Commentary: In a town of farmhouses and ice rinks, filmmaking becomes a cottage industry


It's almost like something out a of movie: A struggling, rural town decides to make a movie in order to turn around its fortunes.

But that's exactly what Kipling, Saskatchewan, population 1,100, is doing. The town's residents have banded together to form a company that will produce and finance an independent, faith-based film written by and starring Corbin Bernsen, the former "L.A. Law" star now co-starring on USA Network's "Psych."

Things have been tough for prairie towns like Kipling, which is about two hours from the province's capital city of Regina. The economy is rough, opportunities are few, and anyone with means heads to the nearest big city.

Kipling hit the news once before: In 2006, a blogger spent a year bartering a red paper clip for a series of items of increasing value; in the end, he exchanged a movie role for a farmhouse in the town. The person who offered up the role was Bernsen, who also trekked to the town -- which had collectively joined to win the part -- to hold auditions.

Bernsen couldn't help but notice two things about Kipling: First, for a town that loved movies and wanted to be a part of the filmmaking process, it didn't have a movie theater. Second, it had six churches, a lot for a town of just more than 1,000 residents. Bernsen quickly realized that his movie -- the first word in the script was "cocksucker" -- probably wasn't suitable for the Canadian Bible Belt town, so he said he'd come back with another, more appropriate project.

At first, the town's residents were skeptical, but when it became evident Bernsen was serious, the mayor met with him in the town's only motel and said Kipling wanted to finance the prospective film. Bernsen accepted the offer, even if he didn't necessarily believe it would amount to much.

"I thought it was very cute," he recalls. "But within months, we had over $237,000."

Kipling's more prominent members set up a 20-member board and created a company, Kipling Film Prods., in which friends, family and business associates could invest. It then set about raising money, using the local paper, going door to door, holding drives and writing newsletters. A group of elder ladies put their Social Security checks together to invest. Bernsen visited the town four or five times to give pep speeches and serve as a reminder to folks that, yes, there really was a Hollywood movie within their grasp.

Pat Beaujot, a farm machine maker and member of the board, takes the accomplishment in stride, saying it represents small-town values in action.

"If we want to fix the rink, people contribute money and time and they do it," he says. "Things get done with volunteer labor and people donating money. This isn't an unusual thing. It's unusual in the sense that it's a movie and not a facility, but this is normal for towns this size. Towns like ours really have to gather their abilities and financing and do it themselves when they want to accomplish something."

He adds: "(People) thought it was like a donation for the town, to bring more activity to the town. That was part of the driving force behind it. And of course, everyone hopes we make money out of it."

The movie, "Rust," is set to begin shooting early next month, with Bernsen starring. The production will use a crew from Regina, working with ACTRA actors, and take advantage of certain film incentives, including a rural tax rebate (for shooting outside of Regina). Bernsen brought in other investors to help bump up the final budget total, which is in the $260,000 range.

The plot, partially inspired by the 2007 death of Bernsen's father, centers on a priest who undergoes a midlife crisis of faith and comes home to heal.

Bernsen, who says location scouting took all of one day, now is thinking ahead.

"These people want to start a cottage industry, and we're already talking about the next movie," he says, noting that he has found a farmhouse on a hill that rivals the "Psycho" house and would be good for a faith-based horror movie.

The wizardry of Oz

"Australia" might have gone a bit down under at the boxoffice, but Australia is doing just fine.

The state of Victoria, home to the nation's capital Melbourne, is doing particularly well, generating AUS$262 million ($173.4 million) in production last year, its highest level to date. The big-money generators included Warner Bros.' "Where the Wild Things Are," originally scheduled to shoot in New Zealand, HBO's Playtone World War II miniseries "The Pacific" and Summit's Nicolas Cage starrer "Knowing."

One of the aces up the state's sleeve is Film Victoria, an organization that is part film commission and part investor, supporting filmmakers and projects including "Mary & Max," which opened this year's Sundance Film Festival. Last year, it invested AUS$13 million in film and TV projects.

Victoria offers incentives not at a set level but rather on a case-by-case basis.

"You can respond to the project that is on the table," Film Victoria CEO Sandra Sdraulig, in town as part of Australia Week, says about the program. "It's gives you the opportunity to be flexible, and it's not a one-size-fits-all attitude."