TIFF12: The battle to sell I Declare War

Co-directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson and producer Lewin Webb talk to Playback about the challenge of securing distribution for a film that doesn't fit inside a conventional niche market.

Getting I Declare War into TIFF was a victory for Lewin Webb and fellow Samaritan Entertainment producers Patrick Cameron and Robert Wilson.

Now getting distribution for the Canadian feature is the Canadian producer’s next hard-fought battle.

I Declare War centres on an after-school game of capture the flag in the neighbourhood woods that turns into a serious, boundary-pushing battle. Logs become bazookas, prisoners are violently shackled and tortured, threats are uttered, and there are battles – with wasps – driven by a cast entirely comprised of up-and-coming young actors (read: no adults).

Co-directed by Jason Lapeyre and Wilson, the film received its world premiere on Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival.

And offscreen, the battle is in securing distribution.

It turns out that it’s tough to pitch a film with a cast of young actors – even if they’ve played their roles to a T and the project has been fully financed – if the content is outside of the usual fantasy features that you’d usually see pitched with a kids cast.

“[The biggest challenge has been] trying to convince other people – as in not financial people, but distributors and sale companies – that there is an appetite for – and I don’t mean it as pejorative as it sounds – something that is a little bit anti-Disney,” Webb tells Playback. “It was convincing people that making an honest, straightforward dramatic portrayal as kids are, with kids interacting and as kids sound, would have value and would find a marketplace.”

Wilson adds that while sales companies aren’t opposed to the film, the subject matter raises red flags.

“When you put kids, guns and swearing in something, you’ve got a sense that you could be looking at something fairly opportunistic and geared to an adult audience, and that’s your initial impression of what the sales pitch would be,” he says. “And that’s not what the script is. There’s something unique about these young people creating all the drama and conflict themselves, and having to resolve it themselves.”

“I think there are a lot of distribution and sales companies that would like to see someone else do it first. We’re in a bit of an odd spot – we’re not one thing or another; we’re not an un-kid-friendly film, how many other films are there that present young people as they truly are after school?” Webb adds.

“I think for every one of us, there was a touchstone that we all identified with, and for me, it was imaginative play. That’s not something you immediately grasp onto and go ‘Yeah, I get it,’” he says.

Lapeyre, who wrote the script 10 years ago, says he wanted to write a film that he would want to see in a theatre, with a story that portrayed young people with respect.

“In many movies, young people are written as shorter, stupider adults. I had a lot of respect for movies like Stand By Me, The Goonies, and some of [French New Wave director] Francois Truffaut’s films that portrayed young people with their own unique set of circumstances and the maturity to actually deal with them,” Lapeyre tells Playback.

The script came to producer Webb about four years ago, and while at the time, he couldn’t make a move on putting the film into production, he says he committed to Lapeyre to one day make the film.

“Jason of course did the smart thing which was he went and optioned it to someone else,” Webb recalls, laughing.

After a few years of Lapeyre reupping the option on his script, Webb was in a position, with Samaritan partners Cameron and Wilson, to greenlight the film.

Webb explains that the three producers had hung out their own shingle – Samaritan was formed in 2008 – and raised an independent film production equity fund as their sister company.

The Samaritan Production Fund No. 1, a private capital-raising vehicle that provides gap and bridge financing for proprietary productions of Samaritan, and third-party indie productions, let the filmmakers finance the film themselves, with the help of tax credits.

The film was shot over three weeks in Scarborough, Ont., and the casting process was surprisingly simple, the filmmakers say, crediting Stephanie Gorin with finding the right actors without having to go out to schools and drama coaches in a wide search.

“We originally thought casting was going to be difficult – we thought we’d have to stretch out to a very wide pool – and we were pleasantly surprised by the cool professional Toronto actors,” says Wilson.

In particular, the filmmakers recall that Michael Friend, who plays loose cannon Skinner, was the first person they saw for that role.

“He walked in and terrified us,” says Wilson.

Previous to TIFF, the film screened as a work-in-progress at ActionFest in the U.S., and the filmmakers say its gained traction and positive reviews. After Toronto, it will screen at genre festival Fantastic Fest in Austin.

Moviehouse Entertainment is the film’s international sales agent, while The Film Sales Company (Andrew Herwitz) is handling U.S. sales, and the filmmakers are in talks with Canadian sales agents.

The goal is to secure substantial distribution for the film in a global sense, says Webb.

“We would like to be able to get this into a major theatrical play, and we think the film is strong enough and deserves it,” he says.