Arts Desk

A D.C. “Mumblecore Thriller” and Its Intriguing Distribution Model

Silas Gordon Brigham in "Ultrasonic"

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 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.

Rao has his next film in mind already, inspired by an old curry western called Sholay. It'll be called The Fury of Embers, he says. "It's a two-thieves-with-a-heart-of-gold kind of thing."

Ultrasonic screens Saturday at 7 p.m. at the U.S. Navy Heritage Center. $10. You can rent it beginning Monday at

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  • Sheri Candler

    As someone who works regularly with low budget filmmakers, I can say that many filmmakers are selling their films from their sites without having to come up with special coding (though I applaud the effort from Rao!) Services like Dynamo Player and Distrify make this incredibly easy. They do take a cut for their coding trouble, but if coding isn't your thing (and it isn't for most filmmakers), it is easy to install, even on a Facebook page. Plus Distrify allows you to have affiliate sales. Those who host your videos get a cut of the sale and you determine the cut.

    For anyone curious about how indie filmmakers are forging new paths of distribution for their films, including making money by giving it away for free, check out the book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul. There is even a FREE pdf download available on our site. Just Google the name.

  • Ro Rao

    Hi Sheri, I found your site in my research during my "what to do about distribution" phase. I didn't find Dynamo, but I did find Distrify during my research, and I decided against going with it due to user experience of Distrify's player.

    I wanted to create something that had an entirely seamless, part-of-the-site, experience. Something where it didn't feel like an external player was just sitting inside a film site (or fb, for that matter)

    Please don't get me wrong, I think it's great that there are services like Distrify out there, I do believe there is a very strong need for them, and I think a lot of low-budget indie filmmakers can benefit from them. For Ultrasonic, however, I want the viewer to be able to watch the movie as part of the site. I want the entire thing to be a single seamless experience, which is why I opted for the route of creating it myself.

    I think you're doing great work helping get indies out there, best to you as we embark on this new paradigm!

  • Skavinger

    "mumblecore thriller," whoever coined that must've been a genius, :).

    Also, this film is genius. Can't wait for The Fury of Embers to rekindle my passion for indie films.

    Lastly, congrats to Mr. Rao for getting the Best of the Fest at the DCIFF.

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  • Ram

    You just lost a sale at the word rental. Why not outright sale? What do you gain by making it a rental? (Unless you expect the user to rewatch it at a later time, and milk $3.99 more - not gonna happen unless its a cult hit)

    Renting it also screams for my time commitment RIGHT NOW. Which works pretty well for Studio movies - but not for "critically acclaimed" indie films.

    Thats just me, if it was $3.99 and sold to me, I would have got it and watched it whenever I want (as i have a huge backlog)

    Good Luck!

  • Ro Rao

    It's not an immediate watch rental. You have a week to watch it. I can't give it away for 3.99 because I can't limit password-sharing. This way, you get it for 7 days, share the password all you want for those 7 days, and then you still receive unlimited access to the bonus features after the 7 days.

    This film took two years of some very hard work from a lot of people. I appreciate your honesty but I do believe it's still a really good deal.