Rise of the Zombeavers: Hollywood Sinks Its Teeth into the Micro-Budget Movie

Ultra-cheap films are being prescribed as the cure for blockbuster-addled studios. Side-effects may include: Profitability, originality.

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Desirée Stone

'Zombeavers' director Jordan Rubin setting up a shot

Every summer, at least one Hindenburg-like disaster engulfs your local multiplex, but this blockbuster season is particularly conflagrant: After Earth, White House Down, The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim and R.I.P.D. have together caused Tinseltown’s sky to rain down fiery red ink in quantities never before seen. Those five duds alone amount to over half a billion dollars in losses, horrified Wall Street analysts say. But fear not: This is not another story about The Worst Summer Ever in Hollywood. Instead, it’s the curious tale of some primarily nocturnal, semi-aquatic rodents (who just happen to be undead); how they’re both reflecting and effecting huge changes to film-making — possibly forever — and what that means for your moviegoing future. But more on them in a moment…

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Jordan Rubin doesn’t look, act or think like the typical Hollywood film director, which is why the first-time filmmaker of the macabre comedy Zombeavers might be one of its saviors. He likes to eat at Cole’s, the egalitarian, downtown L.A. lunch spot that’s been serving up French Dips and cold pints for a hundred and five years. He doesn’t lie when asked about his age, though he wryly notes that his managers have explicitly instructed him to do so. (Though he looks 30, he’s an unabashed 41.) A former stand-up comedian, Rubin still dresses like he’s about to walk on-stage: Narrow lapeled suit paired with a crisp, white shirt and equally narrow albeit casually-loosened tie. Most crucially, though, he grew up “the poor kid at a rich school” – in his case, Manhattan’s elite Dalton School, but was ferried between the apartments of his two struggling, divorced parents. But as it turns out, this was perfect preparation for modern moviedom. The town has always been a Hogwarts of entitled rich kids, but it’s also one that increasingly favors initiative and enterprise over pedigree and privilege.

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For the last ten years, Rubin toiled as a stand up, at one point landing his own Comedy Central television special, but decided spending 300 days a year on the road wasn’t a life he wanted. He began writing for Jimmy Kimmel and Carson Daly, supplementing his income by punching up scripts like Bridesmaids for Judd Apatow, who became a mentor. His only directing credit prior to Zombeavers is a 2010 public service announcement for the American Jewish World Service that went massively viral. Impressed by Rubin’s work and his work ethic, Apatow asked him to help direct the spot, which features a cavalcade of comedy celebs. Soon, the oversubscribed Apatow inquired if Rubin would be interested in writing the opening film montage for the 83rd Academy Awards in 2011. Rubin accepted, but it was an achievement ultimately marred by the disastrously mismatched paring of Anne Hathaway and James Franco, one that critic Roger Ebert would describe as “the worst Oscarcast I’ve seen — and I go back awhile.”

(READ: For Movie Industry, an Epic Summer for Blockbuster Flops)

And yet, he’s just finishing editing his first feature film, the aforementioned horror/comedy, Zombeavers, which is about, well, the title kind of says it all, doesn’t it? (Zombie beavers, just to be clear.)  That someone with Rubin’s background is directing any Hollywood movie at all bears witness to just how much and how fast the movie business is changing, and how your experience at the multiplex will, too.

Part of the reason for Rubin was hired in the first place has to do with the spread of digital technology that’s making the whole micro-budget sub-genre possible. Plunging costs have put cameras, editing and visual effects within almost anyone’s grasp, and their quality is such that if they are not yet living on the same street as bazillion dollar special effects movies, they’re certainly moving into the same ZIP code. Moreover, such techie advancements not only allowed his entire film to be shot for less than $2 million dollars (which would barely cover the Snapple budget on a Michael Bay film) but also enabled Rubin to beguile Hollywood into backing his vision.

By stealing footage from a BBC nature documentary and seamlessly pairing it with shots lifted from six different, already-released international horror films, Rubin was able to create a proof-of-concept trailer (which you can see for yourself below) that would levitate Zombeavers from ice cold, untested idea to easily understood, ready-to-market movie long before a single frame of film was shot. The opening credits were literally made with an app Rubin downloaded onto his iPad.

“It’s one thing to hand someone a script and say, ‘Trust me!’” he says, adding “It’s another to show them.”

With his Zombeavers trailer in hand, he succeeded in convincing a raft of producers that this was a project they had to back, or risk losing the it to someone who would.

“Creating the illusion of motion is half the battle of getting something green-lit,” Rubin explains, “It looks like you’re already in pre-production.”

In the end, Zombeavers landed veteran producers like Evan Astrowsky, who made the similarly-economical 2003 cult horror film Cabin Fever, as well as JC Spink and Chris Bender, the executive producers of horror movies like The Ring and comedies like The Hangover.

(READ: Box Office Bloodbath: Paranormal Activity Slays Saw IV)

Of course, the other reason why everyone in Hollywood is so interested in Rubin’s Zombeavers horror-comedy is that the micro-budget trend is not without context. Patient zero was the from-out-of-nowhere 2010 release, Paranormal Activity. Made for just $15,000, it would go on to spawn four sequels (with a fifth on the way next January) grossing a combined $719 million worldwide so far.

Zombeavers’ producers plan to try and take their film to Sundance or to SXSW  in Austin, Tex. next year in hopes of landing a Hollywood studio to distribute it in theaters, but even in the event they can’t land one, it won’t be a financial horror show.

