Making an Independent Feature Film on a Micro-Budget by TENTACLE 8’s John Chi

Tentacle 8 Director Shot 3 for Film Courage (John Chi, Alex Collins)
JOHN CHI – FILMMAKER – ‘Tentacle 8


Making an independent film that people are going to see, and maybe pay you for, is one of the hardest things you can possibly do. The more personal the script, and the less money you have, the more difficult it gets. For a personal, non-horror, independent micro-budget, difficult is the equivalent of having to shoot an arrow through 10,000 gold rings, spanning the distance of a football field, so you can hit an apple on the end of a stick….all while someone lights you on fire. And did I mention that you don’t have anything to shoot the arrow with? It’s nearly impossible and probably hazardous to your health. So the question is:

How badly do you want it?


“I remember before my freshman year in college, I briefly considered becoming a doctor. Then I saw what kind of commitment it required. 8:00AM classes 5 days a week, labs every Thursday night, biology, chemistry, physics. And that was just the beginning. It would get progressively harder after that. Those class schedulers were trying to weed me out, and it worked.”

John Chi, Filmmaker – TENTACLE 8


Tentacle 8 Director Shot 1 for Film Courage (John Chi, John Churchill, Rocky McMurray)
John Chi, John Churchill, and Rocky McMurray on the set of Tentacle 8

I remember before my freshman year in college, I briefly considered becoming a doctor. Then I saw what kind of commitment it required. 8:00AM classes 5 days a week, labs every Thursday night, biology, chemistry, physics. And that was just the beginning. It would get progressively harder after that. Those class schedulers were trying to weed me out, and it worked.

john_chi_tentacle_8_article_filmcourage_5THE WEEDING OUT PROCESS

What’s the weeding out process for filmmakers? Think LORD OF THE RINGS and the road to Middle Earth. First you make the process of writing inherently painful, and then after months of hitting “back space” and “delete”, you get a burst of creativity and somehow get to a finished draft. It’s horrible. Ten drafts later, after you feel it’s good enough to show people, you need to find a middleman to help you get it past some gatekeeper, so a broker can help you sell it or make it into a movie. Or you can just go out into the street, drop to your knees, and pray for some stranger to fall out of the sky and write you a big check.

Months go by. Years can go by. After hundreds of unsolicited emails later, sitting in your apartment waiting for that email to magically appear in your inbox, you have a choice to make. You can continue to wait for that producer, financier, actor, screenwriter, agent, “you fill in the blank” person, to give you permission to move forward, or you take things into your own hands.

How badly do you want it?


john_chi_tentacle_8_article_filmcourage_4(1)GOING TO FILM SCHOOL

I left a moderately successful career as a Management Consultant to go to film school at USC, and quickly realized that crafting interesting stories based on made up stuff wasn’t that different than the movie business. For me, the greatest thing about film school, no question, was the people I met. It’s a place where you’ll meet your future partners and collaborators, and an opportunity to figure out what kind of filmmaker you want to be. I met one my closest friends and my future producing partner, Casey Poh, in film school. Together we developed a shared language, and a common set of experiences that I think all film school students can relate to. Team building is one of the most important things you can do, and while film school can’t teach you how to do it, it will give you a few opportunities to see what kind of collaborator you are, and who you work well with. This is tremendously valuable, maybe more so than any student film you may or may not make.

John and his father


After many years of playing the game, waiting for someone to give me the green light to make a movie, I was at a standstill and took some personal inventory. You don’t fully appreciate your lack of progress until you’re faced with your own mortality. I had gotten married, become a father, and lost my dad. It had become very clear to me that my most precious and dwindling resource was not money; it was time.

You’ll never really be completely prepared, or know enough, but that’s part of the fun. Be curious, be studious, and be ferocious in your desire to learn all that you can from all the other filmmakers who’ve done it before you. Read all the filmmaking blogs like Film Courage, watch videos of other filmmakers talk about their mistakes, and greatest triumphs. Be inspired, be empowered, and be humbled.


“This is your statement as a filmmaker, to announce your point of view as an artist. If it doesn’t stand out on paper, it won’t stand out anywhere else.”

John Chi, Filmmaker – TENTACLE 8


I can’t cover everything you need to do, or get into all the necessary details required to make it useful. However, here are a few important cornerstones to consider.

Tentacle8_John_Chi_Conspiracy_Surveillance_filmcourage_1 STORY:

Know your story, why it’s original, and why you HAVE TO MAKE IT. If you can describe it best by comparing it with other movies, then start again. This is your statement as a filmmaker, to announce your point of view as an artist. If it doesn’t stand out on paper, it won’t stand out anywhere else.

I knew I wanted to make a movie that addressed the social and political times we live in. As a new parent, I was obsessed with the world my kids would grow up in, the burdens they would inherit, and how I was going prepare them for life.

It wouldn’t appeal to everyone, and I accepted that. It’s a very specific kind of film, for a specific audience, which immediately limited the kind of exposure and consideration it was going to get from film festivals and distributors. But if this was going to be the only film I would ever make, I owed it to myself to make a film that fully and completely represented me.

John Chi and John Churchill (actor)

Would I recommend anyone else follow that approach?

The first thing any pundit, advisor, so-called expert will tell you, is that you shouldn’t even make a film until you’ve fully considered who’s going to see it. How are you going to market it? Who is your audience? From a business point of view, they’re all right. From an artist stand point, it’s everything that’s wrong with the film business and the sole cause for all the derivative product that’s cluttering the ecosystem. And who’s to blame for that? In my opinion, it’s those same pundits advising filmmakers not to make movies until they’ve thought about marketing.

