08 March 2013

Requiem For a Buick Century


It started off as a gift.

I was car-less, living in a city where you could conceivably get around without one, when my father called to tell me he was getting a new(er) vehicle and did I want his old one?

"How much do you want for it?" I asked.

"No, do you want it?"

"Oh. Yeah, sure. Thanks."

This was back in 2007 and the old car was a white 1999 Buick Century, a solid car, nothing flashy about it. But, more importantly, able to go from point A to point B reliably.

I drove it back to Pennsylvania that summer and half-way there the "Service Engine Soon" light came on.

"Don't worry about it," Dad said. "It does that all the time."

It's been on ever since.

Two months later it sprung a coolant leak, and by the time they found it, it had taken two weeks and $3,000, so you could say I got the car for three grand, which is still a pretty good deal. Other than that, it's been reliable. I had a scary moment in New York when I thought it was going to die in a downpour on a busy highway, but it turned out the spark plugs just needed to be replaced.

I'm a little paranoid about cars. I haven't a clue how to fix them. I can change a tire in a pinch, but I can't change the oil. If something goes wrong, I take it to a mechanic, which is a worry because they always seem to find something else wrong with it and I'm not exactly swimming in the cash needed to fix it. But my Buick Century held up as I drove it around the Northeast. It never stranded me at a rest area. I never had to tow it. It passed every inspection. It was solid.

And then my life fell apart.

The Buick sat for a couple months in a parking garage in Pittsburgh while I went looking for rock bottom. I wrote a script called "Suicide is Painless". I drank a lot of whiskey. When I got back to the Buick, I put everything I owned in it and drove it back across the Northeast.

This was in 2010. This was the start of my nomadic lifestyle.

That summer I made a movie. And then I came up with this crazy idea to travel around the country, working on other people's movies. I got the idea funded on Kickstarter. I changed my address to "1 Buick Century, Anytown, USA", much to the displeasure of AT&T. I put some stuff in storage. And once again I loaded everything I owned into the car and drove. And drove. And drove. And drove.

Somewhere in Minnesota, my brother called and asked how the car was holding up. I told him it was doing fine and he seemed a little surprised. I kept going. I drove across Montana to Seattle, then up into Canada. I went down to LA, then back up to Seattle. I had arguments with the woman on my GPS. I got a little stir-crazy. The pile of empty coffee cups on the floor of the passenger seat got deeper. I hung festival passes from the rear view mirror like trophies. I lived out of the car, working out a rotation of clothes in the back seat. I kept the whiskey in the trunk.


In Seattle, some asshole broke the window looking for something to steal. Luckily they didn't find anything. Victoria Westcott rallied the beautiful people of the internet to raise the money to get it fixed before she had to join me in a jaunt back down to LA. They raised $300 in a day. On the way down the coast, Victoria drove for a couple of hours. It was the first time I'd ever sat in the passenger seat. It felt weird.

I drove to Vegas, to Denver, to Kansas City, then back up to Minnesota. I nearly got lost in the woods in Arkansas. Then I headed to Texas. I went to Marfa, where Brea Grant, Stacey Storey, and I drank Willie Nelson whiskey straight out one of the bottles in the trunk at 2am. I raced east to South Carolina. I drove past my old apartment in Chattanooga and it felt like I was taking a tour of someone else's life. I made it all the way back to New England and the car was still fine.

That was almost a year ago. Half my stuff is still in that car. I'm still a nomad living at 1 Buick Century, Anytown, USA.

The other day, the brake pedal suddenly went all the way to the floor. Thankfully, I was only 3 miles away from where I'm staying and was able to make it back ok. I opened the hood and noticed all the brake fluid was gone. So I took it to a shop. They called back the next day and the mechanic asked me how long I was planning to keep the car.

This is why I get paranoid about mechanics.

The rear suspension is "rotted out". The brake line is leaking in two places. The fuel line is leaking too. He listed a few more issues. My father went and looked at it on the lift.

He summed it up like this: "I have good news and I have good news. First, I got you a beer. Second, you probably don't have to worry about getting your brakes fixed."

