Master Class

The Duplass brothers made a $3 movie, and it launched their careers with Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO

As they say in Hollywood, it took brothers Mark and Jay Duplass a decade working in the film industry to become an overnight success.

"My brother and I struggled for 10 years making bad pieces of art until we hit that first $3 movie that got into Sundance [Film Festival]," Mark Duplass tells CNBC Make It.

That seven-minute short film, "This is John," shows a man coming home and struggling to record the perfect voicemail message. It's remarkably painful to watch. Mark is the sole actor in the film, and his brother, Jay, is the director. Released in 2003, the film cost the brothers $3 (for the mini digital videotape on which it was shot) to produce.

Yet it launched the careers of the Duplass brothers, who have gone on to direct 10 feature films, create (write, produce and direct — in various combinations) multiple television shows and produce more than 40 movies, as well as act, Mark tells CNBC Make It.

"This is John" "was the worst-looking and worst-sounding film ever to play at the festival," Mark said in a 2012 piece he penned for Newsweek. "There was a dead pixel in the middle of it. It looked like a home movie, but it won pretty much all the awards that year, and it signed us to our big [talent] agencies and got us our first major script deal."

Jay and Mark Duplass
Photo by Jason LaVeris
Jay and Mark Duplass

A few highlights of the Duplass brothers' career since then: Younger brother Mark, 41, has appeared in "The Mindy Project" (on Fox and then Hulu), and older brother Jay, 45, was on the Amazon Prime show "Transparent." The HBO series "Togetherness," which the brothers co-directed and in which Mark starred, ran for two seasons before being cancelled in 2016. The brothers wrote comedy feature film "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," which was released in 2012 by Paramount Vantage (a now defunct division of Paramount). And in February, Netflix announced it had acquired worldwide rights to four upcoming movies from the Duplass brothers.

If "This is John" excelling at Sundance was an inflection point in the Duplasses' careers, it followed a less auspicious milestone — the brothers had just badly fumbled what they thought was their best shot at producing a feature film.

"The low point for me and Jay was very clear," Mark tells CNBC Make It. The brothers were in their 20s, living in Austin, Texas, at the time, he says. "We were struggling as artists, running an editing business that was making a little bit of money, but not too much — working as freelance editors to keep ourselves afloat, as well." The video editing business, which the Duplass brothers had started in 1996, charged $5 an hour to cut movies, according to a 2015 Wired profile.

Then, the brothers got a decently large commission to shoot a documentary for a local start-up. They hired a director of photography and a camera operator, according to Wired, and set to work on the film "Vince Del Rio."

"We took $70,000 — everything we had made — and we put it into making a feature film," Mark tells CNBC Make It. "And it was terrible. It was unsalvageable.

"And so that was really the hardest thing," Mark says. "Because it's hard enough thinking, 'I can't get the money to make my movie,' but then thinking, 'I got the money to make my movie, and I'm not good enough' was really bad."

"Vince Del Rio" was about the struggles of a runner from South Texas. "In hindsight, it was a rip-off of Rocky," Mark wrote in Newsweek.

The problem, the brothers determined, was that they were not being themselves. "One day as we were sitting on our dilapidated couch, watching 'Fargo,' and wondering why we couldn’t be as cool as the Coen brothers," Mark wrote in Newsweek, referring to the Oscar-winning 1997 film by Joel and Ethan Coen, "[we] realized something — we were trying to be like other filmmakers. We were completely denying our own instincts. And we realized we’re actually kind of funny people at parties and in conversations. Why did we try to make an overly serious sports movie that we knew nothing about?"

So the Duplass brothers went back to their roots. They dropped the highly produced and expensive production style they had spent their savings on with "Vince Del Rio" and returned to a comfortable do-it-yourself aesthetic they had developed making movies about everyday topics growing up in the New Orleans suburbs in the 1980s. The result was Sundance darling "This is John."

"We broke down our whole system of filmmaking. We picked up our parents' video camera, and Jay held it, and I acted in it, like we did when we were 8 and 12 years old," Mark tells CNBC Make It. "And we filmed a 20-minute take of the story of a guy trying to perfect the personal greeting of his answering machine and having a nervous breakdown, which was funny and tragic and all the things from our life. And it cost $3. And that was our first movie that got to Sundance."

The agony of a man trying repeatedly to record a greeting on his voicemail in "This is John" was similar to frustration the Duplass brothers were feeling when they made the short film, Mark says. "Here we were with our lives in hilarious desperation, and there was going to be no lighting crew, no sound guy, no nothing. It’s going to look and sound like shit, but we were going to make a movie," Mark wrote in Newsweek.

The experience taught the Duplass brothers that authenticity is more important than fancy gear. "We still make movies with that ethic: You need to learn who you are. And the most important thing in the whole world is your story and your performance. You can spend a ton of money, and what you will end up with if you’re not careful is an extremely well-polished turd," Mark wrote in Newsweek.

And that success came just in time — otherwise the brothers might have given up on filmmaking.

