Grant Farm

An obscure funding source keeps local documentary filmmakers afloat

Since its inception, CALOP has backed 141 documentary projects on a wide array of topics. The number of films varies from year to year, with a high of seventeen in 1990. But CALOP tapped only seven films in 2002 -- a figure topped in the first funding cycle alone in 2003, when eight out of twenty-five films submitted for consideration were funded. McFee expects the September cycle to be even busier, and to push the 2003 flock to a new record high.

Momentum of the sort enjoyed by Gaslight Square is crucial, concurs local filmmaker Chris Grega. "In low-budget filmmaking, if you don't have momentum, you're dead," says Grega, whose first feature, Amphetamine, played to a crowd of 700-plus at the Pageant as part of the St. Louis Filmmaker's Showcase in June. Grega used credit cards to finance the entire $12,000 budget of his film, a fiscally precarious but not-uncommon method.

CALOP Boll: Along with filmmaking partner Shellee Graham, Bill Boll secured a grant for a documentary about the Coral Court Motel
Robert Boston
CALOP Boll: Along with filmmaking partner Shellee Graham, Bill Boll secured a grant for a documentary about the Coral Court Motel

While the movie has been accepted for the upcoming St. Louis International Film Festival, it would be startling if Amphetamine, a darkly comic local crime story, makes it into wider release. Still, given Grega's relative inexperience -- he'd only done two shorts prior to the feature -- and the fact that the hundreds of people who worked on the film volunteered their time, Amphetamine is a triumph of blood, guts and moxie.

"If you have no money and no resources, you have to build a reputation," Grega maintains. "[Local horror film producer Eric Stanze] told me that for every hundred people who say they want to make a movie, one person finishes. That's totally true."

Doug Whyte, whose CALOP-backed A Slice of Life & Death, a morbidly entertaining documentary about a local funeral director, was recently picked up by a Los Angeles distributor, has momentum. He just received his second CALOP grant, this one for a piece on the residents of the western-themed Silver Spur group home in south St. Louis. But while filmmakers like Bill Boll are content to operate with a guerrilla budget of $10,000 or less, Whyte has pegged the Silver Spur endeavor at $70,000. And with CALOP grants topping out at $10,000, he's having a challenging time of it.

"I'm approaching foundations that support mental illness," recounts Whyte, who works for DHTV by day. "The tricky part is getting funding and not having them have any say in what it's going to be."

For his turn of luck with the LA distribution house Seventh Art, Whyte credits Bobbie Lautenschlager, a 59-year-old Trinity Lutheran secretary who took an interest in filmmaking after a twenty-year stint as a medical missionary in Africa. Every year Lautenschlager makes a pilgrimage to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and also squeezes in trips to smaller California festivals to circulate reels and trumpet the virtues of St. Louis filmmakers. When she's not road-tripping or answering phones at the Soulard church, Lautenschlager donates her time at Cinema St. Louis, where she's a volunteer curator for SLIFF, an ambitious, third-tier festival now in its twelfth year.

"All it would take is for some major sponsor to come in and help us get first-rate films and actors and directors, to pay for them to come," Lautenschlager contends. "We struggle every year to get money we need for hotel rooms, airfare, parties, dinners, things like that. These other film festivals have a great base of sponsorship."

Whyte points to his short tenure making movies in Milwaukee, where several filmmakers joined forces to form a cooperative, as perhaps a more attainable goal for St. Louis' film community. But Chris Grega, who's considering making a documentary as an encore to Amphetamine, argues that for such a phenomenon to transpire here, local filmmakers will have to find some common ground.

"I'd love to stay in St. Louis and make it an indie-film mecca, like Seattle," Grega says. "But I don't know if it's in the cards. There're a lot of filmmakers here, but there's no unity. If people would unite, there'd be enough drive to have our own studio. But for whatever reason, we're all driving in different directions.

"It's sad that there's nobody else giving any sort of grant at all," he adds, in reference to CALOP. "Everybody gets excited about The Game of Their Lives, but nobody really cares about people doing things day in and day out."

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