Vancouver Filmmakers Gun for VIFF Glory

With supply flooding the market, it’s harder than ever for wannabe filmmakers to catch their big break, but a lucky few just might find it at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

Gary Hawes, Vancouver Film School | BCBusiness
While scores of his fellow film school grads rack up credit card bills financing dream projects, filmmaker Gary Hawes grinds away as the cog in the Hollywood machine waiting for a chance to direct his own feature.

With supply flooding the market, it’s harder than ever for wannabe filmmakers to catch their big break, but a lucky few just might find it at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

When disturbed, the aspiring filmmakers tucked in a windowless editing suite at Vancouver Film School bear a striking resemblance to a colony of startled bats. From the door where I stand, midway through a tour of the downtown campus, a slice of daylight casts panic across three wan faces, fuelling a frenzied exchange of nervous glances. There’s more to the discomfort than the simple exposure to sunlight: They’re busted.

“Oh, I see you guys found a way back in,” says John Pozer, my guide and a senior instructor in the film production program at VFS. Given the array of keys and swipe cards required to negotiate the warren-like complex and access its countless computer monitors, high-tech screening rooms and other state-of-the-art equipment, it’s clear that Pozer doesn’t take trespassing lightly. These guys, he explains, graduated from the program last week and by now should have flown the coop. But he lets it slide, this time. A bit of reticence upon venturing into the real world is only natural, after all, even though Pozer is convinced the former students will land on their feet.

“Today’s graduates are really ready for the film industry,” he tells me confidently, striding across Hastings Street to continue the tour of VFS’s six downtown buildings. Over the past year the grads have gone through filmmaking boot camp. They’ve taken turns producing, shooting, directing and editing several short films, practiced pitch sessions and assembled festival packages. The program culminates with a screening at the prestigious Vancity Theatre, home of the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), a few blocks away. But in an industry where supply will forever outstrip demand, the question of when (or if) they’ll wind up screening films there again is the big unknown.

Like the hundreds who graduate each year from local film schools, Gary Hawes, 33, had no problem finding consistent work in Vancouver’s film sector. “I work in the American service industry,” he says matter-of-factly. “That’s how I make my money. That’s my career.”

Hawes is typical of local film school grads. According to the Vancouver Economic Development Commission, the sector creates 36,000 full-time-equivalent jobs in Metro Vancouver, 60 per cent of them on big-budget Hollywood films. However, being a hired hand on American movie sets wasn’t what Hawes had in mind when he enrolled at VFS. It was the late ’90s and Hawes was high on success stories such as that of Kevin Smith, the American VFS dropout whose canon of indie cult hits is the stuff of film school legend.

At 21, Hawes graduated with the goal of directing his first feature by 27, following in the footsteps of his idols, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg and Bryan Singer. “Twenty-seven was the age where some of my heroes had made films,” he explains over coffee in a Kitsilano café. “So I put this unrealistic pressure on myself.” 

What Hawes hadn’t factored into the equation was an important common denominator he did not share with his high-profile heroes. “You realize, Well, I’m not in the same situation as them. First of all, I’m Canadian and we don’t have the access to Hollywood. If I lived in Iowa I’d just move to L.A., but you can’t really do that.”

What he could do in Hollywood North, however, is build a successful career as an assistant director on blockbusters such as Fantastic Four, X-men 2 and 3 and Juno, to name a few. Hawes has done well by it. He makes a decent living, enough to comfortably get married and climb the property ladder on Vancouver’s desirable west side. Crossing over from the world of Hollywood to Canadian film, however, is a much riskier endeavour.


Gary Hawes’s oeuvre is split between Hollywood
jobs as an assistant director (above: Juno) and the
personal passion projects (below: The Money Pet)
he hopes will someday make his career.

Making movies (and money) in Canada

Of the more than $1 billion spent on film and TV production in B.C. in 2010, about three-quarters came from foreign (read: American) productions, according to the B.C. Film Commission. Canadian productions spent $244 million, of which only $40 million went toward making feature films. Meanwhile, amounts available to independent filmmakers through Telefilm Canada, the country’s major funding body, prove even more meagre. Just $1.6 million went to all of western Canada during the 2010-2011 fiscal year. (Big winners Ontario and Quebec drew a mere $2 million each.) 

After doing the math, Hawes was forced to restructure his game plan. His 27th year came and went without the promise of a feature as he carefully socked away cash to start his own production company, True Fiction Films. He wrote and directed five shorts in his downtime between stints serving the American movie machine. While some are willing to lay it all on the line for the silver screen, Hawes won’t risk personal bankruptcy. “I’ve seen so many stories of people maxing out the credit card to make their dream project and then they completely screw their future, not to mention their credit rating,” he explains. “You never hear about the failures – I think that’s dangerous.”

Adhering to a strict code of financial restraint, Hawes has spent roughly $50,000 of his own money on his personal projects since 2003. It’s an amount he considers an acceptable risk and a prudent investment. “It’s a balancing act. I’ve never gone broke making a film but I’ve cut it down to being lean a few times,” he says. “It’s about pushing yourself to a point of being slightly uncomfortable without taking a huge risk.”

