How To Make a Blockbuster Movie (Without Really Trying)

If you went to a movie theater on June 15, 2024 — that is, two days ago — there’s a very good chance you saw “Inside Out 2,” the animated movie from Walt Disney Studios. According to Box Office Mojo, Inside Out 2 was the highest-grossing film in the U.S. box office that day, and it wasn’t particularly close — it brought in $51 million on June 15th alone, with “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” in second place with merely $12.1 million. Toward the bottom of the top 20 are a lot of films you’ve probably never heard of; for example, in 19th place is “Robot Dreams,” which (as of Saturday) has been in theaters for more than two weeks but has only brought in $188,673. By all accounts, the 102-minute Oscar-nominated movie is pretty good, but it’ll never top the box office chart. Movies from very tiny studios with a limited theater release almost never do.


June 10, 2020 was a very different day than June 15, 2024. The world was gripped by a global pandemic and many people steered clear of large, public spaces in order to avoid acquiring and spreading the COVID virus. Movie theaters were hit particularly hard. In many areas, governments required them to shut down, but even in places where that wasn’t the case, business evaporated. By the end of March, few people wanted to risk contracting a life-threatening virus just to see a movie. And as spring gave way to summer, there wasn’t much to see anyway. Every major movie studio — and almost all the minor ones, too — delayed the release of their completed films, realizing that there wasn’t enough box office demand to have any chance of recouping their production costs.

Most saw this as an inconvenience or worse. But YouTuber/actor Eric Tabach and his friend, filmmaker Christian Nilsson, saw the moment as an opportunity. For one shining moment, they were going to be the world’s biggest movie producers.

At the start of the pandemic shut-down, the top-scoring box office films were ones you never heard of — and they weren’t making a lot of money. As the Washington Post explained at the time, “with theaters closed, Hollywood has been releasing major films straight to streaming. Lately, tiny movies screened on a few drive-in theaters have topped the charts with just a few thousand dollars in revenue.” If you could somehow get as little as $25,000 in box office revenue — that is, if you could sell 2,000 or so tickets in one day — you could probably have the top-grossing film of the moment. That’s an honor typically limited to Hollywood blockbusters and the like, but the pandemic changed the rules.

In the theatrical industry, there’s a practice known as “four-walling.” In most cases, movie studios make a movie and then, through a distributor, sell the rights to show the movie to movie theaters. The theaters and the studio each get a cut of the box office take. Four-walling flips that around a bit — the studio pays the venues to rent out the theater, and in return, the studio keeps all of the money from ticket sales. It’s rarely done because if you’re, say, Walt Disney Pictures, you’re in the business of making movies, not in running theaters, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense for you to do it all yourself.

But if you’re a small studio or independent filmmaker, four-walling may make a lot of sense. You don’t have a big distributor helping you get your movie into theaters, and you don’t have the big marketing budget to help you get attention — why not rent out a local theater and show your creation on the big screen to the people in your community? All you need is an empty movie theater that you can rent out — and in June 2020, there were plenty of those. You could get one for almost nothing. Oh, and you needed a brand new movie to show.

Tabach and Nilsson, as it turned out, were perfectly capable of producing one, even under pandemic-related shutdown conditions. Tabach’s experience with YouTube made him well-versed in producing video from home, and Nilsson was able to write a script that fit the moment. Wanting to create a box office smash, they got to work, as Vulture explains: “In the span of a week, Nilsson wrote a 30-minute horror film called ‘Unsubscribe’ that takes place entirely over video chat, and which was shot on Zoom with a cast of TV actors like Ozark’s Charlie Tahan and some YouTubers Tabach knew. “ They had a movie with a real cast and while it was short and low in production value, it was good enough to qualify for whatever requirements box office lists require. All they needed to do was find a theater to allow them to four-wall, and then sell about 2,000 movie tickets.

And that, it turned out, was easy. An independent theater in Westhampton, New York, offered to rent them out a theater for a flat rate under a four-walling agreement. The duo cobbled together a bit more than $25,000 and showed their film three times on June 10, 2024, buying every single ticket themselves. Because the box office money went right back into their pockets, Tabach and Nilsson ended up getting almost all of their money back. All it cost them, net, was the price to rent the theater, and the price to rent the tuxedos they wore to their movie premiere, as seen above.

By June 11th, “Unsubscribe” was no longer in theaters — but it didn’t matter. The stunt was already successful. If you look at Box Office Mojo’s top-grossing domestic films for June 10, 2020, you’ll see that “Unsubscribe” tops the charts, with a one-day take of $25,488, nearly $3,000 more than the number-two film that day. Tabach and Nilsson were the biggest movie producers in the country — even though no one else had seen their film. But if you’re truly curious about what a pandemic-era box office one-day smash looks like, you can watch their movie: it’s available for rent on Vimeo for $3.99.

Bonus fact: As evidenced above — albeit in weird conditions — having the top-grossing movie doesn’t guarantee that you’ll come out ahead financially. The most famous example was a legit hit, though. The highest-grossing domestic U.S. film in 1963 was Cleopatra, which brought in $26 million that year (about $300 million in today’s dollars) — about 20% higher than the film next on the list. But despite easily making more movies than any other that year, Twentieth Century Fox, the studio behind the film, needed it to make more. As the AV Club reports, “The movie cost about $44 million to make—more than $350 million today—with some people estimating that it might’ve gone as high as $60 million. It was the most expensive movie that had ever been made.”

From the Archives: Admit Two: The lowest-grossing movie of all time only sold two tickets at the theaters, earning twenty dollars. Here’s why.