Canadian Film Centre

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Helping navigate the global entertainment sector for 20+ years

With hindsight, Norman Jewison sure looks prescient.

Having succeeded as a Canadian director in Hollywood, Jewison in 1988 launched the Canadian Film Center in Toronto to bolster the Canadian film industry and transform its place in the global business. The CFC is an advanced training center where Canadian film, TV and new media professionals look to boost their careers by completing content labs and incubators, and industry backers seed the growth of next-generation digital content.

Norman Jewison

Today, the skeptics have become believers as industry players in Los Angeles, New York and London work with the center's 1,300 alumni to build careers through expanding talent labs and "incubators."

The CFC has seen alumni like Sarah Polley (director-writer, "Away From Her"), Vincenzo Natali (director, "Splice"), Holly Dale (director, "Flashpoint"), Stephen Williams (co-executive producer/director, "Lost") and Tassie Cameron ("Copper") excel on the world stage.

"Mentoring leads to relationships and sustained work for our alumni," CFC executive director Slawko Klymkiw says.

Besides teaching skill sets for the future, the CFC's varied talent labs and incubators also deliver scripts and new media prototypes to key corporate backers.

"This is not a little development exercise; frankly, we're all too busy and the world is too competitive," says Julie Gardner, the Los Angeles-based senior vp at BBC Worldwide, a backer of the CFC's Canada-U.K. script incubation program, which is designed to produce TV series as official Canadian-British co-productions. "This is about finding really robust titles that people want to work on and we would fund and really properly look at."

The cross-border lab breaks new ground by pairing British and Canadian writers and producers to collaborate from the get-go on TV dramas for both markets.
"How to create a show that works for both (Canadian and British) audiences, without making it feel contrived, that's our challenge," says Christine Shipton, senior vp drama and factual content at Canwest Broadcasting, another backer of the incubator. She adds that the CFC lab aims to craft truly collaborative TV dramas with universal storytelling themes and tools that can overcome the inherent challenges of co-productions, which Canadians pioneered.

Also new to the CFC is NBC Universal's underwriting of the CFC's content creator program, where 10 Canadian producer teams knock their TV concepts into shape for possible Hollywood pitches and packaging. At any stage of the program, NBC Universal can offer a Canadian producer a formal development deal.

Ron Suter, executive vp and GM at NBC Universal TV Distribution Canada, says this cherry-picking ability gives the studio access to "fresh and new ideas from the CFC alumni and gives Canadian artists a wonderful and rare opportunity to showcase their TV concepts to our company."

David Zitzerman, an entertainment lawyer with Toronto-based Goodman and a CFC board member, adds that the CFC wants students to think outside the box in labs and incubators, but also move quickly to the international market with new product and prototypes.

"A lot of CFC students are looking for guidance and training, and we'll give them that. But we want you to be commercially successful," Zitzerman says.

Collaborating with international partners to develop and produce product for international sale is nothing new for Canadians, given their small home market. In recent years, Canada has spawned a slew of innovative TV formats and original series like CBS' "Flashpoint" and NBC's "The Listener." And international producers and broadcasters are as much in need of precious financing and new business models as are the Canadians.

Kiefer Sutherland leads a master class helping Canadian actors make the adjustment to film and TV roles.

"We're in a time of world recession," Gardner says. "That has to have a bearing on the way each country develops programming. Each territory wants to pay less for drama, and the way to do that is to join hands in a meaningful partnership where everyone shares costs and editorial control."

NBC Universal, which, like rival U.S. networks, has looked abroad for content, is also backing the CFC's multiplatform matchmaking program. Here Canadian industry veterans challenge tradition by hot-housing new crossover digital media product in the course of one week. Story2.OH creator Jill Golick, a previous participant in the CFC multiplatform program, says each experimental lab immerses professionals from diverse fields in an alternative universe free of commercial constraints to collaborate on next-generation creative ventures.

"We will all have to work together one day, so the time to develop a new creative language and ways to work together might as well be now," she says.