"I think at that low point, we were very close to quitting," Mark tells CNBC Make It. "And I think if we hadn't had success quite soon after — with that $3 short film going to Sundance, getting an agent, and from there we were just on the run — I think it is a good chance that we might have quit or done something else, gone back to graduate school and tried to figure out how to teach or something like that."

To this day, Duplass Brothers Productions, the Los Angeles-based production company the Duplasses founded, has created a niche of producing, writing, directing and acting with a very specific "quirky and empathetic approach to storytelling," as it is described in the 2018 release from Netflix announcing their four-movie partnership. It's earned them a reputation as pioneers of "mumblecore," a kind of modern, low-budget film production that revolves around dialogue (as opposed to plot) and is centered on the relationships of people in their 20s and 30s.

Duplass Brothers Productions declined to share specific revenues with CNBC Make It. But big box office isn't the Duplass brothers' brand of success. (For context, the first movie the brothers produced with a studio — "Cyrus" by Fox Searchlight in 2010 — cost $7 million to make and brought in $7.4 million in ticket sales, according to Wired. By comparison, "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," released the same year, had a $68 million budget and grossed over $300 million domestically, according to Box Office Mojo.) The Duplasses even turned down an offer from Marvel Studios, the cinematic superhero giant that is home to the likes of "Iron Man" and "Avengers: Infinity War."

"Yes. There was a moment where Marvel was interested in us taking on one of their properties. It would have been a $150 to $180 million budget and about three years of our lives," Mark told New York Magazine's Vulture in March. "To be a little Sundance filmmaker tapped by Marvel felt incredible. But the amount of stuff we could make over those three years, the relationships we could forge with younger filmmakers..."

And movies are no longer the Duplass brothers' only source of income. In 2017, the brothers launched an advertising company, Donut, which makes branded content and commercials for both television and online for the likes of Amazon, Lyft, Levi's and Snapchat, a representative for the Duplass brothers tells CNBC Make It. They also just released a book, "Like Brothers," in May.

Brands turn to the Duplass brothers for the same aesthetic that has become their trademark in producing films and television shows. “Mark and Jay capture that human condition that we can all relate to. They capture how messy life really is. A lot of other people just try to polish and perfect it and water it down,” Sean Ohlenkamp, the creative director for Amazon’s in-house creative agency D1, told Fast Company.

The business model for how the brothers produce ads is the same as it is for films.

"Our model is, nobody knows anything. So what you need to do is make a lot of things cheaply upfront, and be able to chase that creative. So what we’re offering a lot of people is, hey, rather than spending X on one spot, let’s spend X on five or six smaller versions, and then we’ll start testing them and seeing what works," Mark told Fast Company. “That’s what our Netflix model was based on, honestly ... We’re not gonna make you one movie — we’re gonna make you four little ones. And we’ll let the zeitgeist decide what blows up. And that humility has helped us as creators and seems to be lacking almost everywhere, honestly.”

Success is something the Duplass brothers have built gradually and steadily. And that's a strategy Mark Duplass recommends to anyone looking to launch their own innovative career.

"I would say if you have a dream — and whether that is you want to be some sort of artist or you want to start a start-up or a business, anything that very much feels like it's uniquely yours and you may not be able to get traction going through traditional channels — the way to do it is to build it brick by brick on your own in microsteps," Mark tells CNBC Make It. "For us, in the filmmaking world, that meant our first $3 movie that went to Sundance, then we made a $100 short film out of that ['Scrapple,' 2004]. From there, we made a $10,000 feature ['Puffy Chair,' 2005] from borrowed money. Then we made a $50,000 feature ['Baghead,' 2008] that had like a genre element to it."

Building your career in microsteps has the benefit of giving you a sense of independence, says Mark. "You're always in control and self-empowered," he tells CNBC Make It.

And when you are operating from a place of being in control, you will make authentic decisions.

"When it does come time for someone to offer you either money or to offer to purchase your company, you're in the perfect position to know that, 'Well, I have full autonomy. And I can do this without your money or your purchase.' And when you send that signal to people it makes them even want you more," Mark says. "So then you're in the lovely position of a) I can continue to do this thing independently or b) I could bring in this private equity investor, but I don't need them. And when they sense that, that's when you really sort of have the power to continue doing what you really want to do."

Mark Duplass says the other benefit is that anyone can use this strategy, even those who are, like the Duplass Brothers were decades ago, small fish in a big pond.

"The reason I recommend this sort of microbrick campaign of just building it one step by one step is that it's the only thing I know how to do. And I find that most people who are looking for advice were in the same position that I was in — from nowhere, no connections, didn't feel particularly intelligent, well spoken, or good looking, just swimming around in the land of the B-minus with no connections and no one to help me. That's where this advice really plays," Mark tells CNBC Make It.

"If you're graduating top of your class from [University of Southern California] film school and your father's last name is Spielberg, you don't really need to listen to me, but if you're not — and I suspect most of you aren't — I find that self-reliance really is the key."

— Video by Andrea Kramar

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