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In May of 2012, writer/producer/director Ingrid Veninger  of pUNK films, attended DIY Art and Life: A Day with Joe Swanberg, a screening and filmmaking masterclass with American indie powerhouse Joe Swanberg, engineered by our very own TFS contributor  Katarina Gligorijevic. Veninger was so inspired by Swanberg and his DIY approach that she had an epiphany, one of those inspired “what if” moments. What if a group of filmmakers challenged themselves to make a feature film on a budget of just $1000?

“Joe Swanberg was just so inspiring and I got really turned on about how we should all challenge ourselves to make a feature film in the summer for $1000. People were keen, but it was the summer and everyone already had plans,” said Veninger. “But I woke up the next day kind of on fire with this idea, for something like that.”

The Genesis  of the 1K Wave

Unable to let her good idea go, Veninger asked some more what-ifs. What if she used her half of the box office for the upcoming screening of her self-funded film i am a good person/i am a bad person  to fund a group of $1000 features? What if the very idea inspired audiences to attend her screening? Via social media, Veninger posed her what-ifs to the public and generated a positive response. Once Stacey Donen from The Royal asked a few what-ifs of his own – what if he lent his services for the final mix of the films and what if the resulting features could be screened at The Royal – the outrageous idea of having a group of filmmakers make features films in the summer of 2012 for a mere $1000 became a reality.

Veninger put out a call for submissions. The response exceeded even her expectations. 34 filmmakers accepted the challenge and submitted a proposal. “We had a great, diverse group of applicants. Out of 34, we had 23 narrative films, 4 docs, and 7 hybrids. 27 were first features and 14 were women directors,” said Veninger. “And out of the 34 submissions, 30 were actually feasible. We could look at them and say yes, this could realistically be done for $1000.”

Veninger and Donen spotted an even more satisfying pattern in the submissions. It was obvious to all involved that the proposals for these feature films were designed to suit the challenge and not just an old idea that had been kicking around. “We could see from the submissions that filmmakers were really crafting films as a result of the challenge,” said Veninger. “These were new ideas that scaled to the challenge.”

The Production of the 1K Wave

On June 25, 2012, 5 $1000 features were green-lit for production. The 5 filmmakers, or rather the 5 filmmaking teams, were required to complete all shooting  in July and August, edit in August and September, and be ready to present to an audience in October. And all, of course, for a mere $1000 (with up to $2000 in  deferrals). A production green-light was the first hurdle. Could they leap the others?

For John Board, a successful 45 year veteran of conventional filmmaking, the idea of making a feature for $1000 was absurd from the outset. “I really thought, 1K to make a feature film? You can’t do that!” But Board also realized that he was in the middle of a very personal journey of exploring alternative therapies for his own cancer that coincidentally fell in sync with the required shooting schedule. With that puzzle piece clicking into place, and the involvement of his colleagues, particularly his co-director Hector  Centeno, Board submitted his proposal for the documentary feature Me, the Bees, and Cancer .

Board was delighted by the experience, so different from the other projects he has worked on over the years. He describes it as an adventure and produced results that admittedly surprised him. “In the end, we came in at $900 and something, which surprised the hell out of me!” said Board. “You know, it was me and a camera man and a sound man. The major costs were a car rental, the cost of gas, and a hard drive to store footage. Otherwise, everything was done as it was done.”

Nadia Litz,  similar  to John Board, felt an initial resistance to the idea of a 1K film and then a sort of light bulb moment. “When I first heard about this, I was skeptical. I mean it sounds absolutely insane,” said Litz. “But I had always wanted to shoot in this hotel in Arizona called the Hotel Congress. So I called them up and asked if I could shoot there for free, and they said yes.”

For Litz, the process was a kind of stripping away of manufactured obstacles. Ultimately, she found that the restrictions imposed by a micro-budget create a kind of excitement and a creative challenge to mount. She pushed herself to meet and work around those limitations, creating Hotel Congress , a tender drama about love, fidelity, and commitment.  “If I have a strength, it’s understanding limitations well,” said Litz. “I think you do need a bigger budget than $1000, mostly so you can pay people for their work, but you don’t need all those big-budget things creatively.”

