One day in New York in early 2006, Mike Plante, a film programmer for the Sundance Film Festival and Cinevegas, a film festival in Las Vegas, went out to lunch with his friend, the Chicago-based filmmaker James Fotopoulos. The two men spent much of their meal complaining about clichés in independent films, like the plot device in which random encounters between complete strangers forever alter their lives. When the bill came, Fotopoulos had no cash, “because he’s a fuckin’ filmmaker,” as Plante offers. Plante came up with a solution: he would foot the bill if Fotopoulos made a short film for the price of the lunch. Plante took out a pen and wrote a contract on a napkin, with rules derived from their conversation — for example, “strangers’ lives must not collide.” Thus, the first “lunchfilm” (with a budget matching the $30.40 spent at Thailand Café) was born.
Over the next two years, Plante went on to buy lunch for 49 other filmmakers and assign 49 more lunchfilms. Today, the shorts are screened at film festivals around the United States, with offerings by Paul Chan ($27.95, Morning Ray Caf), George Kuchar ($31.15,Brandy Hos), Martha Colburn ($36.66, Lulu’s), Cory Arcangel ($131, Anyway Café), and Sharon Lockhart ($74.79, Don Cuco). Some filmmakers took the tight financial constraints as a challenge, like the New Yorker Jem Cohen, whose $11.30, spent at theOriginal Pantry in LA, went to a film with two requirements: “full frontal” and “comedy.”
Plante, who lives in Los Angeles, has done plenty of time in the world of low-budget creativity, starting with a ’zine on experimental film he started in Tucson in the late 1990s. “There wasn’t a lot of information about experimental film where I was, so I decided to produce it myself,” he recalls. Budgetary restrictions are par for the course, but making rules about content adds an interesting snag. The use of formal limits evokes Lars von Triers 2003 film The Five Obstructions, in which von Trier challenges his mentor, Jorgen Leth, to remake Leth’s celebrated 1967 short The Perfect Human. Poor Leth must make five new versions of his film — each subjected to a different set of restrictions dictated by von Trier. Leth triumphed, and the Lunchfilm participants have likewise embraced their rules. Plante notes, “Constraints force you to be creative.”
As in the first instance with Fotopoulos, most of the films’ rules were established during rambling conversations with Plante over lunch, which had to remain spontaneous. “You can plan a lunch date, but you can’t plan what you’re going to talk about.” Plante keeps the napkin contracts, which have rules varying from the banal to the outlandish, such as: “should reference Texas,” “dedicate it to the animals,” or “tie the 1880s and 1980s together.” Don Hertzfelds lunchfilm was required to reference “the beauty of the loneliness of the broken toenail, the body cast, and the plastic bubble,” as well as “the wily capybara” [the largest rodent in the world]. Despite sharing a napkin-scrawled origin, the styles of the films couldn’t be more diverse, from animation to documentary to surrealist fragments; and from nostalgic childhood paeans to psychosexual mash-ups.
Despite the recognizable names and timely alternative-economics appeal of the lunchfilms, Plante remains modest about his project. The Lunchfilm website reads simply, “It is very easy to help a filmmaker. Buy one lunch today.” He adds, laughing, “I am not rich. I can fund this, so anybody can. That’s the point I want to get across.” Plante says he just got tired of all the complaining he heard about how hard it was to find money to make films. He riffs on Werner Herzog’s line: “I refuse to be part of the culture of complaint!” This quote recalls another Herzogian gem, perfect for these times: “Roll up your sleeves and create your own art, create your own values, create your own cultural values, that’s what is going to change things.” Doing so can be as simple as buying your local filmmaker lunch.