It’s a Hollywood story that could only happen in the pandemic: “Unsubscribe,” a zero-budget short film, played for one day at a single Long Island theater and became the No. 1 movie in America.
The film’s one-day gross: $25,488.
Screenwriter and director Christian Nilsson, a native of East Moriches, admits that he and Eric Tabach, who stars in the film, have pulled off “a creative stunt” that exploited a loophole in the complicated system of movie-ticket sales. Still, it worked. What’s more, “Unsubscribe” has been featured in Yahoo! News, The Washington Post and even The Irish Times. Granted, the film can’t be categorized as a runaway smash — its triumph lasted for only one day — but as any aspiring filmmaker knows, publicity is often better than money.
“We expected local press to care, we were hoping the national press would care,” says Nilsson, 32. “We are blown away by the international response to this.”
Nilsson, a former BuzzFeed staffer and now a full-time video journalist, says the idea initially came from Tabach. With most theaters in the country closed due to COVID-19, and few new movies being released by studios, Tabach wondered if it would be possible to score a No. 1 hit. Nilsson, who studied film at Five Towns College, suggested a concept known in the industry as four-walling: You pay a flat fee to rent out a theater, and whatever money you earn from ticket sales is yours to keep.
And here’s the loophole: If the filmmakers buy the tickets and give the money back to themselves — well, wouldn’t the box-office charts have to report the sales?
And so, one day last May, Nilsson knocked out a screenplay about a group of YouTubers on a Zoom call who find themselves stalked by an internet troll. The next day the movie was cast using the filmmakers’ friends and acquaintances, including real YouTubers Michelle Khare (HBO Max’s newly launched “Karma”), Zach Kornfeld and Thomas Brag, plus the actor Charlie Tahan (Netflix’s “Ozark”). Filming, done entirely on Zoom with isolated actors, began on day three. Nilsson spent another three weeks editing it; Hugo Lopez provided the score.
For the venue, Nilsson approached the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, where he once worked. “I’m not going to lie, I didn’t fully understand,” says Julienne Penza-Boone, the center’s executive director. But with the venue sitting empty, she agreed to screen the film. She even put the title on the marquee. Both Nilsson and Penza-Boone say the center’s rental fee was nominal. “We weren’t pandemic-gouging,” she says.
On Wednesday, June 10, “Unsubscribe” played several showings at the center. Only Nilsson and Tabach were in the audience, both wearing tuxedos. As a result, the box-office tracking site The Numbers reported “Unsubscribe” as that day’s top earner — $2,922 ahead of “The Wretched,” another indie horror movie that has done well during the pandemic.
Penza-Boone says the theater didn’t hand out any physical tickets. Nilsson explains the ticket sales this way: “The money we were spending on those tickets was essentially leaving one pocket to go into another pocket.” He adds, “I’ve been very transparent about exactly how we did it.”
Distributors have shown some interest in the film, according to Nilsson, which was always his hope. (“Unsubscribe” is also available to rent on Vimeo.) “We get that this is a somewhat absurd project, but I’m a real screenwriter and Eric is a real actor,” says Nilsson. “We’d like to make a film for a real audience that makes it to a real box-office chart.”