WMM Make Your Feature Competition Winners Announced!

competition industry Nov 17, 2021

We Make Movies is putting its money where its mouth is and officially greenlighting three of YOUR feature films in 2022! Our Make Your Feature competition invited anyone with a kernel of an idea or a full screenplay to pitch their project to a panel of investors and the WMM community for the opportunity to land a $25,000 investment, tens of thousands of dollars worth of resources and assistance to ACTUALLY shoot their movie. Submissions opened on May 5 2021. We received 127 submissions, narrowed it down to 36 semi-finalists, then we had 14 filmmakers pitch our judges one last time on October 20th, 2021.

… now, DRUMROLL PLEASE! After an inspiring night of final pitches (watch the winning presentations below) and several weeks of impassioned deliberation, our panel of judges, including investors Sam Mestman, Rob Ness, and Cate Caplin have selected the feature films they will be investing in and advancing to pre-production. The winning filmmakers and films of our inaugural Make Your Feature Competition are, respectively, Mars Roberge with Stars, Jill Bennett and Lauren Neal with Under The Influencer, and Datgirl Serene Zloof with The Unicorn Admirers Club. Vice President of Content Eric Michael Kochmer firmly believes “even before you get funding for a film, you should be thoroughly thinking through each step of pre-production, production, post and audience building,” and is elated to greenlight three teams who exemplify these values and work ethic. The films themselves showcase “distinctive stories in vastly different universes and genres, further embodying the soul of what WMM is. We want to be a film company that makes great movies.”

Multi-award-winning director, producer, screenwriter, editor Mars Roberge consistently impressed judges with his super practical production plans and guerrilla filmmaking savvy. Roberge, who also moonlights as internationally renowned underground disc jockey “Die J! Mars,” is the very definition of the WMM multi-hyphenate spirit. Founder and CEO Sam Mestman said "I'm excited to back someone up who is the prototype of the DIY filmmaker. He is the real deal with an incredible story and unique style." Fresh off an opening night East Coast premiere and Best New York City Picture win for his dramedy feature Mister Sister (2021 Winter International Film Festival), Roberge is an indie film darling celebrated at such prestigious festivals as Rotterdam (World Premiere of his critically acclaimed Scumbag) and Dances With Films. A recurring alumnus of the latter, Mister Sister screened on the coveted closing night of this year’s festival. The film, not unlike his own personal trajectory, is a potpourri of warmhearted LGBTQ+ characters who embody and inspire courage and compassion in a suicidal man working as a drag MC in New York City. His winning project Stars promises to once again delve into the queer landscape that he says “saved him,” but how does a straight, white male identify with and belong to such a distinctive, marginalized community?    

A Toronto-born kid from the wrong side of Kennedy Road, Roberge’s personality is a cocktail of tenacity, imagination, and charisma. Breakdancing to Gladys Knight and the Pips long before Run DMC hit the airwaves, slipping into skateboarding circles for protection from the racial tension in the streets, and stealthily hanging out near the newly imported Chinese kids who could neither confirm nor deny their friendship with him since they didn’t speak English, were just some of the ways Roberge learned to survive. “I hung out in libraries, was a bit of a loner, and was depressed so I figured if I looked weird and constantly hurt myself, no one would mess with me and I could just slip under the radar.” Instead, he acquired several multifarious groups of friends, who, as a joke nominated him as the class Valedictorian - which he won after delivering a speech about “how much I hated school and wanted to die.” Roberge leveraged his Valedictorian title and vivid imagination straight to York University where he charmed his way into the DJ booth on campus and hosted a radio show, played in several punk and goth bands, and eventually graduated with a degree in Film Production. Non-conformist, drug-addled, and finding himself with no prospects of a job immediately after college, he found camaraderie in the streets. 

Enter the inimitable costume maven Patricia Field (of Sex & The City fame), who took him under her wings as a stylist for a decade and who ultimately became the muse and subject of his first feature film, the documentary The Little House That Could (2013). A palpable sense of community and connection was cultivated throughout these years, as he was immersed in the art world and its subcultures, including walking The Balls for House of Field. “Pat would pick us up at 5am in a Hummer and drive us to a high school in Sugar Hill and we would all be done up. The MC’s would be tough sounding and spew slang in the real Ball scene, but then there were also older women on lawn chairs knitting, watching their kids voguing the same way moms watch their kids at soccer practice.”

