From a Literal Dream to a Feature Film on Amazon: The Journey of ‘SCRAPS’
by Daniel Shar
My name is Daniel Shar, and my first feature film, SCRAPS, cost just under $6,000 to make — which may not surprise you considering the “video village” setup pictured above. While we weren’t selected for Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Fellowship, program manager Liz Manashil was generous enough to share some of her wisdom with me directly. This talk ultimately gave me the final push I needed to choose to release the film on Amazon Prime Video. Liz also generously invited me to write about my experience once I had a few months of data to share, so below you’ll find the quick story version of it all, followed by a list of stats. Enjoy!
After a rare and aggressive type of brain cancer abruptly ended my mother’s life in March 2014, I started having recurring dreams in which I was surprised to see her alive and well. My confusion in these dreams was always met with explanations like, “Oh, that was all just a prank!” or “No, you dreamed all that; this is reality.”
In mid-July 2015, I had one of these dreams, but with an added twist. “Aren’t you dead?” my dream self asked my dream mother. “No, I’m fine now,” she casually replied. “But … I am divorcing your father.”
Everyone in that dream room was blindsided by this news. I guess being momentarily dead had given her a whole new perspective, and she assured us this divorce was the right thing to do. It was such a shock that we all just laughed.
Almost immediately upon waking up, my mind morphed that dream into an idea for a darkly comedic movie wherein one person’s near-death experience at a dinner party drastically alters the lives of everyone in attendance.
I began outlining right away, and I quickly decided to tailor the characters to the strengths of four friends from the Chicago comedy community: Jo Scott, Mike Brunlieb, Emma Pope, and Damian Anaya. Thankfully, I got to them before the industry did, as they have all since started booking much-deserved roles in film and TV. Jo and Mike have both appeared in Joe Pera Talks With You (Adult Swim). Mike’s other TV credits include Southside (Comedy Central), Patriot (Amazon Studios), and Shrink (NBC/Hulu). Emma is also in Shrink, and Damian has been in Chicago Fire (NBC). All four leads, along with guest star Jeff Murdoch, are New York Television Festival alumni who have performed regularly at the Second City, iO Theater, and the Annoyance Theatre for years.
With each “yes” that I was fortunate enough to receive from these actors (and from my producer Nicole Bishop and director of photography John Shaw, both of whom I loved collaborating with previously), the fire under my ass grew. By the middle of August 2015, I had a first draft of the script.
I spent the next four months doing table reads and rewrites while juggling pre-production duties with Nicole and John. We had a total of 109 production hours spread over 20 (mostly half) days in January 2016, finished our first cut by late April, and locked picture in late August 2016. The next 29 months of post-production taught me a lot about patience and emailing, while people in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Michigan donated their time and talents to this project. Because everybody so generously worked for free, by the end of production, the movie had only cost me a dreamlike $1,887.31.
We got away with this because most of our crew was composed of students from DePaul University’s film program, so we were able to rent almost all of our gear for free from the school. The rest was loaned by an awesome local production company called Big Foot Media (who later let us use their office space as a free location for our wrap party).
The biggest single expense during production was our location — a three-story townhouse we were able to rent on Airbnb for three full weeks at a fraction of what it would normally have cost, since it was owned by a family friend of Nicole’s. I also spent a considerable amount of money on picture food (rotisserie chickens add up), snacks for everybody, and hot meals for the few days we shot for longer than 5 hours. I should note that even the bulk of those hot meals were discounted and/or donated by local restaurants in exchange for some light product placement in the film.
The price of buying and shipping multiple hard drives back and forth throughout post-production — along with the cost of hosting our own successful screenings in Chicago, NYC, and LA — drove our final price tag up to $5,995.68, which is still lower than I could have ever dreamed of.
In sticking with the project’s DIY spirit, we teamed with Amazon Prime Video Direct in February 2019 to make SCRAPS available to buy for $9.99, rent for $2.99, or watch for free with a Prime membership.
Though much of it feels like a blur, I can say with certainty that I couldn’t have asked for a better first feature experience. I feel so honored and lucky to have worked with such a wonderful cast and crew, and I can’t believe we pulled this off as cheaply as we did. While it seems unlikely that I will ever be able to recoup the money I spent to make SCRAPS, I learned an invaluable amount from the whole experience, and to this day, I still sometimes struggle to believe that I’m not just continuing to dream all this.
