WITH THEIR MAHAL EMPIRE production company, brothers Michael and Sonny Mahal have become the Las Vegas equivalent of Roger Corman, producing low-budget, high-craziness genre movies like Bus Party to Hell and Art of the Dead that reliably get wide distribution on video-on-demand. Their film formula is matched by a machine-like business formula: They combine local talent with recognizable B-movie stars like Richard Grieco and Tara Reid, and they raise hundreds of thousands of dollars via crowdfunding campaigns to attract the attention of larger investors.
Starring Grieco, alien invasion thriller Attack of the Unknown (pictured) was released August 28 on VOD, and there are three more Mahal Empire movies (all directed by local filmmaker Michael Su) in various stages of production. In between shooting days on horror movie Death Count, Michael Mahal talked to Fifth Street about the brothers’ winning formula in an age when COVID has put the traditional Hollywood movie model on hold.
Has the pandemic slowed you down at all?
No, actually I think in terms of producing movies, we’re getting more aggressive. The reason is because right now all these distributors desperately need content. Now that productions have basically come to a halt for like the last six months now, because of the pandemic, places like Netflix or Starz or Showtime, all these VOD platforms and cable companies and satellite, they need content because there’s no new movies that have been made. So right now is a great time to make movies. It’s a pandemic—you have to be safe. We use a medic on set and take everybody’s temperatures and do all the PPE, make sure everything’s sanitized and take all the proper precautions.
How much of your budgets come from crowdfunding versus equity investment?
Generally I would say it’s about half and half. IndieGoGo’s like our video Rolodex, and it gets people interested and it gets the ball rolling to get these bigger investors to put in equity investments. I think once they see the success of IndieGoGo, that’s when they all want to come in.
Is it important for you to nurture local talent like Michael Su?
Honestly, there’s a lot of talent in Vegas, crew-wise. It’s on the level of L.A. and Hollywood. I think there’s also some fantastic actors in town. The problem is, the Nevada government really needs to change the film (tax) incentives to help filmmakers more, that are actually giving cast and crew opportunities here in Vegas. They’re giving millions of dollars away to these companies in L.A. that just come in, hire a couple of (production assistants) and bring in all outside people, and they’re the ones getting all of the Nevada dollars. I’m the one who's bringing in people from all over the world, and I’m not reaping the rewards of any incentives.
Is making movies a full-time job for you and Sonny?
Yeah, we’ve been doing it now full-time probably for two and a half, maybe three years, professionally with no other job. Honestly, I could make a killing off of doing it, with the amount of money that we’re raising off the crowdfunding stuff. But with the money we’re raising, it’s barely enough to put out a quality product that I think can compete with Hollywood. The thing is, four of our best movies haven’t even been released yet. Once these few movies get released, then I think our fan base will increase, and then the amount of money that we raise will increase with it. When that happens, then we’ll be making a lot more money.
What’s your strategy for recruiting bigger-name actors?
I think a lot of these celebrities pay for themselves. When I’m running a crowdfunding campaign and I have Tara Reid attached to it, people will pay thousands of dollars just to get a line with Tara Reid. I think it’s important for us to secure them, not only to make the project marketable so distributors want it, but also so we can raise the money that we need. For every 10 grand I’m paying Tara Reid, she’s probably bringing us in 20 or 30 grand.
What’s the long-term goal for Mahal Empire?
Eventually, we want to get to the studio level and start working with $5, $10 million budgets or higher. To get to that point, you have to pay your dues. Hollywood’s not going to give you a $30 or $40 million movie deal unless you have at least 10 or 15 movies under your belt. It would just be too much of a risk for them. I think a lot of big players are watching us now. Right now I think we’re pretty much at the max we can take for our formula without having too many people in the movie and it just being too long. There has to be a point where you have to cut off the funding of the movie. We’ve had to do that on Bloodthirst and Attack of the Unknown. We’re like, we can’t take any more money, campaign’s over.