The world of Stars is similarly that of “freaks,'' subversive types, and the interlopers who try to navigate this landscape. Roberge's extraordinary  connection to and compassion for misfits, the LGBTQ+ community, and those grappling with substance abuse and homelessness compels him to communicate the humanity of their stories without creating caricatures. This film will undoubtedly have the auteur’s stylistic stamp and frenetic tone, but as Cate Caplin offers, “these are important issues thematically, around the rampant conditions we face daily on the streets and in our society. The challenge is to address and represent the people involved authentically and with hope and humor." 


Venture capitalist Rob Ness recognizes a worthwhile value proposition when he comes across one. With a disarming pitch presentation, remarkable credentials within and outside of the industry, and a slick, stylized narrative, the powerhouse duo of Lauren Neal and Jill Bennett declared themselves a force to be reckoned with throughout the competition. Their psychological thriller Under The Influencer checked all the dramatic, horror-inducing, and technologically sound boxes for formulaic success, but what convinced Ness to ultimately want to fund the film was that “at its heart, it is a philosophical film that asks ‘Is art about putting on a show?’ and ‘What does it mean to be real?’” 

A graduate of Brown University's Department of Theatre Arts & Performance Studies, Colorado born multiracial actor, director, producer, and writer Lauren Neal is slated to play the titular role as well as edit the film. A fierce intelligence oozes from under her poised, impossibly beautiful exterior. In her demo reel, she brings levity to drama, gravity to comedy, and is refreshingly unpredictable. She won the 2020 Hyundai Emerging Director award (in partnership with Outfest) for her 1 minute short film Healing Me, consequently scoring a 60-second spot "Chosen Family" celebrating the LGBTQ community and how families can be defined by choice. Currently, a Masters of Science degree candidate in the University of Virginia's online Data Science program, she brings an incisive lens and meticulous detail to exploring NFT's in the story of the film and in marketing plans. 


Neal’s wife and creative partner Jill Bennett is an unquestionable pioneer of queer cinema and activism, returning to producing after a 15 year hiatus of sorts. As an “out” actor in the early aughts she endured the indignity of roles systematically being offered to her straight counterparts and rationalized as favorable “optics,” so she shifted, consciously carving out a place for herself as a writer, producer, and director of categorically LGBTQ+ programming. Having produced three series which amassed cult followings (We’re Getting Nowhere, We Have To Stop Now and Second Shot) she landed a development deal with ViacomCBS-owned Logo, but her turn as Casey in the delectable rom-com And Then Came Lola ignited her star, cementing her status as a veritable queer heroine. Lauded by critics and audiences alike, the film was referred to as a tangled, buoyant "combination of Run Lola Run and Groundhog Day… with a massive dose of queerness" by seminal publication After Ellen.

The artistic couple collaborated on a few prior projects, but it was the Make Your Feature  competition that resurrected a project the two had previously considered developing into a full fledged feature. Neal dusted off Under The Influencer and compelled Bennett to officially come out of her partial sabbatical. The story centers around an art critic with an online following who is kidnapped and tortured by her protégée, but under the titillating surface flows a thought provoking undercurrent of the dilemmas we face in the age of technology, social media, intellectual property, and “wokeness.” The film raises poignant questions around “performative allyship, the appropriation of Black creativity, and the ownership and stewardship of art and identity in an open source culture,” as outlined in their pitch package. 

The script will be penned and produced by two-time Sundance Fellow and ISA’s Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch, Skye Emerson, and directed by award-winning indie multi-hyphenate Bryn Woznicki. To complete the all female above the line team, the pair enlisted Emmy-nominated veteran cinematographer Judy Phu and London-based Katie Margaret Hall as Associate Producer and Script Supervisor. The team’s cumulative talent, knowledge, and experience is extensive, but what left an impression on the WMM team was Neal and Bennett’s willingness to bring their assets to the table because they understand how partnerships, marketing efforts, and festival and distribution strategy contribute to the success of micro-budget films. Mestman calls the team “pretty special and innovative” marveling at “the ideas they have around every aspect of filmmaking.” The filmmakers drafted a manifesto as part of their pitch, extolling the virtues of extensive pre-production, respect, resourcefulness, integrity, transparency, and inclusion, further aligning themselves with WMM.


