By Marisa Valentino and Annette Hinkle
In recent months, the spread of COVID-19 has changed a lot about the way Americans live. That includes how people go to the movies, which these days consists primarily of streaming films from the comfort of one’s living room.
However, in the midst of the pandemic, filmmakers Christian Nilsson and Eric Tabach saw not a problem, but a possibility in the form of a very large loophole. With theaters closed across the country and low box office numbers coming in as a result, Tabach, best known for his popular YouTube channel, and Nilsson, a New York City-based Emmy-award winning video journalist, director and producer, knew that opportunity was at hand.
“Because all the movie theaters were closed, anything that we produced and put into a theater, if we bought out that theater, would automatically become one of the top movies,” explained Nilsson.
So Nilsson, 32, and Tabach, 23, teamed up to create “Unsubscribe,” a 29-minute, zero-budget horror film shot entirely on Zoom. They then rented out the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) and on June 10, screened “Unsubscribe” to the nearly empty theater, having bought every seat themselves. Called “four-walling,” the idea is if you rent out a theater, the revenue from any ticket purchased goes back into your own pocket as box office revenue — even if you bought that ticket yourself.
The following day when the film aggregators and box office reports came in, “Unsubscribe” had brought in $25,488.
It was officially the number one movie in America.
“We were thrilled to be a part of their plans because the theater is slated for modified opening in phase four,” said WHBPAC’s marketing manager, Heather Draskin.
“We wanted to know that we could do it, and the movie, in fact, does stand on its own,” added Nilsson.
“I was trying to act. He [Nilsson] was trying to direct,” said Tabach.
The script for “Unsubscribe” was written by Nilsson and he and Tabach cast their film with well-known actors and YouTube stars — including Charlie Tahan (Wyatt Langmore on Netflix’s “Ozark”), Michelle Khare (HBO Max’s “Karma”), Zach Kornfeld (“The Try Guys”), Thomas Brag (“Yes Theory”), and other notable YouTubers and TikTok influencers like Sneako, Lauren Brodauf, and Tyler Brash. The film’s original score is by Hugo Lopez.
“The YouTube packed cast was a way to appeal to the YouTube audience,” explained Nilsson, who also directed and edited the film. “It made sense to have people that had success in that area.”
Nilsson said that it was important for the film to feel like a real movie, yet still be something that his stars’ YouTube audiences would also enjoy. He noted that when writing the script, he faced the added challenge of creating a film while also adhering to COVID-19 restrictions.
“None of the actors were ever in the room with other actors, which was something that was very important to us,” said Nilsson. “So the story had to make sense for people to be in their own video frame at the same time.”
“Unsubscribe” tells the story of five YouTubers who join an online video-call, only to discover they are being stalked by a mysterious internet troll. Because of social distancing restrictions, the villain, who is seen attacking the various YouTubers, had to be played by whoever happened to be quarantining with those actors. For example, Michelle Khare’s fiancé played the attacker for her scene.
But this method occasionally posed difficulties. While Sneako used his girlfriend to play his attacker, in the edit it was obvious that she was smaller than the attacker in the other scenes. So the scene had to be reshot, this time with Nilsson playing Sneako’s attacker, even though they were not in the same room during filming.
Tabach said that acting over Zoom was surprisingly easy once the call started.
“It felt so natural to still act through a camera and be able to connect with whoever I’m talking to at that moment,” he said.
While the acting may have come naturally, Tabach admits that the prep work for the film was a source of stress, especially in terms of wardrobe and sets.
“I started to realize just how much focus went into that, like making sure my facial hair looks the same every day,” said Tabach. “Making sure random things weren’t shifting throughout the day and setting up the camera exactly the same way.”
In the end, the movie was not only a huge success in the box office, it has also been a huge success with online audiences. Nilsson reports that viewers seem to be really connecting to the film and he said that many enjoyed seeing YouTubers they’ve been following for years play these caricature-like versions of themselves.
“The response to the film has been incredibly positive,” he said.
As “Unsubscribe” continues to gain in popularity, Tabach hopes it will encourage others to start making their own quarantine films and see what they’re capable of. For his part, he says he would love to work on more virtual films.
Although at this point there are no immediate plans to make a full-length version of “Unsubscribe,” Nilsson hasn’t ruled it out as a possibility, if viewers express an interest.
By the way, it’s no accident that the WHBPAC was where the filmmakers decided to screen “Unsubscribe.” Nilsson, who grew up in East Moriches, was a 2006 graduate of Westhampton Beach High School and he has deep, personal ties to the theater.
“I worked at the WHBPAC all through high school and college,” he said. “I’ve always loved that town and the idea of having this story be told with them as something of a character was really important to me.”
“Unsubscribe” is currently available for streaming on Vimeo On Demand at vimeo.com/ondemand/unsubscribefilm. Tabach has created a YouTube video about the making of the film. Access it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvAi7JvRmkI.