A Beginner’s Guide to Low-Budget Filmmaking in the DC Metro Area

Dippen Zinzuvadia looks over the shoulder of his DP J. Michael Whalen on the set of “Kara.”

John “Detto” Benedetto and Dippen Zinzuvadia, two DC area filmmakers, reveal the challenges and upsides of making their films locally. Detto received a graduate degree in film from American University and has worked on a variety of projects including writing and directing several short films. After a two year stint in Los Angeles working on short films and music videos, Dippen returned to the DC area. His feature film debut Kara won the 2016 DCIFF Best of Metro DC award.

Detto’s The Phages is about a couple who make a living flipping houses rumored to be haunted only to find more than they bargained for. Kara features the title character as a spy who falls for a lobbyist who is also her target.

When asking filmmakers why they aren’t making their passion projects, oftentimes you hear that money is the biggest obstacle. Though there seems to be plenty of deep pockets in DC, there is no investor class looking to pour money into making movies. Detto’s horror short The Phages, from production company XIII Stories Media where he is a founding member, used Kickstarter to raise money. For Dippen, he pitched to friends and co-workers and found the entire $10,000 budget from one person. On the documentary side, there are more opportunities for grant money, seed funds, and incubators. DC’s Women in Film and Video is a valued resource in this department.

Though not Los Angeles or New York City, DC does have actors serious about the craft. Many come from the theater scene, but almost no one is exclusively a professional actor. DragonukConnects and The Actors’ Center are useful sites to post casting calls. Both Detto and Dippen found that the auditions brought out a mixed bag of people with a range of experiences, and the depth of the DC acting pool is quite shallow. While in New York you may receive 100 responses for a role, there may only be a handful when in DC.

To fill out the crew on The Phages, Detto hired people through connections developed on other independent film projects. On the other hand, Dippen found some of his crew members through Craig’s List. For both, some of the cast and crew were paid, while others were offered deferred payment.

For The Phages, the actors and crew couldn’t afford to film 5 straight days as originally hoped for. They had day jobs that paid more than what Detto offered. Dippen shot Kara for sixteen days straight with one day off in the middle. The actors were given the shooting schedule during the audition process, so that those who couldn’t make the days were weeded out from the beginning.

Finding locations and equipment on a small budget relies on borrowing, favors, and luck. Neither Dippen nor Detto found it necessary to use the local film offices as their films were quite tiny. It is best to reach out if the film is qualified to reap film tax credits. DCIFF will be holding their annual “Summit on the Hill” on February 15, 2017 in which the topic will be film and tax incentives.

Dippen and his director of photography edited Kara themselves because he had a hard time finding an editor. He did take the film to be professionally sound edited as that was proving to be a huge headache. Since Detto has done plenty of editing himself, he edited The Phages. But he did pay for a composer and audio mixing.

Overall, Detto finds that the lack of money and lack of filmmaking culture are the biggest drawbacks of filmmaking in the DC area. He sees the filmmaking scene as currently churning in the “adolescent” phase. Along similar lines, Dippen feels as if there aren’t enough talented people in the area to be selective during the casting process.

On a positive note, Dippen was able to concentrate on his project without the obligation that his film had to be a blockbuster or having to network if he was in a larger market. Detto likens the DC film community to community theater. People are excited to work on a narrative project and enjoy pitching in.

You can find more about Dippen and his projects at Chozin Films.

You can follow Detto at XIII Stories Media.

John Benedetto (center) on the set of "The Phages."
John Benedetto (center) on the set of “The Phages.”