Toronto has become a mecca for film culture thanks to the multitude of film festivals that occur throughout the year, the many film schools that draw students from across Canada, and its wealth of production facilities and services. Within this culture there exists a sub-culture of independent producers. This is a die-hard group of film lovers and filmmakers who strive to create original films and get them distributed through a network of festivals, online services and home distribution.
Toronto is home to two award-winning independent filmmakers who boast an extraordinary output of feature length material, as well as online content and upcoming film projects. Recently the duo’s film Mourning Has Broken won the Best Narrative Feature award at the Weyauwega International Film Festival and it has also been picked up for theatrical distribution by IndieCan Entertainment. Brett and Jason Butler are the filmmakers behind Substance Production and TFS had the opportunity to share some beers with the boys and chat about their approach to the indie film scene in Toronto.
Jason was trying his hand at acting down in sunny Los Angeles while Brett was hard at work studying film and communications at Carleton University. Jason expressed concern over the quality and tone of the projects he was auditioning for and made the decision that he and Brett could easily write a screenplay that was more in line with the content that they wanted to express. Jason contacted his brother and convinced him to leave Carleton one credit shy of graduating so that they could start their own production company. Motivated by quality storytelling and a competitive edge acquired through growing up with a sports focused childhood, the two set off to make films under the edict “Comedy is Funny”.
Their working collaboration is pretty much what you would expect from siblings, they are constantly trying to outdo each other and to entertain each other. Brett says, “We really enjoy entertaining each other, we feed off the energy and it lets us take a bare bones, no sugar coating approach to our subject matter.” Jason adds, “It was never a tangible thought, but we always try to create character driven comedy. We’re trying to fill what we see as a void.”
When asked about Toronto’s independent film scene the reaction is surprising. “We really didn’t know much about the indie film community until we participated in the 1K challenge.” The challenge in question is the 1K Wave film challenge, a brainchild of Ingrid Veninger and Stacey Donen, that asks independent filmmakers in Toronto to produce a feature length film for only $1000. Since the challenge, the two have taken notice of the other independent filmmakers in Toronto. “We’ve seen a lot of growth in indie community in the past few years. Specifically when it comes to reaching out to other filmmakers and sharing ideas. The 1K challenge really helped us get a bearing on where we’re at,” says Jason. Brett and Jason confidently agree that the challenge allowed them to announce their presence with authority.
After five feature films, winning a distribution deal with IndieCan Entertainment, and amassing a slew of awards, why are the brothers staying independent? The truth is that being indie allows them to grow their creative voice and develop their style. They are allowed the opportunity to learn all aspects of the film business, not just production. They keep their fingers in all the pies from financing and pre-production right through to marketing and distribution. “All of this experience leads to integrity. Integrity in our work ethic and in our productions,” says Jason.
The question of film funding through the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and Telefilm has come up several times over the course of their career, but Brett says, “There’s a stigma attached to independent films. People assume that there won’t be a major star, or that the production value will be cheap.” This assumption that all movies need to be as slick as something produced in Hollywood really limits what can be achieved through traditional means. This has lead to a DIY approach in the independent film community. It also means that in order to continue making films, the Butler Brothers and most other indie filmmakers really need to step up the marketing aspect. “Marketing is something we are constantly talking to other filmmakers about,” says Jason.
The goal is to drive as many people to festivals as possible. Festivals offer filmmakers the opportunity to get the films in front of people who want to see them. Part of the strategy for getting butts in seats is the personal touch that the Butler Brothers bring. Brett says, “A lot of filmmakers hand the film over to a festival and assume that their job is finished. We take a hands-on approach to the marketing. We use social media to make sure that people know our movie is playing, we try our best to appear at the festival and really get the word out.” Jason is quick to chime in with, “It’s a ‘value added experience’ when we’re involved.”
The Butler Brothers show no signs of slowing down, they already have more projects on the go and they continue to learn more about the industry every day. Taking their inspiration from the creative side of filmmaking as opposed to the business side has absolutely helped keep them motivated. The brothers look forward to being pushed by the Toronto indie community and they look forward to pushing right back. If you get a chance make sure you check out Mourning Has Broken, thanks to IndieCan it’s coming soon to a theatre near you.