Does Budget Outweigh Ambition?
We’re all familiar with the blockbuster hits that often become household names even before their release date. With the top 76 most expensive titles (representing $200M +) being released post-2000, and most aspirant indie films of today amounting to the 10s of thousands of dollars, it’s reasonable to suspect that a movie’s budget is a determining factor for its success. This isn’t necessarily untrue, as films with more money at their disposal are able to contribute more resources towards their vision and reach a wider audience, which- in itself is enough to potentially offer a return from initial investments and attract a following. But is this possible for those who don’t have similar means? For Nigel Bach, a South New Jersey native and creator of the Bad Ben series, this prospect became reality.
The first and most popular installment in the series, Bad Ben (2017), explores the adventures of Tom Riley (played by Nigel Bach), an average, 50-something, potty-mouthed South Jersey man who buys a house at a Sheriff's sale- only to find it to be riddled with ghosts and demons. Each of the installments in the series follows a similar premise, with slight variation. The series, which now represents 9 feature-length films, utilizes a home security system (that he already had in his home) to achieve the same sort of found footage style that became extremely popular following titles like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007).
What’s impressive about Nigel Bach’s breakout project is that it was made with just $300- an investment that created a sensical, yet campy horror flick that has garnered a die-hard cult following. Bad Ben, after its first month on Amazon Prime, amassed a total of 1.2 million minutes streamed, which has, over the last 5 years, grown into 150 million- earning Bach over $110,000 total. Although the films aren’t on Amazon anymore, due to the company’s updated policy regarding the money filmmakers earn from their work, the entire 9 film collection can be found on Tubi.
I recently got the chance to ask Nigel a few questions about the project and its successors, so that he could put the experience into his own words.
How did you initially get into the found-footage subgenre of Horror? Did you take any inspiration from any other films when creating the original Bad Ben movie?
N: I wrote several screenplays, none of which were horrors, and I found it impossible to get anyone interested in them. For work, I was producing local, small market TV commercials. People would suggest since I owned cameras, I should make my own films. What they didn’t understand was that just because I owned cameras didn’t mean I could make Star Wars. During this time, I was the sole caregiver to my elderly mother. I had security cameras in the homes to keep an eye on her and the caregivers watching after her. At night, when the house was peaceful I would look at the cameras on my phone and think “wouldn’t it be creepy if something walked across that room right now?” After my mother passed away, I thought “well, I may not be able to make Star Wars, but I could make a film that looked like it was filmed on these security cameras.” That’s when I got the idea to make a found footage film, like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity.
Did you ever feel disheartened prior to Bad Ben that you wouldn’t have been able to complete a feature-length film with such a relatively low budget?
N: Well, no one was interested in making anything I wrote so the only choice I had was to make my own film. I’m not easily discouraged. Originally, however, the plan was to have 6 actors in the house. A college-age female (the lead), her boyfriend, and two other couples. The college-aged female’s parents were away so she invited all these people over and one by one they disappeared until just the young lady was left. As the shoot day approached, all the actors except the female lead dropped out. I figured I’d shoot the film with just her, alone. Then, 3 days before I was to begin filming while driving home in a rainstorm, I got a text from the female lead which read “Moving to LA. Can’t be in your film. Sorry. Good luck.” I was, at that point, discouraged. I threw my phone down in the passenger seat and said “I give up”. I drove for about a minute, scooped up my phone, and started filming myself. I made up the scenario on the spot and said, “Here I am, driving home from the settlement on the house that I bought at a Sheriff’s sale on Steelmanville Road.” I then pulled into my driveway, flipped the phone around to show my house and said, “Not bad for a Sheriff’s sale.” And that became the opening scene to Bad Ben. So I figured I’d just film it with me in it and that made me wonder who wants to watch a bald, fat, 50-year-old guy walking around his house getting his ass kicked by ghosts and demons? I figured “What the Hell” and over the next month, I made Bad Ben.
Did any of the later Bad Ben movies have a substantially higher budget than the first?
N: Not a whole lot. Bad Ben only cost $300. The rest, when there were other actors, cost more but not an insane amount. The last film cost about $10k.
What creative ways have you raised money for subsequent installments of the Bad Ben series?
N: I have lots of Patreon Supporters and raise some money with GoFundMe but the most unique way I’ve raised money was by selling mentions in the films. In other words, people would pay a fee to have me include their names in the dialogue. An example would be, John Doe pays me a fee and during the film, I pick up a book and read the title “How to rid your home of evil, by John Doe.” I consider that pretty unique.
What advice would you give to new filmmakers who have the ambition to create a project of their own, but may feel demotivated because of money?
N: Screw the traditional approach. You don’t have to have any money if you have a good idea and a cellphone. Today, iPhones and Android phones have great cameras. You could make a film for next to nothing besides your time. Also, be wary of feedback from others. People told me I couldn’t do it, and I did. I’m now working on my 10th film. When it comes to advise from others, make sure they are people who are qualified to give feedback. Make sure they are people who will be honest with you and also people that will be your cheerleader. I am fortunate in that I have a few friends whose opinions I trust that want me to succeed. Stop making excuses and start filming your ideas, even if all you have is your phone. Once your film is complete, there are plenty of places to get it seen and make money, a little at first and then more as you gain an audience. Take it from me, a guy whose films have streamed over 150 million minutes.