The indie film business is a tumultuous, often unpredictable world, where survival is always a tenuous proposition. You can have a low-budget movie like Paranormal Experience or The Blair Witch Project that comes out of nowhere, (with almost no budget), and takes the world by storm, but more often than not, a single film can easily bankrupt an indie producer.
But for those with the fortitude to play in this sandbox, it’s always a labor of love.
David and Scott Hillenbrand have been directing and producing indie comedies since their 1995 debut with Hostile Takeover, which was financed by maxing out no less than 45 credit cards. Since then, the duo have made seven independent films, and at press time, their latest flick—Transylmania, (an off-the-wall horror spoof, pitting college kids against vampires), was opening in over 1,000 theatres across the country.
And while the film certainly isn’t for everyone, (college-stoner comedy being an esoteric art), the Hillenbrands invest themselves wholeheartedly in every project they tackle. The brothers undertook an aggressive, grass-roots marketing campaign, pushing viral trailer videos all over the Internet, making use of social networking tools like Facebook, and touring the country to hand out merch.
“For an indie film company, every film that you make is extremely important to the company,” said David Hillenbrand. “It’s not like we’ve got a pipeline of 12 movies coming out this year. But the positive side of that is that everyone on the film takes it so seriously and personally. We all strive to ensure its best chance for success.”
When the film’s trailer premiered on Yahoo it was viewed approximately 500,000 times in its first week, beating out other trailers like Wolfman, Avatar and Inglourious Basterds.
“We spent a lot of time on the trailer honing it and fine tuning it with a vendor that a lot of the studios use—Buddha Jones,” said Scott. “We were very fortunate that the audiences really responded to it.”
He explained that that they also relied on extensive market testing and audience feedback, handled by New York-based Entertainment Research and Marketing.
The success of the trailer was, in part, aided by another viral video that became an Internet hit—a “leaked” audition tape where twin sisters, Natalie and Nicole Garza get into a rather nasty argument over who should play which part.
“We weren’t happy about that at first,” said David. “But we talked to the sisters, and they were ok with just leaving it out there.”
The brothers admitted that with the economic downturn, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find financing, but the profitability threshold for indies is far less than that of the major studios.
“The economy has been struggling and there’s less shelf space at the video stores and Blockbuster. And the number of films going into the theaters has been reduced as well,” said David. “Money is tight out there and it takes a lot to release a film into the theaters.”
In total, their company, Hill & Brand Entertainment spent some $15 million on marketing the film, which cost $10-million to produce.
“Obviously, you can have films like Paranormal Experience, that cost practically nothing to produce, but you still have to spend $15-20 million to market it,” said Scott. “Marketing is pretty much a fixed cost, regardless of the cost of making the movie itself.”
In spite of budget restrictions, the duo shot Transylmania on 35mm film, and color timed it photochemically at Fotokem in L.A.
“It costs more, but it’s worth it,” said Scott. “There’s still an artistry to shooting film. There’s something magical about developing film in a laboratory.”
Most of the film was shot on location in Romania, by renowned cinematographer, Viorel Sergovici. “We timed the film traditionally in the lab instead of doing a DI, because Sergovici, (one of the top eastern European cinematographers), did such an incredible job in terms of lighting and filming the movie, that we really didn’t want to go into the computer and start messing around with it,” said David.
Scott explained that the castle in the film was an authentic 800-year-old castle, eight hours north of the capital city, “so every day our driver drove eight hours back and forth to get the film processed at Kodak’s new facility in Bucharest.”
In terms of marketing a film in the Internet age, the brothers avail themselves of every new tool they can latch on to.
“There are a few things that we’ve done differently,” he added. “The format of the website is very fresh and innovative. We also have an incredible Facebook page for Translymania. We’ve opened up the Facebook page to allow fans to open a dialog directly with the actors and crew. It’s kind of the whole purpose of Facebook— putting people in touch with each other. The whole thing about social networking is creating that interactive experience. But the studios don’t want to allow other people to post on their sites.”
The brothers also toured the country earlier this fall, visiting theaters in over 25 cities across the country, handing out Transylmania hats, buttons and other merchandise, and making sure the exhibitors had the poster on hand.
“We went into the field and shook hands with the theatre managers,” explained David. “Instead of saying, ‘here’s my movie… just play it,’ we said, ‘thank you for your support in playing our trailers.’”
“People don’t realize that the exhibitors and the content creators even have a relationship,” he added. “We wanted to get feedback from them and find out what’s working at the theatre level. What do you like to see? What do you like to give away to audiences. It was a very helpful process.”
Scott added that “We can all sit in offices and pretend to know the country we live in, but living in the bubble of Hollywood, you don’t.”