
Now all I had to do was convince him to come onboard. Which was much easier than I expected. That’s because Andrew had arrived at similar conclusions over the state of the movie business. When we met we had a joyous mutual bitch session: Hollywood was fixated on blockbusters and sequels. Big studio movies were released with generic stories and cast with stars to appeal to a vast global audience. If you wanted to get a film made, you had to make it yourself.
“A screenwriter used to be able to make a decent living doing rewrites and selling projects that might or might not ever get made,” Andrew told me, “but that all went away.”
But who wants to devote a career writing for the screen if you never see any of your characters inhabit the big screen? It’d be like a chef opening up a posh new restaurant and preparing three-star Michelin meals that no one could eat.
After Andrew watched dozens of clips of beatboxing on YouTube, some of which had upwards of 50 million views, he recognized the potential in a movie that dove into this art and culture and which came, we believed, with a built-in market. As an added bonus, Andrew was a big fan of early hip-hop.
Without any guarantees, he signed on the proverbial bottom line, and after we tossed around some ideas—a character-driven story with a traditional three-act structure, dramatic turns transitioning from act to act—he got to work.
“I went into it with my eyes open,” Andrew says. “I was a little afraid to tell my agent or manager.”
Here I’ll let Andrew tell you about his process and thinking on the project:
With this genre, there are beats you need to hit, but because this was an independent movie, I wanted to subvert those beats, because we didn’t want to make a movie where the guy becomes famous at the end. Because that would be unlikely in beatboxing. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s not a path to fame and fortune, the way I think hip-hop is perceived. Beatboxers do it because they love it. They do it in their spare time in their bedrooms and record their performances with smartphones and primitive recording equipment. It’s about the love of music. I wanted to be true to that.
Several months and drafts later, we had a script we all liked, and the three of us took it out to potential investors, tapping our friends-and-family network. To make the movie we envisioned, we figured we needed $1.5 million, which was sheer guesswork.
We got nowhere.
Because let’s face it: Even with a top director and stars attached, a movie is a crapshoot. There are countless examples of how this plays out–for a recent one, look no further than the $30 million Entourage movie, which tanked at the box office and became a piñata for critics. Venture capitalists often say they invest in people, not ideas. That’s why an entrepreneur with a track record has little problem attracting investment, while those without one usually end up with nothing. Unfortunately, we fell into the latter category.
In essence, we were three guys who had nipped at the edges of the movie industry. Jon was involved in several film projects in different states of undress—“pushing boulders uphill,” is how he referred to it–none of which had been greenlit. I had been portrayed in a film (Shattered Glass) and peddled a movie treatment to Michael Douglas. Andrew had sold scripts but never had a movie made. At the very least, we needed to attach a director, someone to captain the project before investors would even entertain the idea of backing us.
The solution, I realized several months later as spring warmed into summer then bled into fall, was right in front of us.
The next day I met with Andrew at a coffee shop in our neighborhood and told him what I was thinking.
A few hours later, Andrew called Jon. “What about doing Beatbox as a low-budget indie?” he asked. “I think I can raise the money if I direct.”
Jon didn’t have to think about it: “Great idea. Let’s do it.”
A month later we had $200,000 in the bank and began assembling all the many pieces we would need to start shooting.