Lawrence Toppman

Could these 2 local filmmakers succeed? Maybe – because they’re doing something few do

Justin Moretto, left, and Thomas Torrey in Torrey’s home office in Fort Mill, where their film “Fare” was edited. Scads of local filmmakers shoot movies on shoestrings, only to realize how hard that is to do and quit. But these two are different.
Justin Moretto, left, and Thomas Torrey in Torrey’s home office in Fort Mill, where their film “Fare” was edited. Scads of local filmmakers shoot movies on shoestrings, only to realize how hard that is to do and quit. But these two are different.

Small independent filmmakers have the survival record of possums crossing Charlotte Motor Speedway during a race. They max out credit cards, exhaust themselves and their crew, hurl their films hopefully into the gaping maw of American culture, hear no more about their work and are never heard from themselves.

Thomas Torrey and Justin Moretto look like exceptions.

Their first film, “Fare,” won audience awards at festivals and landed at The Orchard, which will give it a national digital release Feb. 21. They’re working with Relic Pictures – whose founder, Eric Schultz, was named by Variety one of 10 producers to watch in Hollywood – on their next project, “Premise.”

And with the backing of diverse investors, including olive oil producers in southeastern Georgia, they have embarked on a four-film slate for Bad Theology Pictures – and quit their own prosperous jobs, Torrey with the INSP network and Moretto with the biotechnology firm Biogen.

Torrey and Moretto, who met through friends in 2006, became an oddly well-matched pair of business partners.

The first is a confirmed Christian with missionary parents, a wordsmith who grew up mostly in one place in Connecticut. The second is a respectful atheist, a neuroscientist who moved more than a dozen times as a youth. (Asked to name his hometown, Moretto replies, “The East Coast.”)

After Torrey and his family came to Fort Mill five years ago, he and Moretto began writing a movie by long distance: “Premise,” about a man in a basement laboratory who learns how to fragment his consciousness.

A major change of heart

In 2015, Torrey “had an epiphany. I decided, ‘There’s an artist in me. This film company I’m talking about having someday – maybe now is the time to start it.’ 

Says Moretto, “He gave me books about how indie companies work. To me, as a scientist working with venture capital, always running and running in circles to make (individual) movies seemed crazy. I thought, ‘Get the money up front.’ ” (He has five patents, mostly related to Raman spectroscopy. Moretto found a way to investigate what’s happening in a bioreactor in real time, without having to remove a sample.)

They incorporated in April 2015, championed by their wives and buoyed by an investor who came aboard that month. They took their company name from Madeline L’Engle’s comment that “Bad art is bad theology.” Says Torrey, “It’s a reminder not to make bad art.”

They got frustrated trying to raise $400,000 to shoot “Premise” – $1 million, if they had to pay name stars – and decided to make “Fare,” an inexpensive, sophisticated first movie that crossed genres.

“Failing is always a good thing if you can do it quickly, and you can learn from it,” says Moretto. But they did not fail.

Shooting cheap and fast

Moretto produced. Torrey wrote the script in one weekend and hired actors from short pieces he’d made at INSP. He directed, edited and contributed music under the name Forward Pilgrim. And he shot at top speed: Three days, mostly in the evenings, recording 30-minute takes via three cameras suction-mounted around an S.U.V. (The cameraman and sound guy hid from sight in the rear compartment of the vehicle.) Expenses totalled $25,000, plus deferred paybacks if the film makes money.

“Fare” takes place entirely in an Uber car driven by Eric (Torrey), who believes his 10-year marriage to Audrey (Katherine Drew) has degenerated past the point of repair. An enigmatic rider (Pat Dortch) gives him blunt advice about love before getting out. As Eric contemplates it, he picks up another fare: Patrick, the man having an affair with Audrey (J.R. Adduci, famed as Bobby of Morris-Jenkins commercials but a strong dramatic actor).

After Audrey enters the car, you think you know where the film’s going. But just as Eric decides to fight for his marriage – well, to say more would be to spoil it. Suffice to say audiences have responded to “Fare” as a thriller, a horror movie, a hard look at wedlock and a “What did I just see?” puzzler.

The 75-minute drama took audience or jury awards at the 2016 Charlotte Film Festival, South Bay Film and Music Festival in California and Push! Film Festival in Virginia. Torrey and Moretto cold-called sales representatives; they found a willing ear at Circus Road, which sold the movie to Random Media, a boutique art-house distributor with an exclusive output deal with The Orchard and Sony Home Entertainment.

Meanwhile, they quietly sought investors.

Finding financiers

A chance meeting in Lyons, Ga., brought them Darrien Ramsey, who with partners Tommie Williams and Clint Williams runs Terra Dolce Farms and the upscale restaurant Elements Bistro & Grill. (This trio won a gold medal at the 2014 New York International Olive Oil Competition.) Torrey was visiting his brother-in-law, a forester who works for Ramsey, and he and Moretto met the Georgian over lunch.

“They weren’t trying to sell me anything,” says Ramsey. “They didn’t even ask me if I wanted to invest; I asked, they said yes, and Thomas explained about ‘Fare.’ I was intrigued, because they both had high-paying salaries with uptrending careers. I always tend to invest in people, and I knew if they were willing to put their lives on hold, they would produce. They didn’t walk away from those jobs on a whim.

“They answered all the right questions, Thomas from an artistic standpoint and Justin from a financial standpoint, which is where my background lies. They let my two partners and me have a little equity chunk of this, and they haven’t come back to say, ‘We need more money, things haven’t gone well, we’re going to have to close down.’ 

At this point, “uptrending” applies to their cinematic future. Though Torrey remains in Fort Mill and Moretto has left Plaza-Midwood for Durham, they continue to raise the targeted $2 million for their four-film slate.

Torrey says they’re happy to share responsibility for “Premise” with Relic, and investors have been pleased to learn a bigger company wants to work on the project. They hope neither to write nor direct Bad Theology films three and four; they have a pool of scripts, treatments and ideas they own, have optioned or are considering.

“We have figured this out as we’ve gone, and we’ve made a ton of mistakes,” Torrey says. “We first tried to sell ourselves as creatives; then Justin completed a rigorous financial analysis that became a business model we could pitch. Our first pitches took an hour; after six months, a pitch consultant helped us cut that to 15 minutes.

“Looking back, we can see the points along the way where (a lot of) people would have quit. This drained every last ounce of savings – but it’s worth doing.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232