I collected a great deal of data throughout the process, so I’d now like to share my own miniature case study with you all, which I’ve broken down by phase.
Had the Idea: Mid-July 2015 (exact date unknown)
First Draft Started: August 1, 2015
First Draft Finished: August 15, 2015
First Draft Page Count: 80
Total Drafts: 6
Table Reads: 2 (after drafts two and four)
Full Cast Confirmed: October 19, 2015
Production Dates Locked: November 20, 2015
Location Secured: December 6, 2015
Script Locked: December 7, 2015
Final Page Count: 89
Production Started: January 9, 2016
Production Finished: January 31, 2016
Days Scheduled: 20
Total Production Hours: 109
Total Cast and Crew: 50 (including all the people who helped out during post)
Egregious Continuity Errors: 1
Total Spent by End of Production: $1,887.31
Finally Decided on SCRAPS as the Title: February 15, 2016
Discarded Title Ideas: 139
Rough Cut Finished: April 24, 2016
Rough Cut Runtime: 93 minutes
Picture Locked: August 26, 2016 (on the ninth full pass from our wonderful editor, Matt Kitchen)
Final Runtime: 85 minutes
Score Locked: June 9, 2017 (courtesy of our wonderful composer, Mike Malarkey)
Sound Locked: September 11, 2018
Color Locked: January 23, 2019
Egregious Continuity Errors Expertly Covered by Matt Kitchen’s VFX Skills: 1
Total Spent During Post: $424.19 (it’s worth noting that I bought two hard drives during production and one before the LA screening, but the expenses are counted in those other sections even though they categorically belong in this one)
Website and Vimeo
I bought scrapsmovie.com and a Weebly starter account to build the site on April 15, 2016, and a Vimeo Pro membership on September 2, 2016. As of September 1, 2019, continuing to renew these three things has cost me a total of $910.80. I have otherwise spent $0.00 on advertising.
Festival Submissions: 9
Festival Rejections: 9
Fewest Minutes Watched by a Festival Selection Committee, According to Vimeo Metrics:
Total Spent on Festival Entries before the above Made Me Too Jaded to Continue: $400
Chicago Screening: May 5, 2018, at Gene Siskel Film Center
NYC Screening: May 12, 2018, at Videology Bar & Cinema
LA Screening: August 8, 2018, at Downtown Independent
Total Email Invites Sent: approximately 500
Total Attendance: approximately 210
Total Spent on These Three Screenings: $2,373.38
It’s also worth noting that I was able to use a $500 airline voucher I received for giving up my seat on Christmas Day 2016 to cover some of the cost of flying to and from Chicago and NYC for sound-mixing sessions and screenings. I did not factor that money into the expenses reported above since it technically came out of the airline’s pocket and not mine. Feel free to sound off in the comments if you think I should have given a co-executive producer credit to United.
Available for Purchase and Rental on Amazon Prime: February 13, 2019
Available for Free to Amazon Prime Members: April 1, 2019 (this was when I told people it would become free with Prime and when I started promoting that it was, but Amazon apparently made it available sooner than that, because we did start picking up Prime streams in late March)
Monthly Totals as of September 1, 2019:
I don’t really have specific stats for this because my efforts were so sprawling, but before I decided on Amazon, I also reached out to a variety of distributors, sales agents, talent agents, film and TV lit agents, managers, and producer’s reps, all with the hope that someone might spark to the film and help us get on Netflix. That was the best-case scenario in my mind, as my goal for the project was to have it be a calling card for all parties involved, and Netflix seemed like the most widely accessible and legitimate platform it could live on. The overwhelming majority of the people I contacted did not respond at all. Most of the rest never replied after requesting a screener. The remaining select few graciously let me know that they would be passing, which I sincerely loved hearing in comparison to being ignored or ghosted.
I also gave a lot of thought to using Tugg and/or Gathr to have theatrical screenings while selling the film through Vimeo on Demand. Another idea I put a ton of time and thought into involved a tour of dinner-party screenings wherein I (along with any available cast and crew) would go to people’s homes, share a meal with them and a small group of their friends, and then screen the movie. I contacted a few different dinner-party-centric organizations and apps in hopes of finding a sponsor/partner, and we almost did a trial run with one of them, but the logistical and financial obstacles kept mounting to the point where it no longer seemed feasible.
