Toronto 2011: European and Canadian Producers Chase Co-Pro Coin

Courtesy of TIFF

Speed-dating among filmmakers at TIFF aims to hot-house Canada-Europe movies as pools of government money on either side of the Atlantic shrink.

TORONTO – Alison Reid’s dance card at the Toronto International Film Festival includes an impossible ticket for the Producers Lab Toronto (PLT).

We’re not talking a studio party with stars, sex and bubbly.

Producers Lab Toronto is more high-powered mixer as TIFF brings 12 European film producers together with another dozen Canadian producers for a four-day meet and greet at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The goal is hatching European-Canadian film co-productions in Toronto as the subsidy pot for filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic continues to shrink.

“It’s an incredible opportunity. We’re so lucky that Toronto is one of the top film festivals for doing business and seeing films and it’s in my backyard,” Toronto-based film writer/director Reid said.

She’s eyeing a European producing partner for Sensation, a feature thriller by screenwriter Richard Beattie about a deaf boy and an undercover cop caught up in the aftermath of a brutal gangland hit.

If all goes to plan, the lab organizers – TIFF, European Film Promotion and the Ontario Media Development Corp. -- will receive a big thank you from Reid after Sensation receives its world premiere at a future TIFF.

“That would be extremely gratifying. That’s definitely what I have my sights on,” Reid said.

She’s not alone.

Irish producer Tristan Orpen Lynch of Dublin-based indie Subotica is bringing a screen adaptation of Canadian novelist Carole Shields’ 2002 novel Unless to Toronto to forge a cross-Atlantic effort.

“If there’s a rule book for doing co-productions, this is a classic one to tick boxes off: The subject matter is Canadian, and it makes sense to cast and shoot the picture in Canada,” he said.

But film being about creative ideas and ego, the task of the Producers Lab organizers is to create matches between film producers with projects already in the pipeline, and with an eye to making multinational features.

“It’s a networking event, because we are working in a people’s business. It’s not just a co-production market. It’s an event where people meet and hopefully work together in the future,” said Renate Rose, European Film Promotion managing director said.

The lab organizers have used their match-making skills to effectively pair up European and Canadian film producers based on their track record, their current film slate and where they’d like to draw additional film financing.

“It’s like an arranged marriage. It’s not only the project that has to appeal to a co-producer, but also the personalities,” explained Jean du Toit, a producer at Buffalo Gal Pictures who is bringing Kush Kush In The Bush, a Bollywood-themed romantic comedy by screenwriter Meredith Vuchnich, to Producers Lab Toronto for possible co-production.

Du Toit is also bringing her most recent film, Guy Maddin’s Keyhole, to TIFF for a world premiere.

The drama, billed as a gangsters-meet-ghosts, stars Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier, Louis Negin and Brooke Palsson.

Felize Frappier, a producer at Montreal-based Max Films, will be at the TIFF lab after participating in earlier co-production forums in Halifax, Rotterdam and Cannes.

She underlines the need to spot possible chemistry between producers to better predict success for a co-production.

“Production in general is so time-consuming, so it’s important to get to know possible co-producers, and the lab gives you the opportunity that you might not otherwise have elsewhere,” Frappier explained.

As with any first date, you often have to rely on intuition and Google’s search engine to judge whether a co-production could be in the making at Producers Lab Toronto.

"It’s part gut, it’s part research. You’re speaking to yes to individuals, but you’re speaking to potential partners, you’re looking at their body of work, how they go about making films, how they release those films, and seeing if there’s a match,” Sean Buckley, a producer with Toronto-based Buck Productions, said.

To allow Producers Lab Toronto participants to judge possible compatibility and commitment, the four-day event is filled with round-table meetings, pitching sessions, breakfasts, cocktails and dinners, and panels on Canadian and European film financing.

Besides the need to get-along, the Canadian and European fllm producers are also looking for production coin in Toronto.

Anne Walser of Zurich-based C-Films is typical of film producers at Producers Lab Toronto that need to look beyond their home market to fill out their film financing.

“Most of the projects I’m developing are meant for co-productions, as they are just a tiny bit too big and ambitious to fully finance out of Switzerland and its small funding capacity,” she said.