Canwest is also helping underwrite the CFC actors' conservatory. Here performance workshops and master classes led by Kiefer Sutherland aim to turn Canadian actors trained for the stage into film and TV actors comfortable in front of a camera.

Besides advanced training, the CFC also provides its alumni with exhibition, financial and distribution opportunities to drive their current projects and careers. For example, as part of its backing for the CFC's feature film program, domestic distributor E1 Films Canada will release at least five CFC features over five years. E1 Films Canada co-president Bryan Gliserman says that, besides supporting the Canadian film industry, the venture helps the indie distributor "stay close to Canada's next generation of upcoming filmmaking and storytelling talent."

Shipton applauds the CFC for recruiting foreign and local mentors to fill gaps in the Canadian industry.

"They're looking throughout the world, with an eye to building a Canadian system here," she argues. "It's a joint effort. They (backers) will also come out of this with something, as opposed to just being experts that help train students. There's product being developed."

The CFC has also partnered with the National Film Board of Canada to nurture a new generation of documentary filmmakers.

CFC National Film Board of Canada feature documentary participants Shelley Saywell, left, Yung Chang, Sarah Polley and John Walker

An example: The debut doc feature from Montreal-based Yung Chang, "Up the Yangtze," a portrait of China's giant Three Gorges Dam and that country's economic boom, proved a critical success at Sundance in 2008 and a North American boxoffice performer. As a result, the CFC invited Chang to develop his second theatrical feature, "The Fruit Hunters," a film about the global search for the most exotic fruit, via the CFC/NFB feature documentary lab. The six-month CFC residency has Chang paired with mentor Sturla Gunnarson, a veteran Canadian director, and receiving input from workshop leaders like Wim Wenders.

"I took Wim Wenders to Chinatown and bought and tested fruit," Chang recalls. "It was a very engaging, surreal experience."

In its choice of mentors like Wenders, the CFC isn't playing the game the way it is mostly done in Canada, focusing on the home front. The center has gone to Los Angeles, New York and London and elsewhere internationally to build partnerships that leverage its alumni, sending them, for instance, to participate in the Tribeca All Access where filmmakers, including Sundance award-winner Jennifer Podemski and Sudz Sutherland, pitch projects to potential investors, producers and agents.

TAA program manager Tamir Muhammad says Tribeca and the CFC are similar in aiming to match working filmmakers from under-represented communities with industry mentors and networking opportunities.

"What stands out for us is the year-round support for working filmmakers," Muhammad notes of both Tribeca and the CFC. "It's great to have a partner like Canada. We're neighbors, naturally, but we also have a pool of deserving filmmakers that don't always have access to resources."

CFC grad Andrew Rosen and director K'naan Warsame attended the 2009 TAA session to pitch U.S. producers and distributors on "The River of Blood." The proposed dramatic feature film is based on Warsame's experiences growing up in Somalia, leaving that wartorn country for Canada, and becoming a musical voice for Africa. Muhammad says Tribeca is helping land a director for the music-driven indie feature, which has already attracted financing from traditional Canadian funders like Telefilm Canada, and domestic distributor Maple Pictures.

"We're still in touch with many of the companies we met there (TAA), hoping to parlay them into business partnerships soon," Rosen says.

Also stateside, CFC has launched the North-South Marketplace program to help alumni get their phone calls returned and their projects financed in Los Angeles. Sponsored by the Copyright Collective of Canada, the initiative aims at increasing the exchange of business and contacts between Canadian talent and Hollywood players.

The North-South Marketplace board includes ABC Studios executive vp Howard Davine, "Bones" creator Hart Hanson, Universal president of production Debbie Liebling and Paul Telegdy, executive vp alternative programming and production at NBC Universal Media Studios.

"It's not about exporting our talent to the U.S., or across the pond," says Kathryn Emslie, the CFC's director of film and TV programs. "In some ways, it's about bringing the world to Canada, and opening the doors to work within a more global world."