Everyone knows it takes a lot of money to make a feature film. But even if you don't have much money, and you really want to make a movie, Ingrid Veninger says you probably should.
Veninger made her latest feature, i am a good person/i am a bad person, for $20,000, playing the lead role opposite her daughter Hallie Switzer, shooting in hotels and friends' apartments in Europe while touring film festivals with her 2010 film Modra. But she believes you can make a good feature for a lot less than that – say, $19,000 less.
Last May, Veninger put up $5,000 of her own money to see if anyone in the Toronto film community would commit to making a feature with just $1,000 upfront. Thirty-four applicants responded with project pitches for the first $1,000 Feature Film Challenge, or 1K Wave.
"I would say 30 were really doable, which was very surprising," she says. Five that she couldn't finance got made anyway, which means her $5,000 helped spark the creation of 10 films – amazing leverage by any standard.
In addition to the cash, the winners got executive production by Veninger, a day's mixing at The Royal cinema – in its daytime role as a film mixing and editing venue – a guaranteed screening at The Royal, and possible distribution through Royal programmer Stacey Donen's new College Street Pictures.
Making a film for almost nothing may be a cineaste's ultimate test of resolve and resourcefulness, but for Veninger it's also a liberating exercise in creativity and community-building. When directors, actors and technicians know they can band together to make art, she says, they worry less about pleasing an external source of funding.
"You don't have to wait for permission from anyone to do your art," she says. "You can put $1,000 on your credit card. You can make a feature that can play festivals and hit the big screen. And if we can keep costs low enough, we can make money on these films."
That wouldn't have been possible without a technological revolution that put the big screen within reach of anyone with a good video camera and editing software. A film made in one's neighbourhood with friends can play the same festivals as a major studio project.
Veninger initially planned to finance the 1K Wave with her share of the box office from i am a good person/i am a bad person's brief run at the Royal. But that came out to around $2,000, "and two films do not make a wave." So she financed her challenge with $5,000 she received last winter from the Toronto Film Critics Association's Jay Scott Award for emerging artist and plowed the other $2,000 into a day-long workshop for all applicants with New York micro-budgeting pioneer Amos Poe.
The final films must be at least 75 minutes long and may defer up to $2,000 in wages to crew, recoupable from revenues, just like Veninger's $1,000 investment. The filmmaker keeps everything after the first $3,000 in sales.
Some of the applicants and many of the people working on the selected projects are neophytes looking for a feature-film credit on their resumés, but some are veterans of micro-budget film. Brothers Jason and Brett Butler made their most recent feature for $500. Their $1,000 windfall gave them the profile and leverage to get better equipment and more actors, for a project that has 25 speaking roles and was shot in locations all across Toronto.
"We don't even consider budgets. We just come up with an idea and do it," says Jason. "We're just trying to stick to our instincts and reach an audience." Recently, they went to their public with a Kickstarter pitch for a Web series about low-powered superheroes called The Undrawn – "we say it's The Office meets X-Men " – and raised $14,000.
More money is nice, though the brothers say the process can change for the worse when crew go from volunteering their labour to feeling underpaid. Veninger believes that too much capital can be a curse, especially for a rookie filmmaker trying to develop his or her own voice.
"How can you take risks and not choose the safe thing when you've got a million-dollar gorilla on your back?" she says. The flip side is that if you're not paying people, she adds, you have a duty to do everything possible to get their work seen.
John L'Ecuyer didn't manage to finish his film within the budget allowed. He and Veninger will turn his part of the evening into a "live documentary" about his mixed experience of micro-budget filmmaking, with a semi-scripted conversation between chunks of footage from the film.
"It's a most interesting and constructive case study," Veninger says, "for anyone who wants to do a $1,000 feature" – of whom there seem to be many. Half the box-office revenue from this week's screenings will go to keeping the 1K Wave rolling.
The films of the first 1K Wave go on view at Toronto's Royal Cinema Thursday through Saturday.
Five from 1k Wave:
Hotel Congress Toronto actress Nadia Litz (The Five Senses, You Are Here) worked with her real-life partner Michel Kandinsky on this two-hander about love and fidelity, shot in a Tucson hotel room.
Me, the Bees and Cancer Veteran assistant director John Board (Naked Lunch, The Bay of Love and Sorrows) traces his search through stinging alternative therapies for a cure for his own cancer.
Mourning Has Broken This roving black comedy by Brett and Jason Butler (Confusions of an Unmarried Couple) centres on a guy who responds to his wife's terminal illness by channelling his frustration toward all the nuisances of daily life.
Sockeye High-school student Ben Roberts pulls an all-nighter with his dad, TV actor Rick Roberts (Republic of Doyle), and discovers new plot twists in his family background.
Liquid Handcuffs: the Unmaking of Methadonia Indie-film veteran John L'Ecuyer (Curtis's Charm) turns his unfinished film into a diaristic look at the theory and practice of making movies for almost nothing.