Master Class

Money advice from budget-savvy moviemaker Mark Duplass: Eat ramen, buy stock

Mark Duplass and his brother Jay have built a career making low-budget movies. The short film that ultimately launched their career cost $3 to make.

“Our specific key to learning low-budget filmmaking was that we never learned how to make high-budget film[s],” Mark, 41, tells CNBC Make It.

Though he and Jay, 45, have now worked with the likes of Amazon Prime, HBO, Netflix and Paramount, Mark still prefers making inexpensive movies.

“My 'f--- you' to the industry is: I’m going to make something myself for 1/100 of the price that the studio would have had to pay for it, but I’m going to sell it back to them for what they would normally spend,” he told Wealthsimple in June.

But the brothers’ financial savvy goes beyond filmmaking. They inherited some smart money habits from their dad while growing up in the suburbs of New Orleans, Louisiana, in the '80s.

“Our father was the first one in his family to go to college; my mother was the same. We were a family that were what we call ‘house poor’ — you know, we bought the nicest house that we couldn't afford in the suburbs and put all the money into the house, so we didn't have a lot of junk hanging around,” Mark tells CNBC Make It.

“But my father in particular is very fiscally conservative and very savvy with his money and I wouldn’t say he sat us down and said, ‘Sons, this is how you're going to build an empire’ ... but I think we gleaned some of that from him.”

Here are some simple money tips that worked for Mark.

Buy stocks — even if you don't have a lot of money

“This whole myth of, 'You have to have expendable income to get in the stock market,' is I think a bunch of b-------,” Mark tells CNBC Make It. “I think that I started investing in things like Netflix and Apple you know as early as the early 2000s, and I was just buying one to two shares at a time."

In his early 20s, Mark was living in Austin, Texas, "making about $400 a week as a film editor and living the life of an independent musician and an independent filmmaker," he says. "I was still living on my parents' insurance, and I was paying $280 a month in rent ... so I didn't really have any big expenses."

Mark says he would eat as cheaply as possible so he had money to put into the stock market. "All I was doing was giving up a meal out and eating ramen noodles and using that money to invest.”

Every now and then he would buy "$50 of this stock or $100 of this stock and those shares," he tells CNBC Make It. And some paid off big: "Apple, Yahoo, Google in particular really rose," he says.

In 2005, Jay, Mark and their dad decided to invest in Netflix.

“We had been renting from Netflix and we saw they were shifting their business model into making content and distributing content, and they just felt like a great company — it was an instinctual thing,” Mark says. “We just sold a script for about $100,000. It was, like, the first real money we had made. Jay, my dad and myself each put $5,000 into Netflix in 2005, and that was one of the big early buys that really worked for us.”

At the time, shares of Netflix were “only $20 a piece,” the Duplasses write in their book, “Like Brothers.” (Netflix had a seven-for-one stock split in 2015.) “Of course, we wish we had bought a lot more, but that purchase single-handedly funded one of our smaller films with its profits.”

They don’t pretend to be investment pros, though.

“We don’t really know anything about this stuff. But we somehow made a really good chunk of money buying some young, cheap stocks (with very little savings) that eventually skyrocketed,” the brothers write in their book. “Which stock? Good question. It’s hard to figure out which stocks to buy. We’ve taken an approach that is fairly simple but works well. We only buy stocks of companies that we use, love and believe in."

Fly coach and drive a cheap car

Mark and Jay have both had commercial success in Hollywood. Mark has appeared in "The Mindy Project" (on Fox and then Hulu), and older brother Jay 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.

But Mark is still obsessively conscious of not spending on things that aren't a good investment.

“I am very conservative with my money. I fly coach and I drive a Toyota and I don’t like spending money on anything that goes away," Mark told Wealthsimple. (Cars quickly depreciate after purchase.) He even admits to doing "ridiculous things" like spending "an extra hour on my computer trying to get a flight that is $240 instead of $273."

Instead, Mark spends money only on things that will increase in value.

"I live in a big expensive house, because I know that will appreciate in value. When I’m buying furniture I don’t want to go to Restoration Hardware where you’re going to buy a $6,000 table that loses its value. I’d rather spend $10,000 on the vintage piece that will hold its value. So I’m a very traditional kind of 1940s guy who is going to invest and let it appreciate. I’m just built that way,” Mark told Wealthsimple.

Well, except for one thing: “I spent $20,000 on an outdoor infrared sauna for my house, but I was able to justify that by saying I’m a workaholic, I need a place that I can relax, and I was really sold on that whole it purges toxins on a cellular level,” Mark told Wealthsimple. He said he uses it all the time.

Skip the big city

Today, Duplass Brothers Productions is based in Los Angeles, and the brothers' advertising company, Donut, is headquartered in Los Angeles and New York City.

But the pair started their first film-editing business in Austin, where it was much cheaper than the big city.

"These places with high rents, you will drain all of your savings in the course of six, 12 months,” Mark tells CNBC Make It.

“Go to Detroit. Go to Louisville, Kentucky. Go to the outskirts of New Orleans," says Mark. "Buy a house with five other people that cost $35,000 with your rent money, let that neighborhood escalate a little bit. You’ll have equity in that home."

The brothers often lived with roommates, they write in their book. “Yes, the bathroom was nasty and the kitchen was roach-heavy, but it was worth it,” they write, calling it “invaluable to our development and creative process.”

"These are the kind of things you need to do to keep yourself sustainable because, if you're anything like me, it might take you 10 years to figure out what you uniquely have to offer and if you're in a major market you might hit rock bottom with a year and you never gave yourself the chance," says Mark.

You don't have to be a starving artist

Mark admits that his commitment to financial savvy started because Jay and he didn't think they'd ever earn money as filmmakers.

“The key to it underneath all of that is I think an essential humility in a way — we truly believed that we had no business being successful filmmakers or artists, that if we were going to do it we were going to have to take care of everything in a very carefully planned way,” Mark says. “That was just part of the understanding of, this will be the support system that keeps us afloat in the lean years.”

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Indeed, Mark says even for creative types, smart financial decisions can give you the freedom to pursue your passions.

“I think that it's really important to think about money and business as an artist,” Mark tells CNBC Make It. “I made the mistake growing up of thinking I just want to be creative and if I think about business too much that means I'm a sellout. But as I got older I started to realize, if I'm smart and I sort of back into smart financial models, it's actually going to support my dreams — be they as an artist or someone trying to do a startup or any business."

— Video by Andrea Kramar

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