TIFF: Why Canadian Co-Productions Thrive in Ontario

Entertainment One
Ethan Hawke in 'Born to Be Blue'

The province has become a hotbed of star-driven indie fare as local filmmakers share the risk and rewards with international partners on quirky projects with global appeal.

Call it Ontario’s golden age: Despite a challenging climate for indie film financing, the Toronto Film Festival will be flush this year with co-productions like Atom Egoyan’s Remember and the Ethan Hawke-starrer Born to Be Blue, two Canadian titles shot with foreign financing and local creative partners. 

For Ontario filmmakers needing new outside investors, international partnerships can bring in loads of cash.

“It’s something we’ve been focused on and invested in with time and money for many years,” says Karen Thorne-Stone, CEO of the Ontario Media Development Corp. (OMDC), which is tasked with promoting Ontario to filmmakers, “and we’re pleased that we’re really starting to see the results with the export and the market potential for our projects outside Canada and the U.S.”

The Hollywood Reporter asked Ontario producers and their foreign co-production partners to discuss how some of the province’s most prominent co-prods of the past year came together.

The Breadwinner, a Canada-Ireland co-production, landed Angelina Jolie as its executive producer. That’s impressive, considering the movie, about a young girl living under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, marks Canadian indie Aircraft Pictures’ first foray into feature film animation. With the OMDC playing a pivotal role in the project’s development, Aircraft recruited Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon to animate the pic.

Andrew Rosen, Canadian producer on The Breadwinner: “I had read the book, and it stuck with me. And the OMDC Page to Screen initiative, where they match up producers and book properties, had the publisher bringing out The Breadwinner. So we decided to option and finance the film adaptation. For the OMDC, they’re always trying to get different industries together, including publishing and the film industry. They’ve been crucial in our success. They made the introduction and helped finance the optioning of the book. Indirectly, we’ve taken advantage of the OMDC’s Export Fund to help subsidize travel to markets, where we met with Cartoon Saloon. And they came in with financing as part of the co-production.”

A linkup among Canada, Germany and Australia, Anton Corbijn’s Life, about the friendship between photographer Dennis Stock (played by Robert Pattinson) and James Dean (Dane DeHaan), lured local financiers with its strong cast and benefited from generous tax credits.

Christina Piovesan, Canadian co-producer on Life: “When [producer] Emile Sherman came to me and we talked about it, it was quite fluid. It became clear that a Canadian co-production would make sense. From a financing point of view, it felt like there would be an interest here from the financiers. It carried a pedigree, and the subject matter would be interesting for a Canadian distributor and Telefilm Canada. It’s set in New York City and Illinois, and from a creative point of view, I felt I had a team here that made sense, and we had wanted to work together. And the Canadian tax credits and subsidies of Canada, Australia and Germany formed a big part of the budget.” 

Egoyan’s TIFF entry Remember has Oscar winner Christopher Plummer playing a Holocaust survivor hunting a former Nazi guard living in America who murdered his family 70 years earlier. A partnership between Canada and Germany made it easier to cast elderly actors with credible German accents.

Mark Musselman, Serendipity Point Films, Canadian co-producer on Remember: “Remember lent itself well to being structured as a treaty co-production with Germany. The principal roles are played by seniors, and accessing Canadian nationals with German ancestry and German accents would have been impossible, or unlikely. You didn’t want any of those [fake accent] distractions. We saw it as very important to tell this story in a very credible way, with credible actors.”

Co-productions ideally have stories that appeal to international audiences. Born to Be Blue, a Canada-U.K. co-production from writer-director Robert Budreau, is a Chet Baker biopic starring Hawke and Carmen Ejogo that explores the 1950s rise of the American jazz legend and his 1970s comeback.

Leonard Farlinger, Canadian co-producer on Born to Be Blue: “It’s a pretty good co-production in the sense it’s a fairly international topic, with an American lead, a British lead, a Canadian writer-director. And because it’s an international film, it’s good to have a stake in all those different places so that it’s easily perceived as an international film. It’s not to say we’re not proudly Canadian, but in this case it was always conceived as an international film.”

Jake Seal, U.K. co-producer on Born to Be Blue: “What the co-production shows is there’s a reason to be bigger sometimes. They don’t have to be overwhelming or complicated, and it gives you a chance to get the best of both worlds in terms of talent and resources.”

Looks can deceive when it comes to Coconut Hero, an English-language feature from German writer-director Florian Cossen, originally set in Germany’s Black Forest. That’s until the wilderness isolation the script demanded couldn’t be found in Germany but was available in northern Ontario. But turning a movie developed in Germany into a Canadian co-production required some creative financial engineering.

Paul Scherzer, Canadian co-producer on Coconut Hero: “They tried to make it a domestic project, setting it in the Black Forest, but no one bought into that. No co-production is easy to finance. We started out as a minority Canadian co-production. We were 40 percent, [with] Germany being 60 percent. But the whole movie being shot in Canada posed a problem when doing a co-production. The majority country is often the lead country. And Germany started [Coconut Hero] — that’s where the director is from. But now, if you’re shooting in another country, your financing and spend are probably not going to match. So we were able to have international sales money move over to the Canadian side. We became the majority co-producing country. The German funders and German co-production body were fine with it. And it worked.

The Irish producers of the TIFF entry Room, starring Brie Larson and 8-year-old Jacob Tremblay, initially toyed with shooting the drama in the U.S., where Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel is set. Then Canadian co-producer David Gross convinced them shooting in Toronto via a Canada-Ireland co-production model would bring a far bigger budget and a longer shooting schedule.

Ed Guiney, Irish co-producer on Room: “We ran different scenarios. We have an Irish director and a Canadian screenwriter, and that lent itself to a Canada-Ireland co-production. We shot in and around Toronto, and the film is set in the suburban U.S. It was easy to find good locations around Toronto and it’s a good place to work, and we really benefited from the subsidy system in Canada and in Ireland. It allowed us to make Room in a certain way and with a certain scale and a certain ambition that we may not have been able to achieve otherwise.”

David Gross, Canadian co-producer on Room: “I would say the budget, under this [Canada-Ireland co-production] structure, is at least 30 to 40 percent higher than we could have done under any other financing structure. That gave them many more days. A child actor can work only nine-hour days, so we were able to shoot a very long schedule of nine-hour days, and we could do that because of how we financed the film.”