Gov't funds aid Canadian productions

Producers look to soft money to shore financing

TORONTO -- A Canadian film and TV industry built on access to soft money is using cold government cash to get through tough times.

Jonathan Torrens, host of "TV with TV's Jonathan Torrens" on the domestic TVtropolis cable channel, said it took "a whole salad of funding sources" to finance his $2 million, 13-part comic take on contemporary TV.

That included repeated taps on the shoulder of Canadian taxpayers.

The magazine series shot in Halifax received a modest license fee from TVtropolis, and then relied on federal and local tax credits and an equity investment from Nova Scotia Film, a provincial government agency, to be recouped through a U.S. sale.

The soft money didn't stop there.

The series also received an eleventh hour regional top-up from the Canadian Television Fund, the main source of government subsidies for indie producers looking to get their primetime series on air in Canada and internationally.

And Arcadia Entertainment, which produced "TV with TV's Jonathan Torrens," had to cash flow the first half of the production until it could bank the series amid concerns over the financial health of TVtropolis-parent Canwest Global Communications Corp. as it negotiates with senior lenders to stave off bankruptcy protection.

The tough-sledding paid off, as Torrens will debut his series October 9, using a mix of satire, street interviews and sketch comedy to give a big picture of the small screen as he focuses on a different genre of TV during each episode.

"Everyone worked hard to find innovative ways to interim finance the series," Arcadia president John Wesley Chisholm recalls.

Chisolm and Torrens aren't alone in seeing soft money as indispensable to financing projects these days.

In better times, Canadian indie producers often viewed government subsidies and incentives as grants or gifts as they cobbled together financing from a range of sources, domestic and international, to fund their projects.

No more.

Toronto-based filmmaker Susan Fleming said the inspiration for "A Murder of Crows," a documentary about the secret world of the common crow, came when one of the long misunderstood black birds landed in her backyard.

"In the blink of an eye, here was a black scrawny creature plucked down in front of me. It looked like a crow, it had a blood red mouth, and it stood there motionless," she recalled.

But getting the one-hour HD film made after that moment of zen required license fees from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and ARTE in France.

"This is the perfect place to be," Fleming said of financing her documentary through the CBC, Canada's public broadcaster, and with help from tax credits and other taxpayer subsidies.

"A film on the intelligence of crows is not an easy pitch to a lot of Canadian broadcasters at the moment," she adds, pointing to private broadcasters undercut by the economic downturn and plunging TV ad revenue.

Fleming is typical of indie producers here that partner on international co-productions to tap soft money in their respective territories to complete the financing puzzle for their projects.

Tanya Kelen, president of Toronto-based indie distributor Kelen Content, agrees that much rides these days on the ability of producers to access soft money as private equity goes AWOL.

"What's important for broadcasters is everyone is trying to deal with the extreme pressures of having such a loss in advertising overall. They need to come with new models," Kelen argued, and that includes official co-productions or co-ventures with American partners that can bring anywhere from 20% to 80% of project financing to the table, depending on the project and broadcasters involved.