The ‘scrappy’ route for first-time Canadian filmmakers to land a TIFF premiere

Nine years ago, V. T. Nayani had an idea for a film. Four years later, she got her first chunk of funding. 

On Sept. 9, her debut feature film This Place will make its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, one of eight Canadian features that are part of the festival’s Discovery Series.

It’s also been a long journey for the film’s producer Stephanie Sonny Hooker. The team realized they were missing some material after principal photography; it took another two years to find a bit more money to shoot some pickup scenes. “There were hats and wigs involved,” said Hooker. Now she says the pair are “still screaming every day and crying in the grocery store line” about making it into TIFF. 

This Place is a Toronto-set love story about two women dealing with difficult family legacies.

Set in Toronto, This Place is the debut feature from director V.T. Nayani. The film follows the love story between two women, one Iranian and Kanienʼkehá꞉ka, the other Tamil. (TIFF)

Canadian filmmakers can spend years on journeys as fraught with drama and risk as the ones they’re telling on screen, trying to navigate the world of Canadian film financing as first-time feature directors and producers.

Being strategic

Also at TIFF this year is Joseph Amenta’s Soft, the story of three queer Toronto kids and their friendship over the course of one summer. When coming up with the idea, Amenta knew the level of commitment required. “It needed to be something that I was passionate about enough to withstand the obstacles of making a micro-budget,” they said. 

One of the first obstacles is finding funding. Six months into starting Soft, Amenta began working with a pair of producers, Alexandra Roberts and Danny Sedore. 

According to Roberts, at that early stage there are a lot of strategic conversations about maximizing a film’s chances to receive grant funding.

“It’s really program focused,” she said. “You’re talking about how we can optimize our chances of getting something like Talent to Watch.”

Seven films at TIFF, including This Place and Soft, received support from Telefilm’s Talent To Watch program, which provides funding to films whose key creative personnel (writer, director, producer) have never held their role on a feature film before. 

Mehernaz Lentin, Telefilm’s National Director of Feature Film, English Market, says the fund is highly competitive, and there is no one-size-fits-all formula for films that successfully apply.

“We want to support stories that embody all audiences at home and around the world,” she said.

Mehernaz Lentin is the national director of feature film for the English market at Telefilm, which provides funding to Canadian filmmakers through a variety of programs, including Talent to Watch — geared toward first-time feature directors and producers. (Telefilm)

At the time Soft and This Place received funding from the program the maximum grant was $125,000, but Telefilm has since doubled that to $250,000 for future projects. 

Amenta was part of a group of filmmakers who worked with Telefilm to suggest changes to Talent to Watch back in 2020. 

“Ultimately they needed to make that change because they realized that it wasn’t enough money to make a film ethically, especially when they were expecting those films to get into festivals like TIFF,” they said. 

“In the past it was an avenue for filmmakers to experiment, but it was also an avenue for well-connected, financially secure filmmakers to create art.” 

Rent and groceries

According to Hooker those first dollars can disappear quickly. “That first bit of money that you get is just enough to not make a movie,” she said. “You really need that second, third, fourth … those other chunks of money.”

One place that the grant money hasn’t gone is into the filmmakers’ pockets.

“We have not seen a single cent,” Amenta said. “We have reinvested all of our fees. So that’s a byproduct of us wanting to make something strong and needing to reinvest.”

WATCH | Soft premiers at TIFF on Sept. 9: 

Roberts says that’s expected by funders. “They want to see that you’re invested in the film and that you have faith in the product that you’re going to put out into the world,” she said.

However, that can perpetuate barriers, where people who can’t support themselves independently while making their films can’t afford to break in, says Roberts.

“If you don’t have the capacity to fund yourself in some other way. And when I say fund yourself, I mean pay for rent and groceries.”

To succeed despite the logistical challenges of micro-budget filmmaking, Nayani says you need to be ready to hustle.

“It’s a really hard industry in Canada. If you don’t want to do this, you’re not going to stick with it very long.”

International opportunities

Another Canadian debut film at TIFF is Sophie Jarvis’s Until Branches Bend, set in a cannery in the Okanagan faced with an invasive insect species. Jarvis was born and raised in Vancouver, but qualifies as a Swiss citizen thanks to her grandfather. 

While Jarvis was at a film festival in Berlin because of her role as production designer on The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open she was able to connect with a group of Swiss producers.

“I didn’t even think that they would take the time to meet us, but we wound up having a really fun drink, which turned into lunch, which turned into dessert, which turned into just the best afternoon ever of just bonding with them,” Jarvis said.

Those connections blossomed and opened new doors for Until Branches Bend, despite its setting of rural British Columbia.

Until Branches Bend is premiering Sept. 10 at TIFF. The debut feature from director Sophie Jarvis, the film is set in the Okanagan and is a Canadian Swiss co-production. (TIFF)

“Even though the subject matter isn’t terribly Swiss … the fact that I am Swiss…we have this link to Switzerland that opens up a lot more funding opportunities,” she said. As a majority Canadian co-production, they were able to film in Canada and then do most of the post-production work in Switzerland, using Swiss dollars and talent.

The film also received development funding from Bell’s now-discontinued Harold Greenberg fund, and money from Telefilm, CRAVE, and Creative BC. Jarvis thinks the amount of grant money available in Canada makes it a unique setting for filmmaking. 

“There are opportunities to make work, they’re somewhat gatekept, but they are there,” she said, although she notes she’s curious to see what could happen to make the experience of a first feature feel less “scrappy.”

Community in filmmaking

For Soft producer Sedore, the most important thing to getting a project made is the bond between filmmakers.

“You can’t make a project like this with this type of restricted number budget-wise, without really in-depth relationships,” he said. 

This Place director Nayani says the support of peers is what kept her going through difficult periods.

“That saved me multiple times over the last 12 years as people were like, ‘Don’t give up, you’re just on the brink of it,'” she said. “You have to build community because these institutions will not always support.” 

One way to forge those relationships is by making short films, often a requirement for a first-time feature director looking for grant money. While This Place producer Hooker feels the idea of the short-film-to-feature pipeline can be over-romanticized, she feels the connections made on set are the real value.

“Make the short. Not just because that’s your creative genius thing … but because you need to meet people and you need to get out and get to festivals,” she said.

TIFF and the journey after 

Nayani and Hooker say they’re hoping to sell the film to a distributor, and to be able to tell potential connections about their next projects in the pipeline.

The team behind Soft has had their sights on TIFF from the very beginning.

“We had TIFF on our minds from December 2018,” said Roberts. 

 Amenta feels the waiting game and expectations associated with festivals is a part of the process that isn’t focused on enough.

“There was a minute where we really thought we might have even gotten into Cannes and that was like, mind blowing,” they said, noting that a rough version of the film was shortlisted for two programs at the French festival. “It can really play with your mind. You work hard on something, you want it to be seen,” 

Arriving at TIFF also underscores the sacrifices Amenta and other first time filmmakers needed to get there.

“Even now I have nil a dollar in my bank account, but ’tis a byproduct of premiering at TIFF, I suppose.”

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