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Gray Areas: ‘Decommissioned’ shows challenges of no-budget filmmaking

When people talk about low-budget films, they often are referring to movies with six-figure budgets.

Even “The Blair Witch Project” cost $60,000 and Kevin Smith’s debut “Clerks” was made for about $25,000.

Hubbard’s William Victor Schotten has eight directing credits on his IMDb bio, and their combined budgets probably don’t equal the cost of “Clerks.” They fall well short of “Blair Witch Project,” but some of Schotten’s films were sold alongside that horror hit by major retailers like Walmart and Kmart and occupied the same shelf at Hollywood Video outlets.

Schotten looks back at those projects and the group of passionate, dedicated people he made them with in “Decommissioned: Better Luck Next Time,” a 50-minute documentary released over the weekend on YouTube (look for it by searching Five Stone Film Works).

It’s a nostalgic look at a decade of local no-budget filmmaking that started with Super 8 film and evolved to HD video. But Schotten’s nostalgia isn’t rose-colored. The shoots were arduous, the creative arguments were frequent, and he can be his own harshest critic (and considering some of the things that have been said about those movies, being his harshest critic isn’t easy).

“I’ve lost more money on failed film projects than I’d like to admit,” Schotten said during an interview Tuesday, but he’s also proud of what they achieved. “A movie we made for $200 in 24 hours (‘Below Ground’) ended up on the shelves of Walmart. The film’s not good and certainly got raked over the coals by reviewers, but holy smokes, look what we accomplished.”

Think of “Decommissioned” as Schotten’s episode of “Behind the Movies,” a cinematic variation on VH-1’s “Behind the Music.”

“Decommissioned” covers some of Schotten’s first projects — “Dead Life,” “Sabbath,” “Bloodlock,” “Silver Cell” — but its primary focus is “Wormwood’s End,” which he shot around 2014 at a decommissioned military radio base in Brookfield.

The post-apocalyptic zombie story is a sequel to “Dead Life,” but it’s remained largely unseen outside of a premiere in Pittsburgh since Schotten couldn’t find a distributor and didn’t want to release it on his own.

That’s about to change.

“When COVID-19 hit, I decided to reopen it and do some tweaking and re-edits and was going to self-release it,” he said.

While trying to find a distributor for foreign rights, he connected with Ron Bonk of SRS Cinema, who wanted U.S. and foreign distribution rights and plans to release “Wormwood’s End” on DVD and Blu-ray. A release date hasn’t been set.

“Decommissioned” was created as one of the Blu-ray extras, but Schotten also decided to make it available online. The documentary will be promoted by Kings of Horror, billed as “the #1 most watched & subscribed horror movie channel on YouTube” with more than a million subscribers.

And while Schotten doesn’t have any horror movies in the works — “Eventually you get tired of failing, tired of losing other people’s money,” he said — he parlayed his passion for movies and that DIY experience into a career as a cinematographer, starting Five Stone Film Works and working as a camera operator on “The Casey Malone Show.”

He compared his career path to the popular “Price Is Right” game Plinko.

“Everybody starts out wanting to be the boss, to be a writer-director,” Schotten said. “Your disk starts falling down the Plinko rack. I failed at directing, I failed at writing, but I was pretty good at the cinematography thing, so you fall into that category.”

Andy Gray is the entertainment editor of Ticket. Write to him at agray@ tribtoday.com

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