Speaking of WMM, Mestman is overjoyed that one of the recipients of the 25K investment and production deal is “homegrown,” adding “the sheer amount of content she has created is a great sign from the standpoint of a developmental model.” He is referring to our third winner, longtime member, writer, actress, music producer Datgirl Serene Zloof, whose film Unicorn Admirers Club focuses on the self discovery of a people-pleasing Iraqi-American DJ girl with a traditional family and a long-term partner. The slant? When inspired by a liberated polyamorous couple to sample the non-monogamous lifestyle and explore a new world of sexual encounters, she takes on the challenge from her boyfriend to prove she can keep her explorations casual and her relationship intact. An early adopter of Zloof’s premise, Rob Ness championed the project by serving as a development and structural writing coach because he believes “this is a story whose time has come, and that cinema can incite social change.”

Similarly, prolific award-winning director-choreographer- writer-producer Cate Caplin chose to invest in the film because she welcomes the challenge to direct something on the “other side of the spectrum of stories" she's told before. "The contrast of background and training makes for a dynamic collaboration and perspectiveWe've been discussing how best to transcend the obvious, overt, stereotypical characters and situations typically depicted when exploring this sort of subject matter. I'm looking forward to finding a highly stylistic approach to telling this personal and provocative story.” Caplin's feature film Mating Dance, also about the complexities and nuances of interpersonal connections, recently won an Accolade Award and Best Indie Feature at the 2021 New York City Oniros Film Festival. She is "proud to be partnering with WMM and the fact that all three selected films are ones that support and embrace diversity and inclusivity in the stories and the characters depicted in them." 

A graduate of UC Berkeley, Zloof is a trained actor and improviser who studied at several prestigious institutions on both coasts, including American Conservatory Theater, Lee Strasberg School of Acting, the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, and Second City. Also an alumna of NYU’s Writers Boot Camp, she penned and performed an award-winning solo show at the New York Fringe Festival  and is currently refining the sequel to the solo show (Girl Power aka Adventures of Girlcules) for the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Additionally, her comedic web series Pop&Spin was developed, workshopped, and released through the WMM lab pipeline before acquiring distribution through Amazon Prime. 

No stranger to hard work, taboo material, or self-reflection, the competition provided the perfect opportunity for Zloof to delve into a piece she had originally envisioned as a series. “I’ve always loved discussing love and what makes a successful relationship. Listening to Esther Perel and the ‘Sex with Emily’ podcast inspired me to want to creatively work in this field. I became curious about “the world” and what arrangements people have. Exploring and doing research, I couldn’t believe how big the world of ‘relationship anarchy’ is,” she muses when asked what originated the script. “Ethical non-monogamy isn’t for everyone, but it seemed to me that for some, it could help prevent the hurt of infidelity or needless break-ups, and allow the freedom to reinvent yourself and enjoy the benefits of new deep connections.” Add the elements of familial convention, generational discord, and constant negotiation with her Middle-Eastern roots, and the plot thickens.    


Through the Make Your Feature Competition, We Make Movies has risen to the challenges of film financing and production by pairing ambitious, deserving artists with discerning, supportive patrons. Our investors are not only financiers, but are working in tandem to ensure the synthesis of well crafted stories, pragmatic production, and exceptional artistic sensibility, optimizing each film to their full potential. Through the process of cherry picking, financing, producing, marketing, and building an audience and community around these three films, Mestman and our merry bunch of film bandits aspire to “take micro-budget movies and make them sustainable.” Perhaps WMM President Aubrey Mozino sums it up best. "One of the things I’m most proud about We Make Movies, is that we don’t just sit around talking about making movies, we are continually making content and helping others make theirs. How many other communities do you know who will be rolling camera on three, wildly diverse features next year?”

Written by Sapna Gandhi

Sapna Gandhi is an actor, singer-songwriter, and content creator. In addition to TV credits such as BOSCH, SHAMELESS and SCANDAL, she has appeared in numerous shorts, features, and series, including festival darlings IN ABSENTIA (Raindance) and THUMPER (Tribeca). Gandhi has produced several series and films under the umbrella of her production company Elegant Grotesque (most recently SCRAP, starring Anthony Rapp and Vivian Kerr, and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ STRANDED ON THE EARTH, directed by Mike Bruce). She is also 1/2 of the musical duo, VATAVARAN, was born in England, raised all over the states, studied English and Women’s Studies, and trained at the American Conservatory Theatre in SF.


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