Successfully Producing a Feature on a Budget: Best Lessons Learned
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Group photo of Arazo at the Capital One Cafe in DC. Left to right: Artem Koker, Nathan Cushing and Sohrab Jafarzadeh.

When the coronavirus first took the world by storm, it hit many businesses, large and small, with the small ones making up the majority. One such example was Arazo Media, a local media agency of Artem Koker and Nathan Cushing. The two co-founders, used to creating corporate videos, photographing weddings, and running advertising campaigns, quickly lost the majority of their clients and jobs. Within about two months of the initial lockdown, the two lost over 90% of their entire business.

With a lot of frustration, the team quickly searched for new ways to turn and change everything about what they did. One such change that came from Cushing was to document the entire process themselves as an individual and as an arazo to tell the story and share what they were going through. What sparked a small idea quickly turned into a full-fledged documentary, telling the stories not only of Arazo but of so many others from all walks of life affected by the pandemic, big and small.

Koker and Cushing quickly put their heads together in the war room to strategize and figure out the ultimate goal of such a massive enterprise. They decided to work backwards to where they wanted to be. The goal: to share 20 complicated and personal stories from people who have been affected for better or for worse by the pandemic. Cushing and Koker wanted to create a documentary that was evergreen and would not change based on new facts and ideas about the pandemic. The raw, unfiltered personal stories were exactly that answer. It would be something that would remain relevant and fascinating to see five, ten and fifteen years later. The ultimate goal would be to sell the project to video-on-demand companies like Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Amazon or AppleTV. However, without an actual budget, it would be extremely difficult to shoot a full documentary. However, this is where innovation and opportunity lie.

Sohrab Jafarzadeh films Victor Danos and his story. Photo by Artem Koker.

With Koker and Cushing already running a media agency, they had a full team knowledgeable about the arts and decided to hit up internationally to find out who they (or those they knew) might be taking a huge risk for a greater reward. The risk, of course, would be to take on a project and work for free, but the reward would be to be part of something bigger than yourself. To create a great piece of art that highlights the struggles of real people and offers the possibility of greater rewards if the project was successful.

After searching and asking around, they found Sohrab Jafarzadeh who had previously worked on sets with films like Captain Marvel and Season 2 of Ozark and agreed to be the DP of the project. Victor Fujimoto, joined as 2nd Cam / BTS recordings, while Koker took on the role of director and Cushing as producer and Arazo Media as production house. They also added Jay Ology who would provide assistance with the back end editing of the project.

Sohrab Jafarzadeh and Artem Koker prepare to film Hybrid and its story. Photo by Kenny Cushing.

The team spent the next 6 months filming, editing, and producing the entire documentary. The challenges rose and fell along the way. Filming everything in 4K RAW turned out to be way too much for the small team. Hard drives quickly piled up with over 15 TB of footage from 3 days of shooting alone. The computers just couldn't import, analyze, edit, render, and export that much. This was an indie project after all.

Arazo quickly switched to regular 4K and continued his shooting schedule. The whole project was done on several computers and laptops. both PC and Mac. In the beginning, Jafarzadeh and Fujimoto started cutting and rendering the best footage and interview clips in Premiere. The exported files were then sent to Koker, who put the entire story together in Final Cut Pro X.

Behind the scenes of the interview with Mary B. Photo by Artem Koker.

At the time, the only expenses Arazo had to pay for were food, gas, and a few interviews. Other than that, the second biggest expense was music. Finding good, professional music tracks is difficult enough, but finding the same music at an affordable price with a worldwide license for commercial use is almost a miracle. Arazo didn't give up. After doing a lot of research and comparing multiple sources, Koker decided to use it Premium beat as the main source of their music. Every single track in the documentation was found, recorded, and purchased by Premium Beat. After further research, they found the best license that just came out $ 50 / track for full commercial use This is an absolute steal when some of the other prices are properly researched. They found another discount by waiting to buy all the tracks in bulk when there was a summer sale on all Premium Beat products.

Screenshot of the edited timeline in Final Cut Pro X. Photo by Artem Koker.

With the challenge of the music out of the way, the full documentary and trailer finally came together. A six-month grueling editing process has finally ended. But the game wasn't over yet. The next obstacle was all the film festivals, critical reviews and the costs involved. In an effort to find every possible film festival under the sun their documentary would be suitable for, Koker and Jafarzadeh started drinking coffee and pounding on their keyboards. Koker has created a complete table on Google to summarize all festivals. That quickly became clear to both of them FilmFreeway is the best way to sign up for pretty much every festival except SXSW. Even with one FilmFreeway Gold monthly membershipKoker was able to save 20-35% on regular filing costs by filing in bulk for all film festivals. The plan was to use FilmFreeway Gold for essentially just a month and then cancel the subscription. The team then cut costs further by uploading the entire project to YouTube (free) against Vimeo (at least $ 89 / year) and using YouTube's in-depth analysis to check exactly who was watching their film when, where and for how long, to keep track of all the commitment that every single critic or judge had in considering their project.

Screenshot of the data collected from the trailer campaign. Photo by Artem Koker.

Arazo's next big challenge was marketing and advertising. Koker and Cushing decided to develop a hybrid strategy for marketing the film. They used both basic strategies and paid promotions to raise awareness of the project. The whole team eagerly started everything related to their documentation on Facebook Facebook Stories, Facebook Group Chats, Instagram, IG Stories, IGTV, Tumblr, Blogs, Direct Messages to Friends, Family and Followers, WhatsApp Group Chats and share random chats on social media, where they would include links to watch the trailer and learn more about the project. Be certified IMDb, Publication of the project on FilmFreeway and with one official website contributed to growth. It also helped a lot to add calls to action in every post and message, and get everyone to like, comment, and share the project. The team made the project even better known by getting all performers and stakeholders to share it with their followers, friends and family. Overall, the project went well.

Paid advertising was the next step. Koker started experimenting and running YouTube ads through Google to get more exposure for the trailer and the whole project. With everything said and done, the team generated over a million impressions, 59,000 views, 1,200 hours, and over 1,154 engagements in 51 different countries.

The final big challenge for the team was finding sales channels and access to direct lines from places like Netflix, HBO, AppleTV, Hulu, and Amazon, or finding sales reps who would regularly reach out to those locations to work out a deal for their team Taking Arazo to a pitch meeting to get a percentage of the sale himself. A good rule of thumb is never to give away more than 20% of your project. If you can stay below 10%, you are golden.

An agile approach was the way to go. Plan A has tried reaching out to all VoD providers directly and reaching them through intense Linkedin scrubbing and the use of the Google Chrome extension app which allows you to view the email addresses of all LinkedIn contacts that you haven't even connected with yet. After looking at every single company and its employees, Koker and Cushing could turn to them more. Plan B was to find sales people and work with them to get into the room with the big dogs. Plan C should distribute itself. Starting with Plan C, there were many sites and places for distribution, but the best for the team became Film Hub with no upfront fees and only a 20% reduction in sales, which became the best final alternative. Plan B and A all came back together through strong LinkedIn and personal networking approaches. After many months of networking and emailing, the team was able to find some great sales reps and contacts willing to test them out on places like HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.

Arazo sets the shot for Chelsea's story. Photo by Kenny Cushing.

All in all, the project and journey of this small team of filmmakers for the first time was amazing. If you found this story interesting, please leave a comment below or share it with someone you think may benefit from this knowledge. For more information on Arazo and her documentary Affected: The Story of US, visit website.


About Jade Tartaruga

Jade Tartaruga is a writer on everything to do with cinema. From nervous dramas to juicy documentaries, she analyzes everything.


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