Movie Magic: How First-Time Filmmakers Reached the Silver Screen

Movie Magic: How First-Time Filmmakers Reached the Silver Screen with Phillip Blume

Movie Magic: How First-Time Filmmakers Reached the Silver Screen with Phillip Blume

I wrote my first article for Shutter Magazine in August 2013. Always the optimist, I titled it “Change the World.” Now more than ever, I know that it’s possible. Shutter was a smaller digital-only publication then, but I hoped to inspire as many photographers as possible with the story of my first attempted film project.

In 2011, my wife and I took a big risk. We emptied our savings to fund the film project. We’d just experienced a loss in our lives, and we needed to step back from taking pretty wedding pictures for a while. Instead, we turned our cameras toward kids fighting to survive in one of the world’s most violent slums. The result was our low-budget documentary Lost Boys of Paradise, which raised money for the nonprofit Engadi Ministries, with which we still work.

So the risk paid off, right? But not how you might think.

Things change. Today, after five years writing for Shutter (now a premier photo industry publication), our tiny 2011 video project has led to something bigger than I could have imagined. Our professional life has come full circle—almost miraculously so. Because now you are part of this story, too.

Yeah, you read that right. Just last month, a new movie hit theaters: Small Group, a feature film inspired partly by our low-budget personal project from years ago.

Believe in the power of personal projects. We were broke and broken when we began ours. Yet from those ashes, our small-town studio has risen to contribute cinematography (and even my big-screen acting debut) to a theatrical motion picture. I want to show you how to walk a similar path. If you want to make waves, you can.

It all starts with a blind risk. You can’t know your future, but you can take actions that will determine it. Creativity transforms lives. With your help, we can transform lives today. Let me explain.

Hollywood Doesn’t Come Knocking. You Must Do It.

This photo is like a spooky mirror. When I see this production still from the set of Small Group, I imagine it as a scene in Back to the Future. It’s as if I’m time traveler Marty McFly interacting with a version of myself from seven years ago.

In at least one respect, the journey of Small Group’s lead character is my own. I was honored that director Matt Chastain invited me to take part.

On the right side of the frame is the real me, Phillip Blume, playing the role of a smug, deeply religious small group leader. On the left side of the frame is Sterling Hurst in the role of Cooper, the movie’s documentary filmmaker and protagonist. As you watch the plot unfold, you see Cooper travel to Guatemala and document an inspirational organization called Engadi that serves children in one of the world’s most violent slums. Sound familiar?

It’s not accurate to call Small Group a biopic. This entirely fictional off-the-wall script is not my life story. It’s the brainchild of Matt Chastain. (Watch a clip and bonus features at and the theatrical trailer at

Our original documentary had no big theatrical release. We showed it at churches, universities and film festivals. I made phone calls and knocked on countless doors to make it happen. We did whatever we could just to share the story and impact lives.

So how do we photographers get our personal projects noticed? How do we reach audiences with our stories? First, never wait to be discovered. Take your story to the world.

When you pursue your passions with conviction, your efforts create results you may not see for years to come. Before I ever met Matt, he happened to see a screening of Lost Boys of Paradise. It was the story of Engadi’s mission, not our amateur filmmaking, that inspired Matt.

A Familiar Face. A Unique Screenplay.

Amazingly, Matt recognized the primary subject in our film, Engadi’s founder, the Guatemalan-born missionary Nathan Hardeman. Matt and Nathan had joined the same church small group together years before, when Nathan moved to the U.S. to attend college.

Fast-forward to 2014, when Matt completed his first draft for Small Group. Producer Christos Hines said it was excellent. So excellent, in fact, that within just four months of developing the final script with producer Dale Wheatley, they were able to raise over $1 million from investors to jumpstart production.

As a photographer, you know the most impactful element in art is story. In Matt’s experience, church small groups were ripe for storytelling. Inside the intimate meetings, outside formal church walls, emotions get raw, humor gets edgier and people get authentic.

We didn’t want to be part of a stereotypical and cheesy faith-based film. Matt’s script was hilarious, honest and even inappropriate. Imagine if more photographers and filmmakers approached our subjects this way. Yes, we as artists need strong opinions; otherwise, we have nothing to say. But imagine how much better our stories will be if we make art that considers other viewpoints, too.

Matt avoided hiring known Christian actors who could be relied on to make faith-based films more marketable. Instead, he built a cast and crew around talent suited to the story, regardless of their portfolio.

You may recognize lead Emily Dunlop from her appearance in YouTube Originals’ Cobra Kai. Nelson Bonilla, who plays the director of Engadi, is a badass killer in Ozark and also appears in Oscar-promising First Man. Our lighting tech did great work with Tom Hanks on Sully, and the set designer did American Made with Tom Cruise.

To raise the stakes higher, the plot has lead character Cooper infiltrating the church to create an undercover documentary that reveals the dark underbelly of evangelical Christian culture. In some respects, he succeeds. Small Group doesn’t pull many punches when addressing the modern church’s shortcomings.

As one critic wrote, “Small Group balances hilarious true insights into Christian subculture with an intense reflection on the human condition…. [Y]ou’ll see yourself and your friends, the good, the bad, and the funny, in Matt Chastain’s ridiculously beautiful film.”

But even with a story worth telling, how do first-time filmmakers like us get on big screens?

Theaters on Demand

Don’t fool yourself into thinking we had a Rolodex to raise $20 million for a wide release. We didn’t. Getting your movie on big screens is harder than ever because distributors are no longer willing to fund risky films in the volatile age of MoviePass and Netflix. The movie industry is evolving fast and unpredictably.

But can you imagine a future where theaters stream crowdfunded films nationwide by popular demand?

The future is now. For Small Group, we opted for a limited release that would propel the film in our Atlanta home market. We released it in Texas, Alabama and other states to many sold-out shows. But that’s not how the strategy ends.

Technology now allows you to request some indie movies at your favorite theater. As a result, Small Group is being requested and shown to audiences in Phoenix, Orlando, Oklahoma City and many more cities around the country.

How do you see it in your city? Distribution partners like Gathr Films have a model called Theatrical on Demand. Visit the Small Group movie website to try it out. Click to request a screening at your local theater (if it’s not already in your city). Pick the date and time, then invite your friends. If enough tickets are reserved to cover the cost, the movie will be delivered and the screening is on.

Take Your Small Group to See Small Group

Small Group is a movie within a movie. It’s not our 2011 documentary. It’s a new 2018 Hollywood film in select theaters everywhere. But the plot follows a filmmaker who turns his camera on our real Blume Photography nonprofit partner Engadi.

I couldn’t be prouder of Small Group—both as a cinematographer (you’ll see our work in the Guatemala scenes) and now as an “actor.”

We’re most excited that Small Group allows you to join us in healing Guatemala’s violent slums. The better Small Group does in theaters, the more we can help children amid gang violence, thanks to generous pledges from producers. Your ticket will change lives.

So take your small group to see Small Group as a reminder of the power you have as a visual storyteller.

Get the full story

To read the full article, launch the digital version of the December 2018 magazine.

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