In 2019, it would have been unthinkable that a 29-minute horror film – which was shot at no cost, could become the number one movie in America. But, in 2020, that’s exactly what happened when Emmy-winning writer, director, and Westhampton Beach native Christian Nilsson and actor and YouTuber Eric Tabach joined forces earlier this year on Unsubscribe.
The horror film stars Tabach, Charlie Tahan, Michelle Khare, Zach Kornfeld, Thomas Brag, and other notable YouTubers & TikTok influencers like Sneako, Lauren Brodauf, and Tyler Brash, with an original score by Hugo Lopez.
We caught up with Nilsson to learn how this amazing fete happened, why they decided to screen at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, and more.
Tell us a little bit about the project?
CN: For about five years, I have been working on a feature film called Westhampton. We were set to start shooting in Westhampton, with an incredible cast, we had raised $1.3 million and then COVID hits, and we lose all of it. The cast is still attached, but we lose the money.
Eric Tabach, a colleague I worked with at BuzzFeed, he had his own show on YouTube, which is called Eric’s World. He was working for a production company, COVID happens, he gets laid off. Now, he and I, at the start of May are looking at our lives and having something of an existential moment of is this for us? Are the paths that we’re on and have been on tangible independently? Is it just not in the cards for us?
And then Eric has an idea. He has his own YouTube channel and he has this idea of is it possible that I can make my own video the number one movie in America? But he has no idea how to handle that. So he called me up because he was familiar with my involvement in Westhampton. And he said, “I don’t know anything about distribution. Is there a world in which I could make a YouTube video the number one movie in America?” I explained to him this concept of four walls. Traditionally, when you distribute a movie, say a Universal movie is playing at an AMC Theatres. A ticket gets sold for $10, $5 is going to go to AMC, $5 is going to go to Universal, who splits it with the filmmakers, etc. When you do something called four walling, how that would work is the Universals of the world buy out an AMC theater from AMC. Say they pay $100 flat fee for that theater, every ticket that gets sold, they now get to keep 100% of that because they rented out the theater. I explained if we’re going to get a theater, – and theaters were closed, we can probably get a theater for near nothing. We can then essentially buy the tickets ourselves and the money will be essentially funneling out of our right pocket into our left pocket. With that, he was about to start going off to do that. But I said, “Stop. There’s a bigger opportunity here. Because this is a situation that is only possible because of this moment, because of how all these things are aligning that there’s a pandemic that has closed all the theaters, that the entertainment industry is not releasing new films to compete, this is a very unique situation. Let’s make a film that is unique and of this moment.” I pitched to him what if we made a short film similar to Read Window, but on a Zoom call. It’s all these people on a birthday call, and they see something happened in one of the video frames, and they’re trying to figure out what had happened. And that was the birth of this thing. It very quickly became a big thing.
That phone call that I’ve been describing was on May 2nd. On May 8th, I called Eric to say let’s do it. I wrote the entire thing on Saturday, the entire 30 page script. Sunday it was cast. We just reached out to everyone we knew, even people we didn’t know. Eric was just calling people on Instagram, sending voice messages asking if they want to be in the number one movie in America. By Monday, we were filming. And by Friday, it was completely shot. It was an incredibly fast process for us to get through this – and we had to be fast, because we didn’t know when theaters were opening.
We were able to get a movie done – with an original score, nonetheless, with this reputable cast in under a month. Then we just kept our fingers crossed that it was going to work. We didn’t know at that point, because drive-in movie theaters were becoming more and more popular in May. The amount of money that they were making was increasing every day. When we reported our numbers, which was us buying out the seats from five sold out shows, which we had to do, we had to buy those seats, we reported those numbers and we had to cross our fingers that the number we reported was the highest number. It was a very stressful 12 hours of us just refreshing the page. There was a moment around noon, the following day, when we saw that we had the number one spot.
What was your reaction when you learned Unsubscribe had earned the number one spot?
CN: It was absurd. To think that Christopher Nolan was supposed to have the number one movie, it was crazy. Lion King was the number one movie last year. Avengers Endgame was the number one movie last year. And this year, it was our zero budget, short film that we shot over Zoom.
You actually worked at WHBPAC in high school. What was it like to return to watch your own film?
CN: It was nice. As soon as we had realized what the plan was, and that we needed a theater to execute this, my first and only thought was I would like to go to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. I worked there throughout high school and college. I knew that there was a possibility that we were going to get press, that there was going to be some interest in this “stunt” – if it were to succeed. And if it succeeded, I wanted the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center to be in that press. Westhampton has always meant a lot to me. I wrote a movie called Westhampton, about my relationship with the town.
To see my own film projected on that movie screen, a screen that I had seen hundreds of really respected films… It was surreal.
Zoom has taken over people’s lives during the pandemic. What was it like filming through Zoom during the pandemic?
CN: I had never heard of Zoom months ago, it was something completely foreign to me before the pandemic, which I think is true for most people. It’s now a major way of life for all of us. The idea of having a Zoom birthday party, a Zoom graduation, Zoom wedding would have sounded crazy. Now it’s very much a normal part of life. It was definitely challenging to make a film over Zoom, to be able to have actors play off of each other when you’re dealing with video delays. It’s hard, it’s definitely challenging to do, but it worked.
To watch Unsubscribe, visit vimeo.com.