By the time I spoke with Liz Manashil on October 18, 2018, I was feeling both disheartened and overwhelmed by the whole process, to the point that I was tempted to put the movie on YouTube for free, just to be done thinking about it. Thankfully, Liz gave me a wonderfully honest and insightful pep talk about valuing my work while also viewing this project as just one of the many things I’ll make in my career. That same week, I talked with a producer’s rep named Glen Reynolds, who also gave me some great encouragement. Without me bringing it up in either conversation, both Glen and Liz suggested I use Amazon’s Prime Video Direct service to distribute SCRAPS, and by October 23, 2018, I had decided to listen to them and do that.
I never did any formal crowdfunding campaign for this project, but at the bottom of the email invites and RSVP forms for the three screenings, I let people know that while these events were free to attend, they were not free to put on, so donations of any size would be more than welcome via Venmo or Paypal. This yielded 30 donors, who gave a total of $743.58.
Total Inquiries Sent: approximately 75
Podcast Appearances: 3
Film Reviews: 2
Print Interviews: 1
Written Blurbs: 1
Total Spent by End of Production: $1,887.31
Total Spent during Post: $424.19
Total Spent on Website and Vimeo: $910.80
Total Spent on Festival Entries: $400
Total Spent on Three Screenings (Chicago, NYC, LA): $2,373.38
Total Spent Overall as of September 1, 2019: $5,995.68
Total Amazon Earnings as of September 1, 2019: $156.39
Total Donations Received as of September 1, 2019: $743.58
Total Recouped as of September 1, 2019: $899.97
Net Loss as of September 1, 2019: $5,095.71
This project served me such hefty portions of joy, confidence, frustration, and self-doubt that I do think I emotionally broke even. Perhaps I should elevate my standards, but I see that as a win.
When viewing the world through a positive lens, I am in awe of the fact that, by making this movie, we literally and figuratively made one of my dreams come true. I still can’t believe we got it done for such a relatively small amount of money, and I feel empowered, lucky, and grateful. Most importantly, when I’m in a good headspace about the project, I am able to focus on cherishing the happy memories of all the fun communal experiences it provided — from table reads to being on set to post-production sessions to live screenings in three different cities.
On more pessimistic days, my feelings are akin to waking up from an awesome dream and resenting the return to reality. I tend to dwell on how exhausted and lonely I felt in the gaps between collaborative efforts. Even though I fully recognized that everyone working on this film was being super generous by doing so for free, I still struggled with impatience while waiting for people to make time for my number-one priority, which clearly (and understandably) ranked lower for them. For probably half of the 3 years, 6 months, and 12 days that passed between the start of scripting and our release date, no work was actively getting done on this film, and that was hard to accept. In that full time span, you could watch this movie 21,888 times. Truth be told, I feel like I have watched it that many times, given the isolating sensation of knowing I’ve spent infinitely more mental energy on SCRAPS than anyone else on this planet ever has or will.
While I never expected it to be a financially lucrative endeavor or highly viewed indie sensation, I did have (and still retain some morsel of) hope that the movie could open doors for everyone involved. Unfortunately, aside from me getting to write this piece for the Sundance Institute Medium page, that hasn’t really happened yet, and it’s sometimes hard to believe that it still might.
Then again, my dream-parents got divorced out of nowhere that one night my dream-mom came back from the dead, so I suppose anything is possible at any given time.
Lastly, for those of you who prefer the list format to the diary-entry style, here is a quick summary of my emotional journey with SCRAPS for each of the aforementioned phases.
Script/Pre-production: excited & nervous
Production: blissful & delirious
Post-production: impatient & eager
Website and Vimeo: bleary-eyed
Festivals: defeated & cynical
Screenings: anxious & euphoric
Release: relieved & underwhelmed
Donations: surprised & thankful
Press: desperate & glad I didn’t end up using my journalism degree because I wouldn’t want a bunch of desperate filmmakers hitting me up and begging me to write about their movies
Financial recap: see film still below
Thank you for reading, and I hope this was helpful. Feel free to send any questions, comments, or door-openings you may have to email@example.com.