Dakota Laden got fleeced.
He was 7 years old when his sister Chelsea sold him an overpriced video camera she received as a Christmas gift. But getting ripped off would soon grease the wheels of the youngster's percolating passion.
The Lakeville kid used the camera to start making goofy videos starring friends. He'd post the shorts on YouTube. By the time Laden graduated from high school two years ago, he'd amassed nearly 70,000 followers and 12 million views.
Laden, who was inspired by his cinematic heroes, Quentin Tarantino and Minnesota's own Ethan and Joel Coen, and needed cash to buy new filmmaking equipment, eyed video contests. He won the first one he entered. At 15, he made a video montage for a Travel Channel competition, claiming the top spot out of 5,000 aspirants.
Included in Laden's prize was accompanying a crew on a shoot where they were locked inside a haunted jail in Charleston, South Carolina.
After graduating from high school, he heeded the advice of movie insiders, who urged him to forsake film school for experience. Laden toiled as a grunt on the sets of three movies, including Vin Diesel's The Last Witch Hunter and Allegiant, the third installment in the Divergent series.
His talents caught the eye of Doug Wick, the Academy Award-winning producer of Gladiator. Wick took Laden under his wing.
Says dad Rob Laden: "So he told Dakota this is great that you worked on these movie sets, and you should continue to do so because you'll keep learning, but you need to keep creating. And your next step should not be to make more short films, but rather a full two-hour movie."
Which is exactly what Laden has done.
On Saturday night, his first feature-length documentary, The Trail To Terror-A Real Life Horror Story, premieres at the Theaters at the Mall of America. The screening is already sold out.
The film, which has a Blair Witch Project feel, according to the young moviemaker, follows Laden's sister and two friends over five days as they suffer sleepovers at five different haunted places from Illinois to Connecticut to Virginia.
"This film is what I call a real-life horror movie," Laden tells City Pages. "…We come across numerous scary, creepy, and unexplainable events. Just knowing that it is real and not a scripted movie makes some of the crazy things we experienced very, very real.
"Some of the things we captured on film, I don't think have ever been captured before. It is like a roller coaster — fun times hanging with friends traveling across the country by day, haunted insane asylums, [an] old polio hospital, poor farm from the 1950s by night....Before the film is over, two of the four of us are crying!"
Laden won't be crying if his documentary is picked up by a major player like Netflix.