Ben Popik made a movie. It is very funny, and you can buy it at Splitsider.
Logan Sachon: Ben! Where are you right now?
Ben Popik: Belize. Specifically: Ambergris Caye, Belize.
LS: Which is where you live.
BP: Correct. Sometime when I feel like being an asshole I send people the Google image results for the island I live on: http://tinyurl.com/k2gex39
LS: Yes, that does make you an asshole.
I would like to know about two things in your life: How you are living in Belize and also how you funded your very funny movie, The Exquisite Corpse Project.
BP: Prior to living in Belize, I lived in Brooklyn, where I’d moved after college to pursue comedy professionally with my then sketch group, Olde English.
My then-girlfriend (and now-wife) Joanna and I went on vacation to the Caribbean, and started bouncing around the idea of moving to an island someday. And then, it occurred to us that we could just save up and do that whenever. So…we researched a bunch of islands, and narrowed them down based on different criteria (like languages spoken, cost of living, crime rate, reef quality, etc.), made our short list, visited those, and picked our favorite—which is where we live now.
And we did the comedy thing in NYC (and, more importantly, on the internet) for a number of years with a fair amount of success, but we had difficulty moving from the short-form world of internet sketch comedy to the long-form world of television and movies.
When you’re working in short-form, you don’t have to agree on everything, because the stakes are very low, but when you’re trying to collaboratively write a movie, everyone wants to feel central to the creation process. In short, it was an awful process that we went about all wrong, and that made it stop being fun to work with friends all day every day.
LS: How did that transition happen—how did you go from guys writing comedy for fun to guys writing comedy for money?
BP: Around 2006, we had really hit our stride. We had quit our jobs in order to focus entirely on making comedy, and we were posting four new videos on the web every week. That consistency led to a large, reliable fanbase—even before the days of YouTube.
Because of that large fanbase, we were contacted by a Turner-run project called SuperDeluxe, which was basically a site in which they were building a catalog of videos made by comedians who they’d contracted.
Eugene Mirman, Maria Bamford, Brad Neely, and a bunch of other great comedians were also making videos for SuperDeluxe. It was a neat concept, but a bit mismanaged. Anyway, they paid us actual dollars! Which was great, because it meant that we could rent our own studio, and focus a bit more on production quality than we’d ever been able to before.
SuperDeluxe went under around the time that the economy crashed—which was, incidentally, also around that time that companies figured out that they’d grossly overestimated the value of internet videos. But it was fun while it lasted!
We’d always intended to become professional comedians, though—even during college. Early in the game, we prioritized our comedy work over just about everything else. Sorry, annoyed girlfriends of my past.
LS: What kind of work were you doing pre-Turner?
BP: Olde English wasn’t really making much money pre-Turner, so we all worked freelance jobs in order to finance our (albeit cheaply-made) videos. Most videos cost us $40, so the only real asset was our time (which also wasn’t worth much, given that we were 23 years old). I worked in freelance television production, so that gave me a bit of a window into how to scale up our productions down the line.
I also waited tables, which was great because restaurants are a fairly necessary location for sketch comedy.
LS: So at that point, pre-Turner, were you living paycheck to paycheck?
BP: Certainly paycheck to paycheck. But, again, we were in our early twenties, so we were comfortable living in scummy neighborhoods in Brooklyn and eating bodega food.
After SuperDeluxe, we started focusing more on long-form projects—which, historically, has not been the easiest transition for sketch groups (and we were no exception). Really, we should have focused individually on our own long-form projects, and used each other’s creative minds to help develop and strengthen those projects. But, having come from such a collaborative place, we felt the need to all agree on a single project. Not a great idea.
That’s part of the appeal of the format of our movie, The Exquisite Corpse Project. By having each writer write a section of the movie separately, everyone could be involved in a single collaborative project, without the need for anyone to agree on anything.
My move to Belize was also an additional constraint on the movie—I’d decided that I was going to move to Belize in June of 2010, but I wanted to write and shoot a movie first. Which meant that I needed to come up with a format that could be written extremely quickly. With the format that I come up with—each writer writing 15 pages, but only being allowed to read the previous 5 pages—each writer could write their section in a week, and we’d have an entire feature script in just over a month. I pitched them the project on January 1st, 2010, and five weeks later we had a script. We then went immediately into pre-production, and filmed for all of May. So, by the time I left the country in June of 2010, we’d finished filming.
LS: The movie was really inspiring to me in a few different ways—the discussions about creativity and collaboration really stuck with me—but also just the timeline of the project was thrilling, that you wrote and filmed in six months. But of course the work doesn’t stop there.
BP: The editing took forever. That was the trade-off. That’s also the trade-off of doing things yourself, which is partly the trade-off of not having a real budget to work with.
LS: Tell me more about how you made this movie work financially, especially concurrent with a move to Belize.
BP: When Joanna and I decided to move to the island, we decided to save up as much as we could for a year. She was working for a charter school network in Brooklyn, and I decided to quit dicking around with unpredictable freelance work and get a full-time job. I became a Pro-Video salesman at B&H (the NYC camera superstore and Hasidic Jew beehive). By being careful about our spending, we each saved up a little over $20K in that year.
LS: Whoa whoa whoa—how did you save that much money?? Did you totally change your lifestyle??
BP: B&H pays well! And yes, we basically skimped for our last year and a half in NYC. It wasn’t an exciting year for us (it was actually really depressing—NYC sucks when you’re actively trying not to spend money), but we’re both fairly determined, goal-minded people.
