With DIY DAYS LA kicking off in a matter of days we asked Zachary Levy to share some insight around the making of his latest doc STRONGMAN. The project centers on Stanless Steel, The Strongest Man in the World at Bending Steel and Metal. From start to finish the process has taken 10 years to reach the screen and along the way Zachary has made some interesting pit stops. One of which lead to some unlikely financial opportunities.
By Zachary Levy – I started STRONGMAN in the summer of 1999. I remember thinking at the beginning that there was the potential for a really great film here, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to spent the next *year* of my life making it. That’s the first lesson, I think. A certain amount of ignorance is sometimes really helpful. Had I known just how long the road was going to be, I might have chosen not to take the first step. That’s also the second lesson for me–things can often take longer than you thought and when you’re working by yourself, it’s easy to think that it means you are moving in the wrong direction. It’s useful to check your bearings every once in a while, but trust your internal compass. Don’t waste time beating yourself up about the time it is taking, the road you choose will get you somewhere.
The film was very much a DIY affair from the beginning. I was borrowing a camera, sound equipment, constantly scrambling to teach friends how to do location sound and renting cars to get to my subject’s house. I had saved some money from my day job as a cameraman, but that ran out pretty quickly. I turned to my credit cards. That was also a lesson for me – be willing to make an investment in yourself. This is a tricky lesson because of course you don’t want to take on debt blindly. But if you think of yourself as a business it can be helpful to realize that many business do take out loans to grow. As much as debt is a risk, there is also risk in underfunding yourself.
After filming my subject for 3 years, I was about $40,000 in debt and pretty tired. I still believed deeply in the film, but wasn’t really sure how I could move forward. I felt I reached the amount of debt that I could justify to myself as a business decision. I needed to take a break and regroup both in terms of my financial situation and my energy.
Then came the cards. Like a lot of people when the Iraq war started, I was angry and upset. I’ve always been a person who gets lots of ideas and when I saw the government’s Most Wanted Deck – one hit me. I could make a deck that would be a parody, one that had 52 of Bush’s administration.
It wasn’t about making money for me, so much as saying something I thought needed to be said at the time. But it’s another lesson, I think, as much you want to be extremely focused and disciplined when charting a DIY course, you don’t want to have total blinders on to the world. Keeping another project or other ideas on the back-burner can actually help you be more flexible and give you valuable perspective on other things that will help you in the long run.
My gut said to do this and my debt load actually became an asset to me. Had I had a little money, I might have been afraid of losing it, but having no money, I really felt like I had nothing to lose. So I put another $10,000 on my credit card and printed 2500 decks of newly named Bush Cards. I hesitate to recommend anyone jump on the next get-rich quick scheme as a way of financing their films, but I think maybe the lesson here is if you believe in something, if it resonates with you strongly, you can trust that there will be other people who it will also resonate with as well.
The cards were a huge DIY hit. I was running the whole business from my apartment. One room was my office and the other was the warehouse. I remember at one time having about 20,000 decks of cards sitting in my living room. Over the course of 5 years, I sold over 300,000 decks. I got large press articles in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker. The cards even wound up in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian. I learned so many lessons from the cards. Just doing the nuts and bolts work well was a huge asset. When it came to making and selling the cards It meant shipping them quickly, making sure they would be in a place where customers could see them, being persistent with sales calls and follow-ups. None of it was rocket science or fancy marketing advice. Doing the work consistently became its own marketing, as it got the cards in front of people in an immediate way that advertising never could have. Over the course of 5 years, I spent maybe a total of $150 on advertising. Another lesson-people hear about things in a variety of ways. There are a lot of traditional exhibitors out there who think advertising is the primary route for getting people to the theater. From the cards, I am not so sure. I think it helps, but only if people already know about something. The key thing is getting people to know about it.
Flash forward–the success of the cards allowed me to have enough money to get out of debt and bought me the time to finishing the film. It also gave me a big taste of what is possible by going a DIY route.
STRONGMAN kicks off a nationwide theatrical release at the Downtown Independent Theater in LA on Nov. 27th.
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