The slow and steady route is starting to pay off. Hawes nearly broke even on his latest film, an allegorical short called The Money Pet, on which he spent only $1,000 out of pocket. The rest of that film’s funding came from winning a short film contest, a prize that covered his production and post-production expenses and gave him $3,000 in cash. That win came on the heels of another boon. In 2007 Hawes won a $15,000 Bravo! FACT grant as the last filmmaker standing on the reality TV show Making a Scene. And two other short films, 2003’s Pits and 2005’s The Little Things garnered modest distribution deals. More importantly, they made it into the VIFF, which, in the age of declining theatre attendance and unclear online revenue models, provides vital exposure to distributors, financiers, agents and industry executives – the people Hawes needs to impress if he’s ever to land his elusive feature film deal. “For independent filmmakers, festivals are a lifeline,” he says. “It’s the only chance to get your film out to an audience a lot of the time.”

The Vancity Theatre is eerily quiet on a weekday afternoon. Somewhere in this building, likely sequestered in an upstairs office, The Money Pet sits in a pile of thousands of films vying for roughly 400 slots at this year’s VIFF. It might be cheaper than ever to produce a decent film, but getting it to wide release has never been harder and VIFF is inundated with submissions from across Canada and around the world.

“It’s Netflix, video-on-demand and film festivals that are on the ascendant and it’s the regular theatrical marketplace that’s changed,” says festival director Alan Franey, noting that even 12-screen megaplexes are now veering toward showing fewer movies on more screens. 

Add to that the decline of art house cinemas and specialty video stores, plus the Canadian factor, and independent filmmakers in this country face an incredibly steep climb to the box office. Franey is adamant that although VIFF’s mandate is to promote Canadian, foreign (Hollywood doesn’t count), art and documentary films spanning a variety of genres, he and his selection committee look for one thing above all else in a submission: it has to be good. 


What makes a winner at the VIFF

Both Franey and VIFF’s Canadian Images programmer Terry McEvoy insist that a well-crafted story trumps star power, impressive resumés or the latest computer-generated animation every time. “I would say that pretty much any film comes out of the gate fairly even,” says McEvoy, who each year is tasked with whittling between 600 and 700 Canadian submissions down to about 100 that will be shown at the festival. “Obviously if it’s somebody you’ve dealt with before, you are going to watch that film with another eye, but really we are known for showing films from first-time directors and people that aren’t known to us.”

With cheap technology turning just about anyone into a would-be filmmaker, the most valuable commodity in the biz these days, say Franey and McEvoy, is a good idea, or at least an original take on a played-out genre. “If you’re going to make a film about a bunch of people in the woods getting killed one at a time, it better be pretty good,” McEvoy says, with the dry tone of one who’s suffered through several unimpressive specimens. 

So what’s an idea worth? For Terry Miles, 2008’s When Life Was Good was worth $169,000 in post-production financing from Telefilm Canada. Only his second attempt at a feature film, the writer and self-taught director surprised everyone, even himself, by getting the $5,000 film accepted into the Toronto International Film Festival. He was awarded the Telefilm grant to transfer it from digital video to film. Not bad for a guy who never went to film school and learned to make movies through trial and error. “I learned not to point a camera at a window by pointing a camera at a window,” he quips, chomping on a peanut butter cookie over coffee on Main Street.

Miles’s subsequent projects have proven that his early success was no fluke. His rogue filmmaking style and well-developed scripts have won him accolades across Canada as well as financing for subsequent films. His most recent film, 2010’s A Night for Dying Tigers, received $200,000 from Telefilm. It also headlined last year’s VIFF and won official selection status at TIFF. But when I suggest that by many standards he seems to have “made it” in an incredibly tough industry, Miles nearly chokes with laughter. “I can’t recommend my method to anybody,” he says, recalling the years he paid rent with his Visa card and worked part-time in a hair salon to finance his master’s degree in creative writing at UBC and his directorial ambitions. He’s still waiting for it to pay off; despite the acclaim and a recognizable cast (including Jennifer Beals and Gil Bellows of Ally McBeal fame), A Night for Dying Tigers has yet to find a distributor and, though Miles did pay himself for his turn as director/writer, the money went right back into the film. “I’ve been losing money, actually,” he admits. 

The constant hustle is emotionally and financially draining. “I maxed out a credit card and a line of credit before I ever saw a dime. If I had to do it again, I’d make a genre film,” he says, noting it’s much easier to market slasher flicks and action thrillers than his thoughtful brand of Woody Allen-esque art-house features. “It grinds you down, sales agents and distributors telling you that your stuff’s not commercial. I would keep that in mind. I would still like to do one for me, one for them.” 

That’s the balance he’s hoping to strike as a director-for-hire with Nasser Entertainment, a U.S.-based production company specializing in melodramatic fare for the Lifetime Movies TV network and straight-to-DVD releases with such titles as Christmas Crash, Desperate Hours and Love to Kill. His first Nasser film, Recoil, stars retired pro wrestler Steve Austin as a former cop out for vigilante justice. It’s not quite in the vein of the sensitive indie dramedies for which Miles has made his name, but there are perks. He gets to edit the script as much as he wants and it’s a steady paycheque, which will help settle that lingering credit card debt. “Every month, it gets a little less,” he notes.

No matter which route they take, the film grads back at VFS face a hard slog if their goal is to nurture a project through to the silver screen. Pozer, the instructor, doesn’t deny that many will find it too hard, or choose to apply their film training to other fields. But as we walk through the lobby of the film school’s marble-clad administration and admissions building, I notice two posters prominently placed in the entrance: one is for last spring’s sleeper hit Hanna and the other for 2009’s surprise summer blockbuster District 9. Both started as student projects here at VFS and went on to achieve international theatrical release and rave reviews. That is what most of Pozer’s students have in mind when they show up here on the first day of class and likely when they leave a year later. “Well, you’ve gotta have dreams,” he says. “And we want them to dream big.”