‘Getting It Made’ No Matter What: Meet P.E.I.’s Enterprising Filmmakers
Producers and directors in P.E.I. have found creative ways to lead their projects to completion outside traditional TV space. Adam Perry, Harmony Wagner, and Jeremy Larter share how they used micro-budget programs, crowdfunding and YouTube to achieve great results with little means.
Filmmakers in P.E.I. all have one defining trait: pluck. They’re determined to get their productions made no matter what. That can be a mammoth task in Canada’s smallest province. There are no provincial tax credits, technical training is limited, and financial support for TV and film productions is rare.
“With no infrastructure or incentives to film on P.E.I., whatever local industry we do have here is mainly artists that make films because we’re so passionate about it. We’re all a bunch of writer and directors... a full-fledged ‘traditional’ production is impossible without bringing in crew and money from outside the province,” states P.E.I. screenwriter, producer and director Adam Perry.
“We’ve all had to up our game over the past few years and I think that’s why P.E.I. is making a name for itself in the indie film scene now.”
On the frontier of digital media
Perry is one of a handful of P.E.I. filmmakers who’ve managed the seemingly impossible: he’s carved out a full-time career in the industry by creating webseries. In 2007, he and fellow producer, writer, and director Jeremy Larter created two seasons of Profile PEI, a comedy webseries that follows the misadventures of a wannabe scriptwriter.
In 2009, he produced a second webseries, Jiggers. It’s a “dramedy” that tells the story of a slow-footed step dancer and a rapper as they make their way into the music industry.
“It was around the dawn of YouTube. Being young, single, and most importantly unemployed, we didn’t have anything better to do on P.E.I. so we kind of became addicted to the attention we’d receive every week when we’d write, shoot, edit and release a new episode,” he explains.
His webseries work led to bigger productions, like several of Chef Michael Smith’s webseries including the popular Lentil Hunter.
“People would eat it up online, where quality didn’t matter so much and it was all about content. We didn’t need traditional film grants and tax credits to get the job done. We just needed tools: a camera, mic and a computer.”
His first feature film
Perry has now written his own feature-length screenplay, with plans to turn it into a full feature film in 2017. A Small Fortune is about an Irish Moss farmer in P.E.I. who finds a bag of money that washed up on shore. Soon after, he finds a body on the shore as well.
He entered his screenplay into Reddit’s 2016 Screenwriting Competition and won 4th place.
“I can thank the explosion of streaming video for any kind of career I’ve had in film. Everything I’ve ever done has been designed for and distributed for free… With all my online experience, I always felt like making a feature film was what I was building towards and now I’m on the cusp of doing that,” he says.
As part of the competition, Perry was awarded with script advice from a leading UK screenwriting agency. He’s now shot a 14-minute proof-of-concept short film that will serve as a calling card for the feature film.
“We’ve got the support of the National Screen Institute and the Harold Greenberg Fund so now we just need to get Telefilm and the P.E.I. government on board. A challenging task,” he admits.
“Filmmakers on P.E.I. from my generation and younger have never had a tax credit to take advantage of. Maybe if we did, we’d have more traditional film and TV productions, that’s a given.”
Creative thinking to obtain funding
Harmony Wagner’s feature film Kooperman is a P.E.I. success story: the first feature film to be shot entirely on the island. She and producer Jason Rogerson won funding from Telefilm’s Micro-Budget Production Program.
Like Perry, she was experienced in making short films, but says getting a feature film funded in P.E.I. required some major creative thinking. She capitalized on the film’s comic book themes.
“I think what was exciting from [Telefilm’s] perspective is that we were looking at utilizing the whole comicon theme as a vehicle for getting Canadian films seen in alternate venues. We played at Hal-Con, we played at Animaritime, we played at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, the biggest in Western Canada,” she explains.
Turning to crowdfunding
But even with Telefilm’s support, it wasn’t enough. Wagner and Rogerson launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised $2,885 for production.