“A $50* million movie has to go theatrical” explains Zombeavers’ financier, Tim Zajaros, “Before investors are breaking even, it needs to make $90 million or $100 million to cover production, distribution and marketing. We’re trying to make movies where, even if it doesn’t succeed theatrically, it can still make its money back.”

So while blockbuster after blockbuster implodes on its summer launch pad, small budget films like Mama, The Purge and The Conjuring have been succeeding wildly with both their audiences (and their accountants) all year long. One reason? Originality.

“How many times can you see somebody in Texas with a chainsaw?” sniffs David Herrin, the head of research at United Talent Agency.

The reason we are made to suffer through so many retreads is, of course, Hollywood’s justifiable aversion to spending loads of money—in production and marketing—on movies that don’t have a built-in awareness. But Herrin thinks micro-budget film-making may be changing all that, noting that studios are even starting to experiment with micro-budget pictures outside the traditional horror genre.

For example, CBS Films’ The To Do List. The $1.5 million sex comedy stars Parks and Recreation star Aubrey Plaza as a socially awkward girl who’s just graduated high school and determined to lose her virginity and become sexually experienced before she begins college. Every major studio in Hollywood passed, but CBS Films decided it was an experiment worth trying.

“At $1.5 million, you are freed from the bond of being ‘something for everyone’,” explains CBS Films president Terry Press, “They don’t care that it cost a million and half dollars. They care that it’s funny.”

The comedy also opened to gross just shy of $1.6 million over the past weekend, suggesting it will easily recoup its modest cost and $6 million marketing budget in the remaining weeks of summer.

Concurrently, if digital technology plays a part in making these films possible, it takes even greater role in getting an audience to want to see them.

Paramount’s Insurge micro-budget division head Amy Powell is widely considered the high priestess of digital movie marketing, taking last year’s The Devil Inside to stratospheric heights. Her secret? Social media. More than just a tool; it’s her whole organizing principle.

(READ: Box Office Report: A No-Budget Horror Film Tops a Big Weekend)

“Two movies can put out a trailer online on the same day,” explains Herrin, “and Google will measure that: Maybe one film gets half a million people and the other gets 50,000 to engage.”

Yet as both Herrin and Powell will point out, the film that’s in a better position isn’t necessarily the one whose trailer was seen by more people; rather, it’s the one seen by the right people.

Connecting with those right people is a science that Powell has lifted to an art form by embracing the precepts of Paul Adams, a former Google, and now, Facebook executive who’s pioneered an understanding of how we use social media, and what really influences our choices.

Two and a half years ago, while Adams was still at Google, he posted online a slide deck that distilled the vast ocean of complex academic research about social behavior Google was exploiting. (Lawyers for the online search giant were non-plussed, suppressing the publication of a book Adams wrote based on it.)

After Adams left Google for Facebook in 2011, he reformatted some of his thoughts and collected them in a book aimed at marketers called Grouped: How Small Groups of Friends Are The Key to Influence Online. Contrary to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Adams argues those who have the greatest impact on shaping our behavior are not freakishly super-influential people with huge online followings , but our everyday social circle of friends whose lives are most recognizable to our own.

Powell has cannily exploited this axiom to Paramount’s huge advantage, ditching the usual model of buying tens of millions of dollars in TV advertising and instead diverting the bulk of her marketing budget to special advance screenings of Insurge films for algorithmically-selected Facebook and Twitter users. These aren’t merely horror or comedy fans, though they are that; they’re demonstrably influential among their online peers — that is, the sort of foks whose Facebook updates are “Liked” and “Shared” by their friends; whose Tweets are re-Tweeted and “Favorited.”

“It’s kind of like when you throw a party,” Powell explains, “When the first people you want to arrive are the opinion leaders and influencers.” Just as the right guests set the tenor for a whole night’s reverie, the right word-of-mouth campaign can inform the performance of a Hollywood movie.

Take Insurge’s release of The Devil Inside. To be clear, audiences think The Devil Inside is a terrible movie; it is one of only a few ever to receive an “F” from CinemaScore, the leading audience exit-polling research firm. But that is not to say they didn’t love it and recommend it regardless. Just as the execrable Sharknado was something of a viral sensation for the SyFy network (and perhaps next weekend, movie theatersThe Devil Inside still succeeded massively.

Made for just $1 million and acquired for the same amount, Powell and her team managed to wring $101 million in worldwide grosses from the exorcism film because they knew exactly who its audience was, and engaged them directly. Insurge held midnight screenings in churches, for its hand-selected Facebookers and Twitterers bound to like it, or at least forgive it its sins; it then urged them to sound off about it immediately afterwards. That they did, and at an hour when nothing much else was happening on Twitter, it made The Devil Inside suddenly appear to be one of the hottest trending topics online.

Powell’s division is now expanding beyond micro-budget horror and concert movies, and getting into micro-budget comedy and action, too. Insurge has hired John Hamburg, the screenwriter of the Meet the Parents movies, to direct a bawdy found-footage comedy, Epic Wedding. And bringing things utterly full circle, Insurge is making an action/sci-fi micro-budget film called Alamanac. It’s producer? The answer, of course, is Michael Bay.

Given all this, it appears that Rubin’s tagline for Zombeavers is especially prescient: “Next summer, you will all be dammed.” What’s more, Hollywood may have found a way out of purgatory, too.

* CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Mr. Zajaros was incorrectly quoted as saying that a $15 million film requires a theatrical gross of at least $90 million to $100 million in order to recoup its costs. In fact, Mr. Zajaros had said that a $50 million film would need to meet those benchmarks.