As Veninger noted, a very diverse group of filmmakers submitted proposals and Ben Roberts, 17-year-old student at Etobicoke School of the Arts, clocks in at the opposite end of the spectrum  from a vet like John Board. While Roberts has made many short films in school, he’s never had a budget of any sort. “$1000 to me was really like a million,” said Roberts. “I actually only spent $700. For me that 1K represented a kind of creative freedom I hadn’t had before.”

Roberts’ film Sockeye , co-written and co-starring his actor father Rick Roberts, is a kind of  wild night father-son odyssey that explores the parent-child bond and the surfacing of family secrets. For him, making a feature film at whatever budget was an educational experience and the next step in what he hopes is a life time of filmmaking. “I’ve made short films and I thought this would be like that, just longer. But it was totally different,” said Roberts. “I was working with two of my good friends, so there was a lot of work just constantly scheduling around 3 people who are going to school, making a movie, and just busy being kids. I was really hard, but really amazing.”

The Results of the 1K Wave

For each of the 1K filmmakers interviewed for this piece, this challenge was an eye-opener, whether it was turning experience on its head as in the case of John Board, or learning what actually goes into creating a feature film as in the case of Ben Roberts. For Nadia Litz and her colleagues it was a turn around in thinking about what is required to start. “I’ve been in production on another project for about a year and a half, with a budget of 1.2 million, which is still pretty small,’ said Litz. “After this, I went back to my producer and said, ‘I think we can do this for less.’ You definitely need more than $1000, but do you need a million?”

For Veninger, the 1K Film Challenge has  fulfilled  her expectations and her goals. “Mico-budgets aren’t the solution to a problem, but doing something like this is a huge educational opportunity. We had 34 submissions and green-lit 5, but I know of 5 more films that went ahead. 10 features were produced in Toronto this summer,” said Veninger. “The budget not only allows people to go ahead and make a feature, it allows filmmakers to be bolder and take more risks.”

Though Veninger, who put in a lot of work and energy in producing, mentoring, and generally shepherding these films into existence, is bowing out, there are plans in the works for the 1K Feature Film Challenge to live on. “I always knew I was only doing this once and it’s been really inspiring,” said Veninger. “But Stacey {Donen} plans to do it again, using a part of the box office from these screenings to fund the next wave in the 1K Wave.”

All 5 of the feature films produced as part of the 1K Feature Film Challenge will screen at The Royal between October 11 and October 13, 2012. Each screening is $10, or you can purchase an advance “super-ticket” for all screenings for $30. The series will also conclude with a screening of John L’Ecuyer’s work-in-progress   Liquid Handcuffs: the un-making of METHADONIA   and a one-time only live documentary event Q&A with Ingrid Veninger and John L’Ecuyer on the merits of micro-budget filmmaking.

The 1K Feature Film Challenge Screenings at The Royal

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hotel Congress at 9:15 pm

Written by Nadia Litz

Directed by Nadia Litz and Michel Kandinsky

Friday, October 12, 2012

Me, the Bees and Cancer at 7:00 pm

Written by John Board

Directed by John Board and Hector Centeno

Mourning has Broken at 9:15 pm

Written, Produced, Directed by Brett Butler and Jason Butler

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sockeye at 7:oo pm

Written by Ben Roberts and Rick Roberts

Directed by Ben Roberts

Liquid Handcuffs: the un-making of METHADONIA at 9:15 pm

Written and Directed by John L’Ecuyer

Followed by  a live conversation with Ingrid Veninger and filmmaker John L’Ecuyer to explore the merit of undertaking a no-budget  challenge.

What: 1 K Wave – $1000 Feature Film Challenge Screenings

When:  October 11, 12, and 13, 2012

Where:  The Royal

More Info:  Tickets are $10 per screening, or $30 for all 5 screenings. Visit  the  The Royal website for further details.