Growing up in a small Jewish community in New York, while our friends indulged in schoolwork and normal childhood activity, we spent our time making horror films on our parents DV camera and binging on whatever genre titles we could find in the local video store. Despite no real connections to the film industry, we were determined and we had chutzpah.
Upon entering high school, J.D. read an article in Fangoria magazine which claimed Eli Roth checked his own Myspace messages. Immediately, we created an account and sent a message asking for any advice the maestro may offer.
Just like that, we recognized what an incredible tool social networking sites could be, and got to work fostering whatever relationships we could from the other side of the country. Those relationships led to internships, and later, to our first film. When we started using these sites, it was 2006, and J.D. was 13, which is to say the lesson here has less to do with what we did and is more about maximizing resources.
By 2012, at the ages of 19 and 20, we were both in LA, had real set experience, and had worked for guys like Brett Ratner and Adam Wingard. Raphael realized that he could probably raise a small sum of equity to make our first film—something to show potential investors that we were capable of offering a solid return, and audiences that we could deliver tight, ambitious genre material, regardless of perceived restraints. Most importantly, we had come to the realization that a good movie that exists is better than a great one that doesn’t.
We had become friendly with a filmmaker who had an idea for a story we thought could really work in the platform market, and we felt working together, we could all do something that stood out in a dense marketplace. Despite hesitations – it was the director’s lowest budget by far – we set out on a 15 day shoot to make our first film in Los Angeles with 26 speaking roles and heavy FX-for less than 60K. That movie was “Contracted” and the director was Eric England.
We were fortunate enough that the film was not only picked up by IFC Films for a limited theatrical release in North America, but was also a tremendous hit for them, going on to be the most streamed movie on Netflix after enjoying a successful Cable VOD run.
In 2014, after considerable frustration with what we saw from other foreign sales agents, we launched our own international sales division. After booking a booth in the basement of the Palais and carrying our posters with us on the plane (cheaper than shipping), we literally pulled in any buyers we could spot, and from there developed strong relationships with some of the biggest distributors across the globe. Rather than rent expensive televisions, we showed our promos on iPads, letting our product and enthusiasm compensate for a lack of traditional finesse.
While thankfully our budgets have changed, our mentality has not. We like to say we take a Benjamin Graham approach to filmmaking, in that we recognize the market as being simultaneously simpler and more complex than most give it credit for. We’ve now produced five films (and are in production on our sixth), and continue to broker sales for other filmmakers, with the goal of creatively approaching the global marketplace. We tend to look for blind spots, niches that aren’t being serviced by the big studios. The halls of AFM are littered with films that want to compete with the studios, despite lacking studio production value, cast and quality.
“Elevated genre” is a term that is tossed around a lot, but we aim to make films that respect what the genre is capable of. We consistently find that the biggest issue plaguing the independent landscape is faulty expectations based on a false perception of reality. If you’re smart, you’re never making a movie for yourself, you’re making it for an audience. Who are they? What are they actually worth? Film is a business like any other, and just because your friends like something, doesn’t mean it’s great. Regardless of profession, perspective is one of the most valuable tools to possess. As producers, we play chess, not checkers—what does every move mean five moves from now?
People tend to shoot themselves in the foot by jumping too high too fast. As a mentor of ours constantly reminds us, “slow and steady wins the race.” You need an infrastructure in which to make greater bets, ensuring that you never have to bet the farm. Essentially, producing is about making the most out of your resources.
Most importantly, we realize that there is no such thing as a sure bet. Ultimately, you don’t control what the audience shows up to. We try to focus on content that works as a “VOD Blockbuster” (ADD-friendly, high-concept genre), while developing broader, emotionally resonant projects for wider theatrical audiences, but first you need to find your voice. I guess if we could sum this up in five things they would be:
2. Instinct (read: Taste)
Maybe we just should have written that.
As partners in BoulderLight Pictures, J.D. Lifshitz and Raphael Margules produced “Contracted” and its sequel “Contracted: Phase II,” now available in select theaters and on VOD/streaming.
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