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J. Joly, CEO and founder of CineCoup.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Jay Rathore hasn't made his movie yet, but he has spent the past three months building an audience for it. The part-time director and full-time film technician is a member of one of five production teams to make it through a gruelling weekly series of digital-marketing "missions," on the road to a possible $1-million investment by CineCoup, a disruptive experiment in accelerated filmmaking.

The last stop on that trip is a stage at the Banff World Media Festival in Banff, Alta., where the final five will pitch their projects on Monday afternoon to a panel of industry experts: producer Robert Lantos, Cineplex executive vice-president Michael Kennedy and Noah Segal, distribution head for Entertainment One. Whoever comes out on top gets about $1-million in cash and services to make their film.

Rathore and his two team partners had plenty of experience in Vancouver's film and TV production scene when they signed up with CineCoup last winter. What they knew about film had to be supplemented quickly with on-the-fly insights about getting social networks to care about a feature that didn't yet exist.

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"I think it taught everybody how to be a film-making bootstrapper," says Rathore. Pitching to a possible audience every week with a new two-minute video, he says, focused him on how people were responding to his material, at a stage when he could still make creative use of the information.

CineCoup's mission is to get Canadian filmmakers to contact their likely market early and often, so as not to waste time on an idea that either won't reach a theatre or will be gone by the time anyone notices. Founder J. Joly says his system of challenges and social-media ratings wasn't designed to stroke anyone's ego.

"We're a privately backed studio, and we never wanted this to be a remedial film program," he says. "We want to create warrior-class filmmakers, who will make international films that Canadians want to see in their theatres."

Ninety-three production teams had signed up when the program launched on Feb. 28, each with a two-minute demo. By the beginning of May, only 15 teams remained. The others were all eliminated for missing a Sunday mission deadline, or for falling behind in support numbers on social media and CineCoup's website, which Joly says has had 250,000 unique visitors in three months.

Rathore, whose project has ranked consistently high, says the CineCoup process forced his team to push harder and take risks. The response and comments they received helped him improve his script, for a dramatic teen comedy called Grade Nine.

"We learned to believe in ourselves as filmmakers, which is a huge thing," he says. "We got more exposure than we ever would normally. I mean, here I am talking to you, right? If I just had a concept [video] on YouTube, what would you care?"

With 15 teams left, the lawyers came in, and CineCoup opened optioning negotiations with a contract proposal that everyone agreed was tough. Again, Joly says that coddling wasn't on his agenda.

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"We treated it like another mission, and put one of the toughest options we could," he says. "We wanted to find the entrepreneurs, who could negotiate a very aggressive option, like what Lions Gate or any real studio outside the Canadian Telefilm model would put in front of you."

The 15 negotiated as a collective, with a jointly approved lawyer, and ended up looking at a one-year deal that Rathore said gave CineCoup "quite a bit of control over our intellectual property. We got a great deal, but there's not a lot we can do without their approval."

The deal wasn't great enough for some teams, including the group behind Orangutan Guerillas, a documentary about how palm oil harvesting is destroying the primate's habitat. Sandra Leuba said her team got a boost from its CineCoup experience, in terms of momentum and networking, but in the end felt they could do better on their own.

"I'm not 100 per cent sure we would have entered CineCoup if we had known what the optioning agreement would look like," she says. Her team didn't want to give up creative and fundraising control, and worried that their time-sensitive project might languish on CineCoup's shelf.

Joly says he doesn't want to hoard options, and would love to sell a few in Banff. CineCoup's final five will make their last pitches before an audience of producers and studio types. Others from CineCoup's top 10 will be there as well, in case there's a deal to be made with someone in the room.

"We're going to be putting a lot of pressure on very established people, to make one of these other films in parallel," says Joly. "We packaged them up and built their audience. These teams are rock stars, and they know how to market. Why wouldn't you want to leverage everything we've done?"

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Rathore has the same idea. He has heard that other producers are aware of his project, and are perhaps waiting for the conclusion of CineCoup to make an offer. "It would be a great consolation, if we were to lose," he says, "to have a producer to come in and say, 'I want to make this film.'"

Editor's note: This story on director and film technician Jay Rathore incorrectly spelled his name as Jay Rathone. This version has been corrected.

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