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Last year, like a lot of independent filmmakers, Rohit Colin Rao submitted a movie to Sundance and its scrappy competitor, Slamdance. And like most filmmakers who do so, he didn’t get in. “I felt very helpless, just sitting there waiting for three months,”says Rao, a software engineer, musician, and occasional filmmaker who lives in Potomac, Md.
But he wasn’t content to let his partially self-financed debut feature—-a handsomely atmospheric, Pi-like psychological thriller called Ultrasonic—-die stillborn.
The film will premiere tomorrow as part of the D.C. Independent Film Festival, but otherwise, Rao isn’t planning on working the minor festival circuit in the hopes of finding a sympathetic distributor. He won’t be selling the film through online retailers; he won’t be giving it away for free either, although that’s what many filmmakers stymied by the festival-submissions process end up doing. Instead of relying on the usual infrastructure of independent film, beginning Monday Rao will sell online rentals of Ultrasonic for $3.99.
“I think the movie has something to it, and I [thought] I could find a way to get an audience for the film,” says Rao. So he built a site that includes the full-length movie, extras like behind-the-scenes features, and music from the film, and figured out a way to stream it all while keeping his overhead low. Plus, he wants to make some money back, and hopefully finance his next film. “I was broke, dude, I’m a father of four…my house was a wreck for a year,” Rao says. “All of these things were coming to a head and I was like, ‘I’m just going to have to do it myself.'”
The model is intriguing: While plenty of filmmakers give away their work for free online—-and sometimes that really, really works out—-I haven’t heard of any that sell rentals. When the stand-up comic Louis C.K. made more than $1 million last year selling a new comedy special through his own website—-and not through an online vendor like iTunes, which takes a hefty cut—-it seemed like a sea change for do-it-yourself film distribution. But C.K. pulled it off because he already had a large following. Rao is starting from the bottom floor.
That’s one reason for the low price point. “Hopefully if someone is mildly intrigued, they’ll just do it,” Rao says. “I wanted it to be low enough for someone on the fence to do it.”
And he found a pretty ingenious workaround to help him avoid paying for bandwidth. He coded the site himself and bought a Vimeo Pro account, which gives him the option of making his film invisible anywhere but on his own website, where he’s placed it behind a paywall. If 5,000 people rent the film, he’ll make back Ultrasonic‘s $20,000 budget.
So, about the film. Rao says one person he showed Ultrasonic to called it a “mumblecore thriller,” which almost seems right. It follows Simon, a singer and music instructor who discovers he can hear sounds at frequencies inaudible to most humans, and eventually wonders if the persistant humming he detects is a form of government mind control. (His conspiracy-theorist brother-in-law nudges the suspician.) Music features prominently: Rao’s bandmates from his group Tigertronic make cameos, and he composed and created the mostly electronic score himself.
After writing Ultrasonic with his friend Mike Maguire, Rao shot the film over the course of nine weekends last spring with a small crew and cast. They did their filming around the District—-in Capitol Hill, Georgetown, Columbia Heights, and in the Metro.
But Rao was inspired too write Ultrasonic several years ago when he and his wife moved to Seattle. Their first winter there, “the low cloud cover, the grayness, it really a kind of mental number of me,” he says. “Weird paranoia type feelings.” When they moved back to the D.C. area, he began crafting those themes into a script with Maguire. “I liked the idea of not being sure if it’s all in [the protagonist’s] head or if it’s something real,” Rao says. Certainly, the film’s sepia coloring and somber tone has a Seattle feel, District setting notwithstanding. “I wanted it to be subdued,” says the filmmaker.
Ultrasonic screens Saturday at 7 p.m. at the U.S. Navy Heritage Center. $10. You can rent it beginning Monday at ultrasonicmovie.com.