Why you should care

Because cheap can look good.

The first day of college changed Eric Fleischman’s life. The professor stood at his podium, before hundreds of USC freshmen, and asked who wanted to be a screenwriter. Half of the students raised their hands. Then the professor asked who wanted to be a director. Nearly everyone shot a hand up in the air, including students who’d just said they wanted to be screenwriters. When the professor asked who wanted to be a producer, just four students raised their hands.

“Let’s make it five,” Fleischman thought.

Eight years later, Fleischman’s production company, Diablo Entertainment, employs a modest three people — appropriately lean, given his focus on a sometimes-overlooked genre: the microbudget film. As studio Hollywood churns out movies with $100 million production budgets, Fleischman is slashing zeros with the zeal of a management consultant, and apparently the results stand up: He’s recently sold five of his features to big distributors and premiered two at Sundance. (Look for Sleight, a thriller, later this year.) Millennial directors, often making their first films, are key to the business model. “I want to show Hollywood there’s nothing to be afraid of when it comes to young directors,” Fleischman says. And young producers too, it seems.

There are three Hollywoods at the moment: the studio productions, the independents and the microbudgets — the most famous of which are probably The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, which grossed nearly $200 million off an estimated $15,000 production budget. And, indeed, the microbudget genre can seem very B-movie, with more gore than substance. Fleischman sometimes does horror, but more than that too, and observers believe that the new generation of microbudget movies have a chance to break the mold. As technology’s improved, the cost of creating films with high production values has plummeted. “There are no barriers to entry” anymore, argues USC professor Jason E. Squire, who tracks microbudget films and believes them “revolutionary.”

They certainly gave Fleischman an opportunity he wouldn’t have had. Some top producers come from wealth. Many make tentpole franchise films such as X-Men or Transformers that studios count on for their survival. And they are tied to major studios via long-term first-look deals. Fleischman, on the other hand, hasn’t signed with the majors. He grew up in Rockville, Maryland (“home of nothing … crab cakes and football,” he jokes, quoting Wedding Crashers). His backers are a small collection of private equity investors. All of which makes him quite the rogue.

Fleischman, who has a scruffy beard, laughs easily and talks fast, perhaps because he’s used to getting films shot in three weeks to bring them in on budget. It started at Paramount, then Insurge, a Paramount Pictures label, where the mission was to “pop people’s cherries” — his words, not ours — by giving newbies $100,000 budgets to make a movie. While working for Jason Blum, a top microbudget horror producer who has begun venturing into critically acclaimed films such as Whiplash, Fleischman and an intern teamed up to film a movie. They shook down friends and family for $27,000, got Blum’s permission to shoot on weekends and wrapped after 12 days. Then they sold the movie, Ritual, to Lionsgate for far more than they made it, Fleischman says.

One lesson he came away with: New filmmakers can stick to tiny budgets. And, in a way, Diablo has turned that into a long-term strategy: It bets small amounts on young, new directors that, it hopes, will return to work with Diablo for future projects. In the process, Fleischman is developing his generation’s up-and-coming Hollywood directors — at a time when the average Oscar-nominated director’s age was 48 in 2010.

Fleischman started early. When he hit the tender age of 6, his parents told him that if he figured out his passion early, he’d be ahead of everyone else when it came time to secure a job. Being young, the boy dreamed of archaeology and “adventuring.” Digging up bones wasn’t in the cards because, when he turned 8, he saw a film featuring a charming archaeologist-adventurer with a whip, fedora and satchel who fought Nazis: Indiana Jones. Eric was delighted: “What I had in my head exists on a screen!”

He traded his archaeology books for Hollywood business tomes and began to study the Hollywood studio system. Nowadays, studios can’t have writers on contract — but longstanding partnerships are Fleischman’s plan. “Minus the paperwork,” of course, he says, because he trades in the currency of relationships. He’s not a rule breaker, per se, but he does have a history of flouting regulations. He says he was almost expelled from USC — twice. The first was for raising money on Kickstarter for his junior thesis — Fleischman says he didn’t know it was forbidden. The second occurred after an adviser showed up to the filming of his senior thesis the day a cast member brought a genuine ice pick to the set.

To be sure, there may be limits to the microbudget revolution; even Fleischman’s films tend to hew to narrative conventions, whether of horror or superheroes. Fleischman says he aims to strike a balance between commercial and avant-garde: “A lot of bigger companies miss out on the fact that on top of scaring people or having an element of escapism,” he says, “you can also influence the way people think.” And so, with Sundance in the bag, Fleischman is moving on to make the four films he has planned this year. But first, he’ll go back to the campus where he decided to become a producer, this time as a guest lecturer.

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