Hammering out a Canadian-European co-production can also get a low-budget indie feature a bigger budget to take on a Hollywood pics on theatrical release.

A case in point: Leah Jaunzems, a producer and vp of development at Toronto-based Darius Films, is packaging Charlatan, a $20 million film based on a real-life 1920’s quack doctor, John Brinkley, who ended up killing more people than he cured.

“There’s a natural fit as a co-production: it’s a period piece, takes place in the U.S., and when we think about projects this big, we want widespread appeal,” Jaunzems insisted.

Darius Films has already exploited a bi-coastal presence with a Los Angeles office and has movie credits like the Woody Harrelson-starrer Defendor in 2009.

Jaunzems said it’s time for the indie producer to look across the Atlantic for co-production coin.

“As we continue to make more films and films that keep growing in our budget level, this (international co-productions) is a necessary step to keep making pictures in the $20 million range,” she argued.

Another necessary step for Producers Lab Toronto participants is being educated to the respective film financing climates in Canada and Europe.

“This is important for the Europeans,” says EFP’s Renate Rose.

“In Europe, they’re used to co-productions. And Canada has so many co-production treaties with European countries, but they are not all used. It really makes sense to bring these people together,” she added.

What’s more, Canadian producers have long done co-productions with producers in countries like the UK, France and Germany.

The Toronto Producers Lab organizers wants to extend that Canadian reach by inviting a number of European producers from smaller markets, like Greece, Lithuania, Estonia and Romania.

Michael Dobbin of Quiet Revolution Pictures, who will take part in the TIFF lab, recently produced The Maiden Danced to Death, by Hungarian director Endre Hules (Angels and Demons, Apollo 13) and which was structured as a Canada-Hungary-Slovenia co-production.

The Maiden Danced To Death was also lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and stars Deborah Kara Unger, Gil Bellows and Zsolt Laszlo.

Dobbin also earned his co-production chops on Eddie, directed by Boris Rodriguez, starring Thure Lindhardt and Stephen McHattie and produced as a Canada-Denmark co-production.

“I don’t think it’s by design that I produce with smaller European countries, but I’ve found the producers I worked with were eager to co-produce with Canada and the projects naturally fit the co-production,” Dobbin explained.

He added smaller European markets have less soft money to offer, but fewer producers competing for that coin.

“It’s more effective to get the film funds and infrastructure excited about the project because it will have more impact in those markets,” Dobbin said.

If anything, many of Canada’s existing film co-production treaties with smaller European countries, which enable partnering producers to bring respective soft money to the table, are under-used.

Karla Stojakova, a co-founder of Prague-based Axman Production, said not many fellow Czech producers know of or use the bilateral co-production treaty between Canada and the Czech Republic.

So Stojakova is bringing to TIFF for a possible Canadian-Czech co-production, Café’ Louvre, a dramatic feature about an American coming to Prague to fall in love with a woman from his past life.

The picture was written by screenwriters from the Czech Republic, Spain and Iceland, and is to be directed by Spain’s Arkaitz Basterra Zalbide.

“We plan to have international cast in this project, so I really am looking for Canadian partner,” Stojakova said, adding a 20% tax break is available from the Czech Film Industry Support Programme.

EFP’s Rose adds Canadians need to get up to speed with the European co-production scene because there are so many countries.

Anne Walser of C-Films said she intended to take part in as many pitch sessions, workshops and case studies as possible.

“As a producer, one should always listen what other producers are up to so you can remain informed about what the market is up too and how other professionals handle the current funding situations worldwide,” she insisted.

And TIFF being a gateway into the U.S. market for European producers, both in terms of film sales and financing, also tempts Walser.

Other film producers, however, are Toronto-bound precisely because they are largely bypassing the U.S. market to partner up with other foreign producers.

“The amount of American investment that goes into films here is pretty minimal,” says Ireland’s Tristen Orpen Lynch.

“Being realistic, it would be lovely to think you’d be able to get American financing. But I’m noticing on my trips to Los Angeles that Americans are looking to Europe to finance their films,” he added.

Quiet Revolutions’ Dobbin adds his Canadian filmmaking colleagues need to get over their “myopia” about producing with the U.S. market.

“It’s a great and big market, but it’s only one market, and Canadian producers tend to fix on the U.S. and don’t do co-productions,” he argued.