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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.”

Behind the Submissions Process

Submissions are currently pouring in for the 2017 DC Independent Film Festival. As independent filmmakers with limited funds, choosing which film festivals to apply is a difficult decision. Alison Dooley, Submissions Director, and Deirdre Evans-Pritchard, Executive Director, break down the submissions process and what the festival looks for in selecting a film.

How did you initially get involved in DCIFF? How long have you been with the organization?

Alison Dooley: In 2013, I joined DCIFF as a volunteer usher, primarily because of the free tickets offered to volunteers.  I loved the buzz of the festival and became part of the submissions team a couple of months later.

Do you have a background in film?

AD: My background is in software development, but I’ve always had a love of film.  Becoming a film student a few years ago gave me a deeper appreciation for the technical aspects of filmmaking. I have dabbled in screenwriting, production, directing and editing.

What types of films does DCIFF look for in their selection process? 

AD: We have no fixed ideas of our requirements. We are open to almost anything, but especially appreciate the unusual.

Deirdre Evans-Pritchard: The film really has to be new to the Metro DC area in order for us to be able to generate interest in the film and get some press engagement. We do not review films that have already been publicly screened in DC.

Do you have a student film category?

DE: Yes, there is a submission category that lets students get a good discount on the submission fee. But when it comes to reviewing the films and programming them, the fact that the film is made by a student has no impact on whether it is selected.  Well, that is except for the high school student category which is judged separately. It is entirely free to submit to the high school competition if you are still in school.

In your eyes, what makes a film stand out when deciding to put a film in the program?

AD: We select films that are provocative, inspiring, engaging, challenging, often controversial and sometimes sublime.  It’s very difficult (and subjective) to pinpoint exactly what makes a great film, but creative, risk-taking filmmakers are always refreshing.  Obviously brilliant scripts, acting, cinematography, sound, editing and direction don’t hurt either.

How many reviewers do you have? How big is your selection team? Or do you typically choose the films yourself? Or is it by committee?

AD: We have a team of about 40 reviewers, some of them specialize in specific categories: animation, documentary, narrative features, shorts. We also have a separate team reviewing our high school submissions. Our reviewers create shortlists of recommended films, all of which are screened by Deirdre. She makes the final programming decisions, but reviewers do try to champion their favorites. Obviously, many fantastic submissions do not make the final selection, but we endeavor to curate a balanced program that will appeal to the film lovers of DC while showcasing the best of independent film.

How many entries do you expect this year?

AD: We received over 2000 submissions last year. Even in the few years since I became involved in DCIFF we’ve seen a big increase in the number and quality of submissions received.

In a town more known for its politics than the arts, what type of audience do you typically draw to the festival?

AD: DC has a surprisingly vibrant art community. The average resident is highly educated and discerning, but they also want to be entertained. One of the many strengths of the DC area is the diversity of the population. However obscure the subject matter of your film, there is an audience for it here.

Personally, what are a couple of your favorite films?

AD: Juno, Doctor Zhivago, The Lives of Others

Hurry! Submissions close December 4th.