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Shooting, pitching and distributing Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie's Dead Aunt)

There aren’t many Australian films like lesbian romcom Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), which is exactly why writer/director Monica Zanetti wanted to make it. Here’s how she did.

Writer/director Monica Zanetti stands behind a camera on the set of Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie's Dead Aunt)Monica Zanetti on the set of Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie's Dead Aunt)

“Be specific.”

This is the advice of Monica Zanetti, the writer and director of new feature Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), to anyone facing back-to-back pitch meetings.

It’s where Zanetti found herself in May 2019, having flown from Sydney to Cannes Film Festival just two days after wrapping the 10-day shoot of Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), her feature directorial debut. Armed with a teaser trailer that editor Nicole Thorn had pulled together and a roadmap of what needed to happen next, Zanetti threw herself into non-stop meetings with any distributor, financier, or funding body she could carve out time with.

The pay-off was significant.

“I came home from that trip having had my first meeting with Screen Australia about completion funding; it’s where we had our first meeting with Serve Chilled, who ended up doing our post-production; and then that's also where I had the first conversations with Arcadia, who became our distributors.”

There’s a reason she thinks the trip was so successful.

“What I was asking for was very clear,” she says.

She didn’t have a finished film, but filming had wrapped, with a cast including Marta Dusseldorp, Rachel House, Zoe Terakes and Sophie Hawkshaw, and they had the teaser, which “is what made people pay attention.”

“[I could say] this is what I've done. This is what I need to get it finished. Are you interested or can we have a conversation further down the line.”

Zanetti thinks being specific allowed Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) to cut through in those meetings and give people confidence.

“If you're vague about the project it makes people very easy to be vague about you,” she says.

“You've got to know why you're making it, who your audience is, what you need, and how then you can use that to deliver.”

With Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) Zanetti wanted to make the kind of film she never had growing up: one that reflected her experience, and which she could have gone to the movies with her mum to see.

“My mum and I always go and watch romantic comedies in the cinema, but when it came to watching queer cinema that I really liked, it was always something I had to watch by myself… usually because it's over-sexualised or it rarely fits into a family film category.”

It’s part of what makes Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), which releases in limited Australian cinemas from 19 November, so ground-breaking: as an Australian lesbian teen romcom, there are few - if any – that come to mind in the feature film space.

Two young women share a kiss, their arms around one anotherEllie & Abbie (& Ellie's Dead Aunt)

Says Arcadia’s Head of Distribution and Acquisition Alexandra Burke, “there is no precedent for this as an Australian film.”

It follows school captain Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw), who is working up the courage to ask her crush Abbie (Zoe Terakes) to the year 12 formal when the ghost of her queer activist aunt Tara (Julia Billington), who died in the 80s, shows up and begins dishing out unwanted dating advice.

Burke says with Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), Zanetti has created a queer teen film, which doesn’t forget its existence came from the struggles of those that came before.

“I love that Monica's been able to deliver a really beautiful homage to those generations that really had to fight, incorporated into what is a contemporary romcom.”

When Burke came across Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), she could see some crossover with the first film Arcadia released, a US lesbian coming-of-age drama First Girl I Loved, which won the NEXT Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and connected in Australia as well.

“We had a really great experience with First Girl I Loved [so] when we came across Ellie & Abbie, what brought us on board was a) the cast is fantastic and b) we know what to do with this film,” she says.

“We don't distribute many films so if we can sink our teeth into the branding and the marketing and know who the audience is, that is a big motivator.”

It is a unique space though. “We're kind of operating in a genre that doesn't have much precedence [with] LGBT teen films.”

Burke says their Australian release strategy for Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) involved hitting a couple of key festival markers. The first was Mardi Gras Film Festival.

“[We wanted it] to not only be selected for Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival, but to open it,” she says.

It did. Less than a year after wrapping the shoot, Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) premiered as the Opening Night Film, and became the first Australian film in the festival’s 27-year history to do so. Not just that, it went onto win the Audience Award for Best Narrative Film as well.

“But then also get that mainstream crossover, it would need selection at an Australian A-list festival,” Burke says.

Two women holding glasses of champagne, smilingEllie & Abbie (& Ellie's Dead Aunt)

Enter: Melbourne International Film Festival, where Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) screened as one of six programme highlights when MIFF pivoted to a virtual festival because of COVID in August.

“I think when you're putting a film online, there is the fear that it would prevent the theatrical experience [but] we were able to cap it and have it for one night only to create that kind of ‘FOMO’ experience, which worked really well,” Burke says. “[Also] with this film where it's a smaller budget film, but you can take a bit of a higher-risk position, knowing that the awareness and publicity will serve it well.”

It’s since also been at Brisbane International Film Festival and Cinefest Oz, and now that awareness campaign is building toward the 19 November national release date, with recent state border openings meaning Zanetti could fly to Q&A screenings around the country.

“It's the campaign that when we first came on board, I'd hoped for in that national tour,” Burke says. “So it's quite fortunate that we can run a campaign that we would have done with or without COVID.”

When Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) does release, it will be in good company. It hits cinemas a week before Clea DuVall’s lesbian Christmas film Happiest Season with Kristen Stewart, and in the midst of the British Film Festival that is screening lesbian romances Ammonite and Summerland. It also comes on the heels of recent LGBTQI+ cinema successes such as Call Me By Your Name, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Holding the Man and Love, Simon.

Says Zanetti: “I think a lot of people are starting to be like, ‘ok not only is this something that people are pushing for, to have more representation on screen, but it also makes money’.

“The audience is there and that was definitely something I learnt, writing (2014 feature) Skin Deep is that queer audiences are very passionate and very supportive and they spend money,” she says. They even helped fund Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), which raised more than $40,000 through a Pozible campaign. “Putting them down as just a niche audience was not representative of who they are. The pathway to audience through them is very clear, and when people started to realise, it's not just that audience looking for that content, it then opened the scope of the stories we can tell.”

Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) might have been created as a film Zanetti wished she could have seen with her mum as a teenager, but at premieres when she looked around, there weren’t just millenials like her there, but teenagers, parents, and grandparents; people who lived through the protests of the 80s, or on the reverse never realised how much harder it was. The goal is that these types of films stop being ground-breaking, but the simple fact is that at the moment, they still are.

“Being able to watch Ellie & Abbie in the cinema, not just with my mum, but with families and so many other people, that was something that was not lost on me,” Zanetti says. “It was very special.”

Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) releases in select Australian cinemas on 19 November.