Oh, and we also sold everything we owned. We weren’t sure how we were going to make a living in Belize, but with the money we’d saved we figured we’d be able to figure out an avenue while living modestly. I’d decided that I was done with production work, so I sold all of my camera gear before we left NYC.
Then, once we moved to Belize, everyone would ask us what we did for work in the States, and whenever I told people that I worked in television production, they’d say, “Oh, that’s great! Because I need a commercial for my hotel!” So, then I went back to the states and re-purchased all the same equipment I’d sold prior to moving. And now we have a small production company in Belize. Our primary client is the Belizean beer company Belikin, but we’ve also made commercials for bottled water, juice, various hotels, and all sorts of other things. It’s been a lot of fun.
But: Six months before we moved, I threw us both a curveball and spent all of my savings on producing the movie.
That meant that when we finally made it to Belize, we had half as much money as we’d hoped to have, which also meant we needed to start working in Belize sooner than we’d hoped. But, we’d made a movie as well, so we felt pretty good about it.
LS: What is cost of living like there?
BP: Our rent is $600/month for a two-bedroom, two-bath on the beach. Utilities are $300. There are no cars, so we bike everywhere. Food costs vary, depending on what you’re buying (and whether it needs to be imported).
We live in the most expensive part of Belize though. It’s much, much cheaper on the mainland. But we’re ocean people, so we wanted to be able to kayak to the reef and catch lobster. <--- /"fuck you, NYC friends!"
LS: How long have you been there? How much of your savings still exists?
MP: We’ve been here for three years and 0 percent of our savings still exists.
Though the movie is more to blame than the move.
LS: So let’s talk about the movie—you had saved $20K and spent that on the filming?
BP: We probably spent $14K of that on the initial production, but there were a lot of post-production costs that easily ate through the difference (and then some).
LS: Was there any point where you felt you had to choose between the movie and going to Belize?
BP: I think there was. But I knew I couldn’t take being in NYC anymore, so I basically just locked myself into the constraint of not exceeding my savings.
LS: Why did you have to make a movie?
BP: Hardball questions! I pretty constantly struggle between the need to be creating things, and the desire to enjoy my life as simply as possible.
I wasn’t happy with the way I’d left Olde English (I was the first to leave the group), and felt that despite how unhappy I was in NYC, there was still something special and unique about the our brand of comedy that hadn’t been properly represented.
In short, I like creating things, and wanted to try something new and crazy.
LS: How much did you think it would cost when you conceived of it, and how much did it end up costing you?
BP: That’s a big discrepancy, certainly. I thought we could make the whole movie for less than $20K, but at that point I had no idea how many costs are associated with completing and distributing a feature. For instance, the submission process to festivals is a HUGE racket—each festival costs somewhere between $50-$150 just to be considered, so that adds up quickly. In the end, with all the airfare of me flying back and forth, we’ve spent twice what I initially estimated. Though, if I didn’t have so many friends who work in production and post-production who offered their services for free, I think the movie would have cost closer to $75K.
LS: Did you set up a business for the film, how did that work?
BP: No, I didn’t, but I certainly should have. Readers: definitely do that.
In the interest of moving as quickly as possible, we never set up a business, nor did we ever apply for permits. We were the independentest kind of independent film.
LS: This was your project, but it was also a group project. Did anyone else put in any money?
BP: We had one outside investor (East 3rd Productions) who was a producer on the film, but apart from that I paid for the full production out of pocket.
LS: Did you expect to make any of it back?
BP: To be honest, I never knew what to expect. But given the small scale of the film and how relatively little it cost to produce, my primary interest was always in producing the best film we could, and then sharing it with the widest possible audience.
I think it’s important to have a single goal with a project of this nature—it could be making money, it could be establishing a brand, it could be making an amazing film—but I think it’s a mistake to aim for all of those things at once.
For us, the goal was always making the best film we could, and sharing it with the widest possible audience.
LS: How’re you doing with that goal?
BP: So far the film has been seen by over 6,000 people in theaters and online, and we’re still fairly early in the process. I’ve been really happy with our progress so far, and I expect those numbers to jump significantly once we expand to the other VOD platforms.
LS: I’m assuming you’re doing the distribution yourself—how did you know what to do???
BP: This is a really exciting time in film distribution, because as of the past year or so, there are a ton of different avenues for filmmakers to distribute their films. We were approached by a few different distribution companies, but we were never really sold until we were contacted by Splitsider. Splitsider’s idea was interesting to us because it was also their first venture into film distribution, which meant that they appreciated our film enough to invest in its distribution. And, since we come from a DIY background, we’re always the most engaged by the most interesting option (as opposed to the most common option).
LS: So what’s your advice to yourself for next film?
BP: Raise oodles of money first. Start your social networking early. Know your audience and target them early. Start a mailing list, as lame as that sounds. Get any level of celebrity, if you can, because the people with money will care (even though I hate that bullshit). But most importantly, focus on the quality of your film and story—because that’s what’s going to help you sleep at night.
Though, I guess I could probably sleep pretty well on a huge pile of money. Maybe I’ll try that next.
LS: How about moving to an island nation?
BP: Same advice, though it’s easier and less complex. Bring money. Slow down. Don’t talk so loudly. Don’t forget that you’re not living in the US anymore (so nobody will care about your customer service expectations). Enjoy yourself.
LS: Do you expect to be there a long time?
BP: We take it a year at a time. I’ll probably stay down here until I finish whatever screenplay I want to produce next.