"For Lovers Only," an intimate romance made in luminous black-and-white by twin auteur filmmakers Michael and Mark Polish, is a wildly successful experiment in New Hollywood Math.
Production budget: $0
Marketing and advertising budget: $0
Profits that begin at dollar one: priceless.
As of Monday afternoon, the film, which stars Mark Polish with "Castle's" Stana Katic, sat at the No. 2 spot on the iTunes romance chart, the four-spot on its independent films chart and the Top 100 in all movie rental and downloads. (Find it here.)
That's for a movie that they self-released on VOD with no advertising, propelling awareness through Katic's rabid Twitter followers and word of mouth.
The film has made $200,000 so far.
"We wanted to go against everything you typically do when you make a movie, and just put it out and let people find it," said Michael, who directed and shot the film. It was written by and stars his brother Mark, along with Katic. "It's a movie created from nothing — so the big question is, how far can it go?"
Although the Polish brothers have talked to the press in the past about movies ranging from the 1999 Sundance standout "Twin Falls, Idaho" to their major-studio release "The Astronaut Farmer," their strategy on "For Lovers Only" was not to do any interviews.
But they decided to speak exclusively to TheWrap about a movie that, they said, was "the most independent film" they'd ever made — and one made possible by new technology both on the production and distribution end.
"The idea was to get back to the real energy of filmmaking," said Mark. "And we made it completely under the radar: nobody in the industry knew about it."
The film came from a script that Mark wrote more than a decade ago, about an American photographer who runs into an old flame while on assignment in Paris. Inspired by the French New Wave and the likes of Richard Lester's "A Hard Day's Night," it follows the rekindled lovers around France in a series of quiet vignettes that gradually reveal more about the complications in their lives.
"It was me, Mike and Stana, and that was it," said Mark. "We shot for 12 days, and the whole point was to capture this really intense intimacy between the two characters."
Along the way, the brothers said, they were helped by the fact that their Canon EOS 5D Mark II is a still camera with video capability, which means that to outsiders it looks like a standard SLR still camera. (Below, that's Michael, left, with the camera.)
"It looked like I was just shooting a married couple, or a couple getting married," Michael said. "So we were able to go into a church, and people would stay out of our way, because they'd think I was shooting stills."
The film had no artificial lighting – because, said Michael, locations like French churches were made for natural light. The one exception: a nightclub scene was lit by Michael's iPhone.
The brothers said that their hotels and some meals were comped; they shot and edited with equipment they already owned; and they don't consider the few grand worth of meals, taxis and the like to be part of an actual budget. "There was not one dime that came out of our pocket specifically for this movie — besides the food we ate, but we had to eat, anyway," Michael said.
In the end, Michael and Mark even had to make up some names for the film's title sequence, which they wanted to stretch out to a reasonable length in order to fit the score that had been written by their friend Kubilay Uner.
They even got the film classified as an experimental film by the Screen Actors Guild, which meant they didn't have to pay Katic, who shared an agent with Mark and brought her own wardrobe.
And once the film was finished, the changing face of distribution enabled them to bypass traditional models.
"We knew we weren’t going the traditional route, where we sell it to a distributor and the distributor has to deal with exhibitors, and it's all review-based," said Mark. "We liked the idea that you could watch 'For Lovers Only' and go: Who made this, and where did it come from?"
The decision, though, brought with it real uncertainty.
"It just goes up, and then you have to find a way to tell the audience that it's there," said Michael. "You get a letter from the cable provider that says, 'Your movie is now available in 45 million homes.' That's it."
Mark continued, "I said, 'OK, I'm gonna tweet it.' Then I called Stana and told her to tweet it – and that's when it took off."
Katic's rabid Twitter and Facebook followings spread the word – and when Mark Polish found that the film was drawing almost 1,000 tweets an hour, he made up posters using the Twitter raves in place of critics' quotes. Those posters themselves went viral on Twitter and Tumblr, and helped prompt a healthy iTunes presale. (Poster detail, below.)
"They'd put 26 reviews up on iTunes before the movie was even out," said Mark. "The fans who'd already seen it were going around like a swarm of bees attacking IMDb, Facebook, Twitter … . It's a very passionate crowd, and they felt like they’d discovered it."
It wasn't even supposed to be officially released until Tuesday, but the volume of pre-orders prompted iTunes to make it available early.
The crowd may eventually get a chance to see the film in theaters; the brothers say they've had interest in a theatrical release, though that would mean that they'd have to go back and change some of their contracts. (Katic, for one, would get paid.)
Matt Dentler, who is working on the film with Cinetic Rights Management and FilmBuff, told TheWrap, "We are pursuing some theatrical events, but no plans for engagements. It may sound hokey, but we really believe that VOD lends itself to the intimacy of the project, so it will be a digitally-driven release."
In the meantime, the Polish brothers are back talking to major studios about making films that are far removed from the zero-budget likes of "For Lovers Only."
The pair have a particularly close relationship with Jeff Robinov at Warner Bros., and say that company has sent them a variety of projects to consider.
"For Lovers Only" clip:
One was the anime franchise "Akira," but the brothers said they're shying away from an undertaking that massive — though they have no qualms about attacking formidable projects, as in the reimagined version of "The Wizard of Oz" they were working on for MGM before that company went under.
A probable next step, the brothers say, is "Clown," which Mark wrote and which has been set up with Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal at Escape Artists.
"We're big fans of studio movies," said Michael. "I feel like we're always in the studio system, because we're either there or we're talking to them about something."
He laughed. "In fact, last year we were supposed to meet with Jeff about something, and he said, 'I can't do it, I have to move the meeting a month.' And we said, 'Oh great, we’ll be back with a movie.'
"That was 'For Lovers Only.' We made it in between meetings with Warner's."