To finance distribution and promotion, they turned again to crowdfunding and launched the Kooperman on the Big Screen! campaign. They rented the Cineplex cinema theatre in Charlottetown and threw a fundraising screening once the film was completed. That event brought in $2,870 and gave the audience the rare chance to see homegrown content in a big theatre, according to Wagner.
“Here in Charlottetown, hardly any Canadian films come to our Cineplex because it’s such a limited space. The challenge is to get [your film] made, but also to get it seen. If you don’t have money, it’s really hard to get it into festivals and get it out there,” she says.
Wagner laments the lack of a provincial tax credit; no doubt it would have made creating Koopermanmuch easier.
Harmony Wagner on the set of Kooperman
“We’re all struggling to try to stay in P.E.I. and make this stuff here. Without having that 25% to be able to bring to the table, it’s so difficult to go out and get the bigger money you need to get on TV.”
But she says that she did what it takes to be a P.E.I. filmmaker and that meant wearing many hats.
“You take on everything. You’re moving furniture, you’re making sandwiches... Paying people is a priority. We pay people as much we can, but we try to make sure everyone has a good experience.”
Relying on each other
Jeremy Larter started out making web shorts with Adam Perry and hasn’t looked back. In 2012, he and fellow producer Geoff Reed created Just Passing Through, a wildly popular webseries released in 30-minute episodes on YouTube. Globe and Mail’s John Doyle even called it one of the top 10 Canadian TV shows of 2013—a major feat for a P.E.I.-based digital program.
“Full-length shows were just starting to be released on Netflix and we thought it was maybe our only chance to do something so ambitious,” he explains.
The Independent Production Fund (IPF) and Innovation PEI funded season 1 of the series, but the deal between the provincial government and the IPF ended the following year and Larter was forced to return to the drawing board.
He launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised $56,000. With the crowdsourced funding and the Independent Production Fund, he was able to produce season 2.
As Larter’s series continued to gain in popularity, it seemed like he might break through into traditional TV, but it didn’t happen. Larter says Just Passing Through was also on the verge of landing a deal with Shomi (the streaming service owned by Rogers and Shaw).
The deal wasn’t meant to be: Shomi shut down in November 2016. “Things kept getting delayed and decisions put on hold until finally they announced that they were ending the service,” he states.
Crowdsourced feature film
In summer 2016, Larter went on to make Pogey Beach, a webseries spin-off of Just Passing Through. He released a 10-minute episode on YouTube and, after getting big support from audiences, decided to turn the series into a feature film. He launched a crowdsourcing campaign to fund the production.
“It was a hit with fans of the show, some of whom grabbed onto it more than Just Passing Through. We launched a Kickstarter campaign in June 2016 and raised over $55,000 for a feature-length version of Pogey Beach,” he explains.
The film was shot in August and September 2016. Larter hopes to release it in early 2017 and says he’s looking toward a streaming service to distribute it.
Getting it made at a cost…
All three filmmakers continue to make films, but admit that their work often comes with a personal cost in the absence of a provincial tax credit.
“If you want to make films, you need to do it with or without government support... This means that we have to make sacrifices in terms of how much we pay ourselves and that can be stressful as well,” says Larter.
But Larter is optimistic about the future of filmmaking in P.E.I. So is Adam Perry, but he says it just means filmmakers have to work harder than creators based elsewhere in the country.
“It took us a few years of getting rejected to learn how to compete with the rest of Canada, which in turn has only made us better hustlers when it comes time to sell our work,” adds Adam Perry.
“With a province rich with storytelling culture, it was only a matter of time before our stories were heard,” he says.
There are also some natural advantages to working on the island, according to Harmony Wagner: “P.E.I. is incredibly beautiful, and has a lot of varied interiors and exteriors in close proximity. Then there’s an incredible pool of talent— in terms of both actors and musicians—and a lot of fabulous artisans and crew. There’s a contingent of people who are really talented and who do want to stay [on the island].”