SUNDRE — With the sales pitch for the pilot of Pipe Nation being turned down by one network and streaming service after another, the independent filmmaker and creative mind behind the original story says he’s decided to pivot toward turning what initially was intended to be a multi-episode series into a full-length feature film instead.
From deceptive film industry executives that give independent producers false hope and posturing politicians who offer platitudes but no support, down to what he claimed to be deep-seated anti-Alberta sentiment among major networks and content streamers, Raoul Bhatt says his show has hit many hurdles.
But the Edmonton-based director, who has invested about $500,000 into making his dream a reality, is not yet prepared to throw in the towel and remains confident about pulling an ace from his sleeve.
Bhatt expressed pride in his cast and crew’s tireless dedication in completing the 52-minute pilot episode that sets the stage for a story about a fictional community called Hardwell, portrayed by Sundre, and the characters’ struggles to adapt to a transitioning energy sector. His goal now is to turn the pilot into a full 80- to 90-minute film, he said.
Delivering on the full run of 10 episodes would require many millions of dollars in funding that just isn’t about to materialize, he said.
“It’s unachievable for a single creator,” he added.
Over the span of roughly a year during which Bhatt said he spent pitching the pilot, he attended costly conferences as well as film festivals and read statements from large streamers expressing support for local artists and announcing multi-million-dollar investments in Canadian content.
“But everything I have faced, that’s not true,” said the 42-year-old. “That is the very opposite of what they’re promoting.”
Even the provincial government panders and postures, expressing support for job creation in Alberta’s fledgling film industry while seeking photo ops with producers, yet falls short in backing up those words with meaningful action, he said.
“They make it so extremely difficult for artists to even participate in any of those programs,” he said. “The only people that are benefiting are the big American productions, which have the money and the backing anyway.”
That’s a concern shared among other independent artists he’s heard from.
“This has been a universal conversation I’m hearing from all the content creators, even locally and nationally,” he said.
Making an already challenging situation even more difficult, is what he called a reluctance for networks to embrace stories about Alberta’s oil and gas industry.
“They don’t want to tell our story, which blew my mind,” he said. “They’re stereotyping creators and artists like us, and they basically don’t want anything to do with Alberta. And that’s why our film industry isn’t booming here and that’s why we’re not successful.”
But Pipe Nation is not just about Alberta’s oil and gas sector, but rather an emotional human tale about perseverance and determination through uncertain times of change, he said.
“The messed up thing is, they’ll drag you along” for months before eventually pulling the rug out, he said about major networks and streaming services.
“These networks that don’t believe in Alberta, they are killing us,” he said. “That’s basically what I’ve been facing, and it’s from network after network — literally every network we approached.”
He previously told the Albertan earlier this year that Netflix Canada and CBC were among the networks and streamers he pitched the pilot to.
Asked whether the anti-Alberta sentiment he sensed was coming from the industry or the general public at large, Bhatt said the former and added comments from people on social media have more often than not provided a bit of a morale boost.
“Our social media supporters are pretty great — everyone’s been positive, patient,” he said. “But man, it’s those executives. I just never experienced anything like this.”
However, even without support from networks and streamers or the government, Bhatt said he and his team remain energized and prepared to support themselves.
Reluctant to launch a GoFundMe campaign as he does not want to ask for a handout, Bhatt said he is instead looking at making available non-fungible tokens (NFTs). The tokens are a relatively new part of the digital cryptocurrency economy described as non-interchangeable units of data such as photos, video and audio that are stored on a blockchain — or a kind of digital ledger — that can be sold or traded.
People who want to support Pipe Nation could purchase NFTs from a series to welcome them into the show, he said.
“They’re not essentially getting ownership of the show, but they’re getting a piece of my art, which will support the show and let us finish and get to the 80- to 90-minute mark,” he said.
That art, he added, is expected to be available for sale by the end of April.
Finding the funding to complete the pilot as a feature film is what he hopes to be the final hurdle.
“Because once we’re at the 80- to 90-minute mark, it’s very easy to get a distribution because it’s a finished product,” he said.
Major financial backing is where large studios have all the advantage, he said.
But, he added, Albertans have their own advantage — a can-do attitude.
“Whether it’s a small town or an Alberta mentality, let’s figure it out,” he said, adding while one member of his team decided to back down, the rest have remained onboard.
“What is the choice that we have? Either we stay determined and we persevere, or we fold and they win. And that’s not what I want. I want our community to win — I want to tell a story. That’s what I set out to do.”
Provided the stars align, Bhatt is optimistic not only about the prospects of bringing the 52-minute pilot to a complete 80- to 90-minute film by the end of the summer, but also reaching the international market.
“We came this far, we just need a little bit more to get us to the finish line.”