The Buick is sitting now. I still have clothes in it. There's an air mattress in the back seat. There's a case of ramen noodles in the trunk. I drank all the whiskey. We're going to put it in the garage and see if we can't salvage it, wring a few more months of use out of it. Fixing it may just cost more than the car is worth. So, essentially this is the death rattle of my 1999 Buick Century. I slept in that car. Hell, I lived in that car. More than an apartment, even, it feels like an extension of myself, my mobile security blanket with a bitchy voice on the GPS and a case of beer in the trunk for when I reach my destination. Only, this might be the Buick's destination--the garage from which I picked it up 6 years ago.

Six years. That's the longest I've lived anywhere since I was a kid. Someone on Facebook pointed out that I could probably still sleep in it, but what's the point if it can't go anywhere?

The Buick doesn't owe me a thing. It's the best car I've ever owned

Looks like it's time to move.


Lucas McNelly is the filmmaker behind A YEAR WITHOUT RENT, UP COUNTRY, BLANC DE BLANC, and GRAVIDA. He consults on Kickstarter campaigns for a living. He hasn’t lived anywhere in a long time.

29 May 2012



by Benjamin Stark

So, here we are. Two great films completed, and nowhere to put them.

That’s probably an overstatement. Let me back up.

I’m part of Wonder Mill Films. We’ve made two “southern” films, utilizing the DIY ethos. Our first film is the sci-fi (-ish) adventure film A GENESIS FOUND, which we shot in 2008. The next year, we shot the noir thriller THE NOCTURNAL THIRD. Both are well-crafted genre pieces with moderately intelligent ambitions, and we’re very proud of them... but, almost like parents hoping to be “empty nesters”, we at Wonder Mill are ready for them to get into the world, able to be stumbled upon and enjoyed by casual movie watchers.

It’s a good time for us - and myself, personally - to look back at the last five or six years. My senior year in college was a flurry of filmmaking activity, as I wrote and directed seven or so short films in a small amount of time. As a group, we produced about twelve. Since then, we’ve managed to produce another few shorts, as well as two feature-length movies. We’ve achieved all of this through putting our nose to the grindstone and staying busy, but now we find ourselves at that scary point where, really, all of our striving doesn’t create an assured result.

I think every modern independent filmmaker realizes I’m talking about distribution. There are hundreds of us: We’ve dredged our hearts, found our stories, inspired our actors, sweat the small stuff, fought the hard fights, and yet we still find our films with marginal audiences, our work having a hard time departing the nest of our circles of influence.

Although every stage of filmmaking is challenging, it seems that distribution is the toughest nut to crack, because there is no formula. We’ve been very aware of the potential audiences for both of our films, but in the end, we’re only a few people, and our films dare to dabble in fairly populist territory. How can our films compete with mainstream entertainment? I might not be exaggerating when I say that for every new digital cinema camera sensor that hits the market to help filmmakers gain an “industry standard” aesthetic, the market for qualifiedly mainstream entertainment gets more crowded. How is my community college valedictorian going to compete with the rich Harvard kid with the 2.0 GPA, anyway?

I digress. There is hope. First of all, as Jean Pierre Geuens reminds us in his brilliant book Film Production Theory, “the joy of thinking, creating, and assembling images and sounds that mean something is your own reward.” No one owes me anything. I don’t have to make films, I get to make films. Not only is there amazing technology out there that helped us craft great-looking movies, but there are also services out there like Kickstarter and Distribber.

On May 25th, we launched our first ever high-stakes crowd-funding campaign. With the help of indie film journeyman and crowd-funding consultant Lucas McNelly, we're using Kickstarter to raise about $6,000 so we can submit our films to Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, and iTunes via Distribber. We also need some cash to screen the films at colleges in our area, hoping to share what we’ve learned with current film students, as well as learn what they’re learning right now. We’re currently between films, so it’s a great time to look back and revisit my experiences as a filmmaker thus far, while creating some sort of momentum going forward, as well as re-capturing the thrill of student filmmaking.

A social endeavor like a crowd-funding campaign is, to me, as adventurous and treacherous as a summer-long film shoot in a sweltering Alabama forest. If any of you readers have suggestions or tips for building an audience and generating buzz for our films, we’d greatly appreciate it. You can reach us on Twitter at @wondermillfilms or at wondermillfilms[at]yahoo.com!

I’m a natural director. I often feel anxious to move onto another project. But that would discount the hard work that our cast and crew have put into these films, and it would abandon the stories that we fought so hard to tell. If you’re a filmmaker, I’d encourage you to keep your head down and keep working at your story. You might eventually get to the point where someone else has to take it and run with it, but until then, it’s under your roof, and it’s your story. Give it a good home.

