Efforts made to globalize Canada's film sector


TORONTO -- The term "Canadian film" has never been more widely applied. Last year's "Eastern Promises," David Cronenberg's Oscar-nominated portrait of the Russian mafia in London, was shot and mostly financed in the U.K. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles' "Blindness," the Cannes opener starring Julianne Moore, was structured as a Canada-Brazil-Japan co-venture. And Canadian director Vincenzo Natali's "Splice," staring Adrien Brody opposite Sarah Polley, was largely financed by French producer Gaumont.

But high-profile projects aren't the only dual-passport Canuck films to cast international actors or choose foreign locations and non-Canadian story lines.

Indeed, as government financing for Canadian films gets tight at home, local producers are increasingly spanning the globe in search of much-needed foreign financing dollars to keep their projects afloat.

"Once you get to a certain level of budget -- $5 million-$7 million -- unless you're a David Cronenberg or a Denys Arcand, with a strong background or star power, it will be difficult to find entirely in Canada the financing you require," says Danny Chalifour, director of international development and operations at Telefilm Canada, the federal government's film financier.

He adds that homegrown directors intent on big-budget films with marquee international stars will need to join the international game. "You will be looking for a U.S. presale or an international co-production partner," he says.

Canadian producers are used to making films with foreign partners since Canada has official co-production treaties with over 50 countries. But as they go global for added dollars, major homegrown producers feel hamstrung by film financiers back home, especially the federal government.

Martin Paul-Hus, a film producer with Amerique Film, has just finished work on Amos Kollek's "Restless," a Hebrew-language drama shot in Montreal and structured as an Israel-Germany-France-Canada-Belgium co-production. As he attempts to finance Amos Gitai's next film -- a project based on a Canadian script -- he wants Canadian officials to loosen co-production qualification rules to allow more American equity in homegrown films, which will offset reduced financing from Europe where films are increasingly made between European Union member nations.

"It's ridiculous that we are cutting ourselves off from American equity when we could benefit so much from it," he argues.

He's not alone. A growing chorus of producers want more flexibility from Telefilm Canada and other domestic financiers in how they can fund and cast Canadian films, and where they can shoot.

Director Natali waited nearly eight years before he could finance "Splice," a $26 million sci-fi thriller that is executive produced by Guillermo del Toro and 70% funded by Gaumont, with the rest of the financing coming from Canada.

"It's healthy for Canadian filmmakers to look outside the boundaries of Canada," Natali says. "Making movies is expensive, and there's no shame in getting help from outside the country."

"Splice" is typical of a new breed of Canadian film that avoids local stereotypes and cliched subject matter like hockey, beavers or maple syrup. Other recent local productions that break from the mold include Francois Girard's "Silk," a Canada-Italy co-production starring Keira Knightley and Alfred Molina, and Roger Spottiswoode's "Shake Hands With the Devil," a true-life story of a former Canadian general who led an ill-fated UN mission in Rwanda during that nation's 1994 genocide.

Also telling a Canadian story in an international setting is Jeremy Podeswa's "Fugitive Pieces," a Canada-Greece co-production that portrays a child's escape from wartime Poland to Greece and Canada.

Although set in Canada, these films are often not what Telefilm Canada has in mind as a means to showcase homegrown talent and tell uniquely Canadian stories.

Of course, Canada's best-known directors shooting overseas has been a boon to local emerging filmmakers. And Canadian soundstages and production crews are more readily available to low-budget pictures since the number of American producers shooting in Canada continues to fall amid the surging Canadian dollar and labor instability back in Los Angeles.

Toronto-based filmmaker Ben Mazzotta is currently financing his latest film, a dramatic thriller and follow-up to "The Limits," his 2007 feature set in a seedy Toronto motel. Mazzotta says he intends to shoot his second film in Canada, but possibly with Canadian actors and with American equity. "I can understand (Telefilm Canada's) mandate," he says. "They're using taxpayer dollars. But ultimately I want to tell a story that goes beyond borders and could play everywhere."

Vancouver-based producer Chantall Collet of Pivotal Filmworks says she encountered hurdles back home as she looked to finance her Canadian film "I Smell Oscar" in Los Angeles.

"I created the project as a Canadian film that's aimed at the international market," she says. "But to reach that market, I'm running into barriers because my film has American content."

Canadian filmmakers aren't the only ones looking to reinvent themselves by going global. Leading indie distributors like Alliance Films and Entertainment One are gunning for international expansion as screens back home remain dominated by Hollywood releases and the North American market for prestige indie pictures continues to shrink.

Elsewhere, last year's acquisition of top Canadian indie distributor Alliance Atlantis Motion Picture Distribution by Goldman Sachs unsettled an industry already in flux. The Wall Street investment bank relaunched MPD as Alliance Films to release filmed entertainment in Canada, the U.K. and Spain, with veteran distributor Victor Loewy at its helm.

Alliance has plum deals with New Line, Miramax, the Weinstein Co., Focus and Overture, through which it releases some of the biggest nonstudio pictures in the Canadian market --although it now has to contend with the loss of the New Line titles since Warner Bros. moved the mini-major in-house.

But, as Patrice Theroux, president of Entertainment One's film distribution division points out, expansion into the European market is essential.

"When I look at our operations in the U.K. and Benelux, which are more developed, we have a higher volume of sales than in Canada," Theroux says of his recent European acquisitions, the U.K.'s Contender Entertainment Group and Benelux distributor RCV Entertainment.

"The Canadian market is a relatively small market and has a lot of players," Loewy adds.