Bottom line is, you bring on your own set of troubles by making a movie that’s not easily accessible. But like all rules, they’re made to be broken. Just understand that the more personal the story, the less mainstream the idea/subject matter, the harder it’ll be for other people to find and embrace your film.

Tentacle 8 Producers (Alex McCullough, John Chi, Casey Poh)


The best way to control costs is through the script. Editing the script is a lot easier than finding someone to write you a check. While no one really needs another trapped in an elevator movie, you probably shouldn’t write anything that requires elaborate scenes in multiple exotic locations either.

Having said that, TENTACLE 8 is a global espionage drama, with scenes that take place in Pakistan, Washington D.C., Kandahar, and Los Angeles. I won’t get into all the logistics and details that went into making this happen, but needless to say, it required a lot of ingenuity, effort, and dedication from all involved, namely producer Casey Poh and Bang Bang Films in India. The point is, we figured out how to get it done.

The budget has to be small enough that it’s still possible to recoup your investment. Anything over $500,000 is probably too high if you don’t have any name talent attached. Even half that might still be too high, but it just depends on what kind of movie it is, your execution, and what else you have going for you.

Tentacle 8 Director Shot 2 for Film Courage (Amy Motta, John Chi, Brett Rickaby)
Amy Motta, John Chi, and Brett Rickaby on the set of Tentacle 8


You have to pay your actors and your crew. Something is better than nothing. Have them work with you, not for you. Everyone’s sacrificing a lot to make this happen for you. Appreciate that.

There are a lot of other things that you have to consider like Post Sound, Color Correction, Music, Film Festival Submissions, and the big one, Distribution. No one really thinks about anything past getting the film made, and I can’t blame you. I didn’t. I only worried about what it would take to get the film shot and edited. If it weren’t for some really gracious and generous collaborators, that did us huge favors, we wouldn’t have been able to get the film done. I wouldn’t recommend counting on that kind of generosity to get you through the finish line. Save and put away post funds and distribution costs if you can.

TENTACLE 8_John_Chi_Filmcourage_Main

VOD (Itunes, Google Play, Amazon Digital,
Vimeo on Demand, IndieReign) June 25

SVOD (IndieFlix, Roku, and Xbox 360) July 14


Pre-production is critical. One of our most important tasks on TENTACLE 8 was to make sure we knew our message and how we were going to convey it to our collaborators. Everyone is sacrificing a lot, and no one is making any money. So why are they doing it? It’s up to you as the creator of the material, the producers of the movie, to convey a broader message, why it’s important to be a part of the journey. It’s all about buy in, and if you work hard to earn it, nothing can stop you. If you don’t, it can derail your entire production. Picking your collaborators is a delicate balance between passion, experience, personality, and gut instincts. You have to work with people you trust, and if you get really lucky, they’ll also be people you really like. It’s up to you to set that tone right at the beginning, of what your expectations are, and what the plan is. Be organized, two to three steps ahead at all times. The more prepared you are, the more flexible you can be when the unexpected comes, and it will.

Alex McCullough, John Knox (actor), John Chi, Casey Poh


Everyone hopes they’re going to be the one out of ten thousand, to get into Sundance, and have a private sit down with Harvey Weinstein. I can say without any embarrassment, I thought that would be me too. Then I got a hard dose of reality.

I know all filmmakers dream about their critically acclaimed festival run, followed by a theatrical release, winning awards, and signing a lucrative studio deal. It can happen, and you shouldn’t give up on that dream, but don’t plan on it.

The truth is, your film will most likely be seen on VOD, which you can secure yourself without any distributor or sales agent. It’s obviously easier and more preferable with a distributor that’s going to help you get onto the major platforms, and cable television, but it’s not absolutely necessary. As for DVD’s, they aren’t dead yet, but they probably will be in about 5 years. If you’re lucky enough to find a distributor, you should split up your rights separately, and not give everything away to the same distributor. Unless it’s Harvey Weinstein.


john_chi_tentacle_8_article_filmcourage_3FINAL THOUGHTS:

For most, the goal is to have a sustainable career, not just make one movie. As hard as that might be to grasp in the moment, it’s something you have to remind yourself of. If it’s your first film, then you need to be ready to have the 2nd one ready. If it’s your 10th, then you have to be ready to jump in when the Studio finally comes calling. It won’t ever be easy, and there’s no promise you’ll find a pot of gold at the end.

Having made TENTACLE 8, I know this is what I want to do, and I know how badly I want to keep doing it. There’s no obstacle or hardship that’s going to make me quit. I’m not getting weeded out.

Don’t let anything I’ve said weed you out either. Filmmakers shouldn’t always follow the rules or pay attention to lists. They should make movies. Go make yours.


John Chi earned his BA in Economics from the University of California, Berkeley, and had a successful career as a management consultant prior to earning his MFA in Film Production from the School of Cinematic arts at USC. His short film, Partners, had a successful festival run, culminating with screenings at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles, Newfilmmakers in New York, and airings on PBS television. TENTACLE 8 is his first feature film.




When a mysterious computer virus crashes the computer networks at the NSA, the U.S. Government initiates a secret manhunt to find the perpetrators. Caught in the nets of the clandestine round up, is NSA analyst RAYMOND BERRY, who is thrown into a secret military detention center. Ray plots his escape from the Intelligence world, so he can start a new life with TABITHA, a CIA operative he has recently fallen in love with. But when Ray learns that Tabitha may not be who she says she is, things get dangerously complicated. Inspired by films like All The President’s Men, The Insider, Memento, and Children of Men, Tentacle 8, is about the tenuous and arduous journey to protect and preserve the truth, no matter how extraordinary the circumstances might be.

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