07 May 2012


I went on Filmcourage for a wrap-up of AYWR. Check it out.

Filmmaker Lucas McNelly is spending a year on the road, volunteering on indie film projects around the country, documenting the process and the exploring the idea of a mobile creative professional. You can see more from A Year Without Rent at the webpage. His feature-length debut is now available to rent on VOD. Follow him on Twitter: @lmcnelly.

30 March 2012

Day 3 of Brea Grant's BEST FRIENDS FOREVER

We need a different desolate section of highway for Day 3 of BEST FRIENDS FOREVER, one we haven't seen in the first two days, and so we load up the grip truck (minus the picture car) and drive southwest out of town until all you can see is the emptiness of the road for miles and miles in every direction.

It's about a mile and a half away. You could walk there rather easily.

Such is life in Marfa, Texas.

We're shooting a scene where Brea Grant and Vera Miao walk down the middle of a highway, and while we've got permits to shoot on this stretch of road, we don't exactly have the road blocked off from traffic, mostly because there isn't any. Oh sure, a car comes through every half hour or so, but you can see it well in advance, and it doesn't even qualify as being urgent enough to cut a take short. It's a simple walk-and-talk, think Aaron Sorkin in the middle of nowhere, which means that all we've really got to do is bounce some light around.

Enter the 12x frame with some unbleached muslin.

There's no point in putting it on a stand, as we've got to move it as they walk, and we don't want to put more in the road than we have to, so all we really have to do is walk with it and make sure the wind doesn't pick up and turn it into a sail.

It's a two person job. We have four people, which leaves plenty of time to do housekeeping tasks like figuring out how to best organize the grip truck and taking photos of various crew members looking like desperadoes. Because if you were there, you would want a photo of you looking like a desperado.

In-between takes, I jump in and take some publicity stills, as this is a picturesque spot and kind of mimics the poster concept they're working off of.

Then, by lunch we're done and it's back over to the rest area we filmed at yesterday for the second half of today's shoot. Phil and I swing by the house to pick up the picture car, and then we're off.

We have to finish up the scenes with the hipsters, which requires further use of our stunt coordinator, Robbie Corbett.

I'm not sure how much I'm supposed to talk about the specifics of the stunt, but let's just say it involves the car and Robbie wearing clothes that don't fit. But here's the thing, a stunt involving a car is difficult (and dangerous, obviously). You've got to time everything just right or it'll look like shit. And that's hard enough if the car is a normal, functioning car that does things like start and run without stalling. But this car, the WAYNE'S WORLD AMC Pacer, is no normal car. It starts when it feels like it, and stalls more often than not. You would never, ever want this as a stunt car, unless the stunt involved pushing it off a cliff or blowing it up with a rocket launcher.

But that's the stunt car we have. And we need the shot, so we do our best.

It goes about as well as you could hope, all things considered. It doesn't help that the wind is whipping around at ungodly speeds, making it necessary to do things like stand on a c-stand because the sandbags just aren't strong enough. But even with all that wind, the winged insects are out, and they're friendly. Really, really friendly. Weirdly friendly.

Filmmaker Lucas McNelly is spending a year on the road, volunteering on indie film projects around the country, documenting the process and the exploring the idea of a mobile creative professional. You can see more from A Year Without Rent at the webpage. His feature-length debut is now available to rent on VOD. Follow him on Twitter: @lmcnelly.

15 March 2012

Correctly Budgeting Your Crowdfunding Campaign

The other day, I posted the results of a survey I'm working on as an on-going project to get a better sense of how perks are distributed across Kickstarter campaigns. I won't bore you with the details, but basically it's a survey of almost every successful Film & Video Kickstarter campaign since August of last year (it took a loooong time to finish). Then, I spit out the numbers, put them online, and went back to drinking.

Easy, right?

Well, what I forgot to factor in is that not everyone shares my affinity for statistics. You see, I'm kind of a stat nerd. I grew up obsessing over baseball statistics and pretty much taught myself Excel in high school as a means of winning my fantasy baseball league. I was always good at math. I took AP Calculus in high school and even considered minoring in Math for a bit. I minored in Writing instead. And Pre-Law.

Anyway, after posting the data, I kind of assumed that everyone would know what to do with it, but of course not everyone does. So, here we go. This might get a little nerdy. But it's worth it.

