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Film The Carmilla Movie ushers in the new stakeholders of vampire cinema

Elise Bauman, left, and Natasha Negovanlis pose for a picture in Toronto on Oct. 13, 2017. Both star in The Carmilla Movie, based on the three-season web series that racked up 70 million YouTube views across 193 countries.

Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail

For those who found the Twilight series too twee in tone and too moralistic in storyline, or thought that Only Lovers Left Alive was too languorous in pacing, The Carmilla Movie is here to satisfy your cinematic vampire blood lust.

A feminist rewriting of Sheridan Le Fanu's 19th-century novella about a conniving lesbian vampire, the new Canadian film grew out of a three-season web series called, simply, Carmilla. Geared toward a LGBTQ millennial audience that increasingly consumes media via WiFi signal, the show was shot in a video-blog format, following university student Laura (Elise Bauman) and her vampire dormmate, Carmilla (Natasha Negovanlis) through various love plots and supernatural high jinks – its two leads openly queer both in character and real life.

Beloved as a sort of queer version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the groundbreaking series drew outside the lines of how Canadian television, or any kind of television, gets made. By partnering with Kotex for funding, technically making it branded content, the Toronto-based production company Shaftesbury created a show that drew 70 million YouTube views across 193 countries – a remarkable number for any project, let alone one with a steadfastly queer-friendly modus operandi. Now, its feature-film iteration aims to similarly scribble over the rules for how movies are made in an increasingly disrupted industry.

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In keeping with its offbeat beginnings, The Carmilla Movie will not have the conventional Canadian theatrical release that would have seen it screen for a week or two at your local multiplex (if lucky) before disappearing from the cultural conversation. Instead, the genre-busting project – when, exactly, was the last time there was a lesbian-vampire rom-com? – will premiere Oct. 26 in single-event screenings at various Cineplex theatres across the country. The next day, it will be available to stream on the video-on-demand platform Fullscreen.

Christina Jennings, chairwoman and chief executive of Shaftesbury and one of the film's executive producers, said that going the usual route of film distribution was never part of The Carmilla Movie plan. "The film was conceived as a 'love letter' for the fans – Carmilla found its fandom online and on social, and that's where the fans want to see it," Jennings said.

The show's passionate online fans, known as "creampuffs" (a term lifted from some cute banter between Carmilla and Laura in an early episode), not only watch Carmilla religiously, but also do that one thing that makes marketing executives weak in the knees: They enthusiastically engage with the show's social-media channels. Between Twitter and Instagram, the series is almost 127,000 followers strong, with each post regularly flooded by double-tapped hearts, to say nothing of Bauman's and Negovanlis's own robust fan followings.

Jennings and Shaftesbury's digital arm, Smokebomb Entertainment, are banking on Carmilla's built-in audience to carry the movie forward. The film, which was shot in Toronto and nearby Belleville, Ont., was made for less than $1-million, and 30 per cent of that financing came from its fans through presales of the movie via VHX, a digital distribution platform owned by video-sharing site Vimeo. That could be why Telefilm signed on as a funding partner to the project – an attempt to stay relevant in the digital space and tap into the Carmilla brand's devoted audience.

Stephanie Azam, Telefilm's national feature-film executive, said that the movie "presented a unique marketing plan" that drew on the popularity of the web series. "We recognize the strong market potential of these projects and their unique ability to attract audiences to Canadian film," Azam said. "Diversity of genre in our financing portfolio has always been an important priority."

But The Carmilla Movie aims to disrupt the industry's terms of engagement beyond distribution.

It is no secret that queer onscreen representation is seriously lacking – a 2017 report from GLAAD revealed that only 18.4 per cent of the top 125 films in 2016 from the industry's major studios included a LGBTQ character. Eighty-three per cent of those characters were gay men, and racial diversity in movies with LGBTQ representation actually decreased in 2016. By contrast to these grim numbers, The Carmilla Movie boasts queer lead actresses, a queer producer in Steph Ouaknine and a cast (including extras) with a number of queer or gender non-conforming performers. There is one white guy, Matt O'Connor's frat-boy Kirsch in the series – and who this time is the token other.

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"Although I'd been out before we shot Carmilla, I didn't understand how desperate people were for positive queer representation," said Negovanlis, who hails from Toronto and won the Fan's Choice Award at last year's Canadian Screen Awards. "My hope is that straight people, and parents of queer children, watch this movie and watch it with their kids so they can see that queer folks can be the heroes and they can be normal, and they can have happy endings."

"It's important for people to see themselves on screen," added her co-star, Bauman. "Why would our screens not reflect the diverse world we actually live in?"

After the first season of Carmilla, Bauman and Negovanlis (who are both 27) starred opposite one another in a Canadian coming-out film, Almost Adults, from director Sarah Rotella, but neither of them are particularly concerned with being typecast in queer roles.

"I recently spoke about this at New York Comic Con," Negovanlis said. "I'm never worried about being typecast as queer, because queer people are different. I think if I was always playing a broody lesbian vampire, I would be concerned."

For Bauman, the possibility of being pigeonholed as a queer character has crossed her mind. "I've thought about it, to be completely honest. But the fact that I have to think about it is the reason that I want to keep playing queer roles. I want to break that unspoken rule in the industry, and break this notion that something as silly as sexuality can define what roles you can and can't play."

Bauman admits to having had "a very sheltered" childhood in a religious household in Kitchener, Ont., where even shows such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch were off the table. Coming out as bisexual took her years, because she "didn't see it as an option."

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"We are not at a point where queer representation is normalized, and if we have to keep having this discussion for the next 10, 15, 20 years, then I'm happy to be able to provide a voice in that discussion," Bauman said.

"It is important to not erase the fact that they are lesbian characters, because we understand that that representation is very important to the lesbian community that is watching this film and identifies with our characters," insisted Negovanlis, who added: "Anyone can identify with these characters, though, regardless of their sexuality."

There's a nimbleness that comes with the unconventional making and distribution of a film such as The Carmilla Movie. Still, not all the kinks have been worked out. Bauman and Negovanlis, for instance, still are not sure exactly when or where they will first see the movie they star in.

"We don't know," Negovanlis said with a shrug. "We don't really know.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that all members of the project’s cast are queer or gender non-conforming. Also, due to an editing error, the two stars of the film were incorrectly described as identifying as gay, rather than queer.
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