A while back I had the epiphany that filmmakers are entrepreneurs. Joe Avella epitomizes this in every way. I originally stumbled across him on a post called Minimum Viable Movie. Since I come from a tech startup background, the title of that entry alone was enough to tell me that I had to feature this guy on MakingFlix.com. This interview is really inspiring to read because it captures the essence of what it takes to
start a company create a movie from scratch.
Briefly tell us about yourself.
I’m a filmmaker, writer, actor, and comedian of sorts here in Chicago. Some of my stuff has appeared on the IFC, Spike TV, and WTTW’s Image Union, which all sounds a lot fancier than it actually is. I’ve also had my work screened at several festivals including the SXSW Film Festival, also more impressive sounding than actually is. I tweet as @joeavella and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
What current or recent project are you working on, and what is your role?
I’m usually working on a million different things, but most notable is getting people aware of my recent feature film Master of Inventions. It’s a low budget comedy I release earlier this year. You can watch it online for free. My role was everything: produced, wrote, directed, co-stared, edited, did all pre-production and post-production. Now that it’s finished I’m the marketing team. Everything.
What were the circumstances leading up to this project? What did you hope to accomplish?
Well, let me back up a few years. I’d been making shorts films with my friends for several years and was just another guy making short films. Occasionally they’d get some big views, but by and large nothing was happening. My career aspirations were limited because I thought the only way to move forward was to have a viral hit of some sort. You know the story: viral on YouTube, get the attention of the industry, get offered a deal, make something super awesome with their money, breakthrough, mega success, cocaine, sports car in the pool, etc. pretty ridiculous, I know.
For some reason my short Scatterbrained! got into the 2009 SXSW Film Festival. I went down to Austin thinking this was going to be my big break. To my surprise the film fest was a bust. No industry. No agents. Just a lot of rude filmmakers who didn’t want to talk to me.
I did, however, get a chance to spend time in the interactive portion of the festival and I was amazed. I met so many young entrepreneurs who were very successful with their own businesses and in most cases built them from the ground up. The question I was constantly asked was “Why haven’t you made a feature film?” to which I would respond something to the effect of “I can’t because I don’t have the resources, luck, money, etc…” to which they would point out they too had nothing when they started, but look at them now.
With a taste of the entrepreneurial spirit, and the foolish notion of getting “discovered” dead and buried, I returned to Chicago with a new plan. I wanted to see if it was possible to make a feature length film for no money, the same way I made my shorts. If I could do it using all the resources available to me now, for free, and spend no money, I could release it for free online, and use it as potential leverage to get better resources for future projects, and start building a fan base. All in an effort to get the film career I wanted started on my terms.
I took stock of everything I had to work with: talent, equipment, locations, everything. I wrote script around those things, borrowed old camera equipment, started a production blog and got cracking.
It took me about 3 years but I finally released Master of Inventions in May of this year. I’m very happy with it and my god it was totally worth it.
What was the most difficult challenge you had in bringing this project to fruition?
Sticking with it. I love to make films but had never worked on such a big project. And I was a one-man crew, for all areas of production, so I had a lot on my plate. Also, a majority of the technical or behind-the-scenes tasks I’d never done before, so I was teaching myself as I went along. It was a lot to take on.
I knew it would take a long time, and the desire to quit would creep up on me a lot, so I added certain elements into the process to make it fun and also harder to quit. I blogged about the entire process, released finished scenes and outtakes of the film as I went along, and used those bits to build an audience for the film as I was making it.
The film became a content generating machine, so although it took 3 years to finish, I didn’t disappear. Staying in constant contact with my fan base made it harder to walk away.
What was the best part of the project for you personally?
I think the editing process, seeing it all come together. Writing it too. It’s very satisfying to finishing writing something really big, like a screenplay, because you obsess over it and work on it for so long. Everyone who’s ever written anything can tell you: writing is hard. When the movie was being finished up, I had the same satisfying feeling. After all those years of obsessing over details and working on little bits, I had a feature film. It was very exciting when all the pieces were shot and laid out. Yeah, the last month of post was the best.
What’s the biggest thing or things you learned from doing this project?
The biggest thing was that’s it’s possible to make a feature with limited resources. The excitement I feel now that I know I can do it on my own is very rewarding and kind of powerful. I, like most creative people, had felt for years that it was impossible to make movies unless I had Hollywood connections and luck and natural talent, etc. But it wasn’t until I started making this film I realized with a little bit of outside the box thinking I could make it, and get people to see it.
Like I learned at SXSW and later reading books like The Lean Startup or Gary V’s Crush It, it’s possible to start off with nothing, use the audience as a guide for your work, and build an audience if you put the time and effort in. Yes, it’s very difficult to make a movie and yes it’s very difficult to reach people online, but now I know it’s possible and it’s a fight I think is worth fighting. Best of all it’s not about luck, it’s about hard work and making things people want. Which has nothing to do with being young, rich, connected, etc.
What’s one piece of advice would you give to someone considering a project like this and/or a career like yours?
Why only one?! Well, if it’s just one, I’d say you should definitely do it, your thing, whatever it may be. Get it going. It’s easy to plan and fantasize, paralysis by analysis and all that. But once you actually start, things start falling into place. Here’s some more advice: look around at what you have available to you now and use it, and don’t spend any money. Make the process as fun as possible, and public so you have added pressure to not give up.
What’s next for you after this project?
Just released this music video that’s awesome and totally crazy.
Now I’m working on a web series called Delivery Dudes.