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Crime-fighting werewolf hits the big screens

Wolfcop won a $1-million investment from the Film Accelerator and has a limited release in Cineplex theatres.

You don't need to tell Lowell Dean that his new movie, WolfCop, borders on the absurd.

The 35-year-old Saskatchewan director is very aware of just how ridiculous the concept of a small-town police officer who fights crime as a werewolf is.

"When I [first] visualized the idea I laughed and said, 'That's stupid,'" Dean told The Globe and Mail. "But then I was lying awake in bed that night thinking of what the hell that would look like. What would a werewolf cop do?"

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Now, nearly three years after he first came up with the idea for his horror-action-comedy, WolfCop has started rolling out in select Cineplex theatres for a limited Canadian run.

Prior to its release, WolfCop is already proving to be a hit, as the wholly Canadian production has already been green-lit for a sequel. The film has also presold "around 800-900 tickets" and has garnered international attention after successful buyer screenings at Cannes last month, according to J. Joly, CEO of CineCoup, a studio whose disruptive Film Accelerator model helps indie filmmakers to develop, market and finance their own movie.

But it hasn't been a smooth ride to the box office for the Regina-based production.

In 2012, before Dean began filming, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall scrapped the Saskatchewan Film Employment Tax Credit – a refundable tax credit similar to those used by a number of other provinces to encourage local TV and film production – which caused an outcry from the local industry. Wall's government argued that the move would save taxpayers around $8-million a year.

"I didn't not only know where we'd be shooting, but how I'd be shooting and so we were trying to come up with something that we could shoot for maybe a quarter of a million dollars," said Dean.

Harnessing the passion of the province's reeling film industry, Dean, alongside producers Bernie Hernando and Hugh Patterson, recruited a volunteer crew of 40 people – or as Dean jokingly puts it, "basically the Saskatchewan film industry" – to help film his concept trailer, which he says became vital considering that their "financing structure [and] funding options were definitely more in question than ever after the tax credit was cut."

With their trailer in hand, the trio searched for ways to finance their movie and eventually entered WolfCop into CineCoup's program. Over the course of a 90-day social-media marketing challenge that forced filmmakers to establish and build an audience before production, the movie managed to beat out dozens of other Canadian pitches and went on to win a $1-million investment from the Film Accelerator alongside a guaranteed release in Cineplex theatres.

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It was a big win for the filmmakers, their crew and Saskatchewan's film industry.

"We needed a good-news story in this province with the end of the tax credit," said Dean. "I think a lot of people took up our fight as a symbolic fight of 'we want film in Saskatchewan,' even if it is this ridiculous film.

"We didn't have a lot of resources, but we had a lot of passion."

After receiving their funding and revising their script with Joly, it was decided that the movie would be filmed locally despite the province's lack of tax credit.

"For me personally, it would have felt wrong, especially after these 40 people were helping us with the trailer … to take the reward away from them," said Dean. "Also I knew selfishly that no one would care as much. I knew we were going to war and I needed my army with me."

Leo Fafard, who plays Lou Garou – an alcoholic police officer who, after following up on a disturbance call in a remote area, transforms into the movie's titular character – has been with the project from the beginning and believes that keeping the production local was vital to both its past and future success.

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"There was that core group, all these Saskatchewan, mostly Regina, people, that stayed involved and put in a ton of sweat equity for the year before we got the money," said Fafard, a Saskatchewan native himself. "As soon as you leave the province you start to lose control over who you can bring in on the project."

Another part of WolfCop's appeal, according to Fafard, is in its "B-movie grit," which is something that Dean says was partially inspired by grindhouse-style horror movies like Sam Raimi's original Evil Dead franchise, and partially a reality of the budgetary constraints they planned to work within before receiving funding.

In recent years, the once wildly popular grindhouse movies – a pop-culture term to describe inexpensive horror movies or exploitation films that feature gratuitous sex, violence and gore – have made a comeback with both popular movies such as Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof and Robert Rodriguez's Machete franchise and recent ones like Sharknado and Zombeavers having helped bring the genre back into the mainstream.

Michael Coutanche, a film professor at Toronto's Ryerson University, argues that the appeal of these movies stems from the tried, tested and true formula of "horror, gore and big-time sex."

"I think it appeals to those big markers that people want to see," he said. "There's always going to be a market for it."

Another part of the genre's appeal is in the name of its films, which Coutanche says "deliberately splice together words that don't belong together" to "create the questions 'what' and 'why' in the mind of the audience," which can only be answered by watching the movie.

"It's a great marketing tool because it gets people hooked and talking about it long before the movie or TV event is screened," he said.

While Dean knew his movie's unique name would garner attention and help fill seats, he hopes that audiences will leave theatres with more than they expected.

"I always knew we'd get a certain amount of attention because of the stupidity of our name," said Dean. "I want people to go in for the name and the idea and walk out saying how they were surprised at how good the movie looked, or maybe that there was more of a story than they were thinking."

Based on its success, CineCoup will be launching the second cycle of its Canadian Film Accelerator later this month, according to a press release, and is currently in discussion with partners in the United States and internationally to expand its studio model to additional markets, including television pilots.

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