Director Yedidya Gorsetman and co-writer Mark Leidner wanted to be the next Duplass Brothers.
Inspired by the micro-budget mumblecore films they’d seen coming out of SXSW, they made “Jammed,” a $17,000 feature about a couple trying, and failing, to relive their youth by going to a jam band festival.
After screening the film at smaller film festivals, Gorsetman came to an important realization: he wanted to continue pursuing his career as a filmmaker, but that making micro budget indies wouldn’t be a path to career sustainability.
“I want to make films that were accessible to a larger audience, in part because it would allow me to make more movies” said Gorsetman.
Gorsetman and Leidner quickly started on their horror script “Room Service.” Based on lessons from working with limited resources on “Jammed,” they wrote a film with a small cast set in a single location they could control: an old Borscht Belt hotel in upstate New York.
The co-writers were thrilled with the results. They had captured the same themes that motivated “Jammed” — the bumpy transition into adulthood — but instead of characters discussing their problems, the main arc of the story was embedded in an exciting horror backdrop.
The problem was that no one else saw its potential. The investors interested in working on their next project didn’t understand the genre market. Ready to give up and start working on a script for another micro-budget indie, the film’s new producer Matthew Smaglik suggested they apply to the Frontières Market at Fantasia Fest.
Now in its eighth year, the Frontières International Co-Production Market takes place during the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. A majority of the leading financiers, distributors and producers of genre content gather for four days to meet individually with 20 promising genre projects, like “Room Service.”
Gorsetman envisioned the market would be an aggressive environment, but instead quickly realized he was being welcomed into a tight-knit, nurturing community.
“One of the great things about Frontieres is they partner you with a mentor who’s responded to the team and the script,” said Smaglik. “Ours was Annick Mahnert, who did a great job of not just preparing us for the market, but also championing the project.”
Over four days, the “Room Service” team would take over 50 meetings with the industry leaders in the genre space, all of whom Gorsetman was surprised to discover seemed genuinely interested in seeing “Room Service” get made, even if they weren’t in position to help.
“The whole experience was instantly validating,” said Gorsetman. “They understood the project and how we were going to be able to keep the budget low.”
According to producer Casey Walker, Frontières is a little bit like a first date. It’s not a high stakes yes/no pitch session, but the start of getting to know someone and to see if there is potential for collaboration. During Frontières in 2013, he met with directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostonski’s about their script “The Void.”
“We hit it off and I loved their project,” said Walker. “So during the nightly cocktail party we’d hang out, shoot the shit between meetings, then back in Toronto we’d continued the conversation and went to TIFF together. By mid-October we were on the same exact page about the project, a hundred percent comfortable with each other and ready to move forward with the legal work to make it official.”
One of the highlights of this year’s market was the jaw dropping teaser reel Walker unveiled of “The Void,” which was just announced will premiere at Fantastic Fest next month.
Walker said that while he definitely comes to the market looking for new projects like “The Void,” he also comes to meet the new filmmakers and try to help them.
“We all know each other, it’s a small community,” said Walker. “If I’m not a fit for the project, I’m going to make sure they meet the person at the market who is. I don’t really view these people as competitors. First off they’re mostly my friends, but more importantly we’re all invested in the best films getting made.”
This isn’t just flowery talk, it’s a sentiment shared by all the genre veterans who attend the market, where the feeling is the better genre films become — countering the still lingering perception of the straight-to-video genre schlock from decades past — the more the space will continue to grow.
courtesy of The Fantasia International Film Festival
Many point to the growth of the three week Fantasia Film Festival, which hosts the market, as a prime example of the genre’s health. Now in its 20th year, the festival’s adventurous and trusted curatorial voice continuing under the leadership of co-director Mitch Davis, Fantasia has developed an avid following whose stamp of approval reverberates with a growing and dedicated worldwide audience.
“What’s amazing is how genre fans respond to Mitch’s programming,” said Ted Geoghegan, the public relations director of the festival, who is also a genre filmmaker (“We Are Still Here”) editing his second feature. “He really pushes the boundaries and finds cool stuff, which people go nuts for. Over the last few years the bar is constantly rising, which as filmmakers we all feel and makes us want to make better films.”
It is that passionate fan base, which can be witnessed at virtually any Fantasia screening, that has built a steady floor under the genre distribution world.
Fantasia Film Festival
For an American indie, the financing process can be a crap shoot. Films are competing against thousands of others to get into a premiere festival like Sundance, where the hope is it’ll be one of the big hits and get a decent distribution deal. Comparatively, genre financing is a little bit more of a science.
“I have three sales agents I trust and I’m checking in with constantly,” explained Walker. What these agents supply the producers like Walker with is up to date information about what different films — zombie, action, creature — are selling for in different worldwide markets based on the name value of cast.
“I base my budgets on a conservative estimate of what these agents tell me — meaning money I’m confident I can get,” said Walker, who adds every time a quality genre film breaks through and finds a wider audience, it raises those numbers; conversely, poor performing movies lower them.
And this more than anything is what the 20 projects at the market learn from their dozens of meetings over four days — what is their market potential, what financing is available via co-production and shooting in other countries, should they explore a bigger budget and go for name cast. By the end of the four days they have a clear understanding of their options and next steps, and who are their potential partners based on those decisions.
“The market was a place to feel out different approaches to tackling our film,” said Smaglik. “We got honest answers about what it would take to shoot in Canada or what sales agents in Europe were looking for.”
For first-time feature director Jenn Wexler – whose market project was already attached to Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix, where she has produced other features — the market was less about introductions. Those at the market knew Wexler could get production value at a low cost and that her film would have Fessenden’s trademark of having a metaphor with deeper meaning underneath the crazy genre fun.
What Wexler would need to do is demonstrate that she could handle her script’s unusual tone and visual look. “The Ranger” is about a group of New York City punk rockers, who run from the cops and find themselves in the woods north of city, while under the influence of a fictional hallucinogenic drug.
“I spent a month straight before the market on my visual presentation, including making a teaser to show how pulpy and fun this movie would be,” said Wexler. “This is a darkly, humorous, really fast paced feature. It’s also extremely colorful [motivated by the fictional drug].”
Working with the same cinematographer and production teams Wexler will collaborate with during the actual production, she started to develop a language of how the film would work while making the fast paced “Ranger” teaser.
Gorsetman and other first timers did the same. It speaks to the emphasis put on craft in the genre space, where filmmaking and production value are core elements expected by their fans.
courtesy of Matthew Smaglik
Both “Ranger” and “Room Service” have well under a $1 million budget, which compared to the other market projects was extremely low. The option of going well over a million dollars and heading to other countries, where tax breaks and soft money allow producers to chase name actors and pay crew a healthy wage, was discussed with various companies. It’s something both projects will consider, but for a variety of reasons, namely locations and an already established production team, both will likely stay in New York.
Yet, for Gorsetman, the prospect of being able to write something for a potential $1-3 million budget and that he now knows people who he can bring it to, has him already thinking about his next film. His four days in Frontières not only justified his switch to genre, it showed him the path to a sustainable career he’d craved.