The first thing you need to understand is the concept of Expected Value (ooohhh…Probability Theory). I came across EV (that's what we call it) when I used to play poker for a living, where it's a really big deal.

EV in gambling kind of works like this: Let's say I offer you a bet. We'll roll a standard 6-sided dice. When "4" comes up, I'll pay you $6. When any other number comes up, you pay me $1. Do you take the bet? (Yes.) The reason you do is because if we do this 6 times (or 600), chances are that the "4" will come up once and you will make $6. But the other 5 numbers will also probably come up once each, and that'll cost you a total of $5. Ergo, you will net $1, so your Expected Value of that 1 throw of the dice is $0.17. Every single time we make that bet, you can expect to make $0.17, even though you never actually will make exactly that amount on a single bet. But you can't worry about the results of that 1 throw, because you can't control that. You can only control the decision you make with that 1 bet.

This comes up a lot in poker. Poker players play tens of thousands of hands a month, which means that the exact same situations come up a lot, especially stuff like flush and straight draws. Over enough time, the "luck" all evens out and that total EV will converge with your actual winnings. So you train yourself to not be so worried about one individual river card. Of course, if you're on ESPN and you're trying to win the World Series of Poker, the EV calculation changes and maybe you give up a positive EV situation to wait for a better one, since there's the risk of elimination.

You see this more than you think. Nate Silver (who used to post in the same poker forum I used to post in) of FiveThirtyEight uses this a lot (along with a number of other things). After a while, the whole world becomes a series of EV calculations.

So let's see how we're going to apply this to crowdfunding and Perk Distribution. Here's the numbers after 717 campaigns:

Screen shot 2012-03-15 at 9.26.22 AM

After that many campaigns, the average backer amount comes to $95.50, so if you're hoping to raise $15,000, you can expect to have 157.1 backers. Will you have that many? Probably not. You might have more. You might have less. But at the end of the day, this is the best estimate you've got. The rest is kind of easy. 7.15% of 157.1 is 11.2 and so on.

Then, you want to figure out what your perks are going to cost to fulfill. And here I'm just making up some numbers.

Screen shot 2012-03-15 at 9.40.23 AM

Remember, for total EV, your $25 backers are also your $50 backers and your $500 backers and so on. $$ Cost is the cost of fulfilling the perk. $$ EV is just the $$ Cost times the Total EV. Here you should spend roughly $117.64 fulfilling your $5 perk. Again, it might be more, it might be less. But on average it should come in around here.

So you want to raise $15K? Great. First of all, make sure you can actually get the film done for $15K. Then…

Amazon and Kickstarter take, on average, 8%. 8% of $15,000 is $1,200. Now we re-run the numbers for our new goal of $16,200. That takes our perk cost to $492.17. (I'm not going to re-post the image. You're smart enough to figure that out.) Let's call it an even $500. Now you're looking at $16,700. To be safe, let's make our new goal $17,000. That's your actual goal.

Of course, since we're dealing with percentages, everything else moves. Our fees back to Kickstarter and Amazon are now $1360.00 and our perks now cost $516.47, which leaves us $15,123.53 to make the movie. And if you've budgeted the film correctly, that's what you actually need. Had you gone with your original $15K, you would have actually gotten $13,344. I'm guessing your budget is tight enough already without having to cut over $1,600.

Lucas McNelly is a cynical filmmaker who recently spent a year sleeping on couches around the world and has somehow fallen into teaching people how to run crowdfunding campaigns. You can hire him, if you want to. Also, you should follow him on Twitter.

14 March 2012


One question I get a lot is what I'm going to do post-AYWR. Well, besides catching up on everything, I've kind of fallen into consulting as a way to make some actual $$, so that I can pay rent.

Read all about it here

Filmmaker Lucas McNelly is spending a year on the road, volunteering on indie film projects around the country, documenting the process and the exploring the idea of a mobile creative professional. You can see more from A Year Without Rent at the webpage. His feature-length debut is now available to rent on VOD. Follow him on Twitter: @lmcnelly.

09 March 2012


Filmmaker Lucas McNelly is spending a year on the road, volunteering on indie film projects around the country, documenting the process and the exploring the idea of a mobile creative professional. You can see more from A Year Without Rent at the webpage. His feature-length debut is now available to rent on VOD. Follow him on Twitter: @lmcnelly.