Features Grind On, Hurdling Obstacles

Producing feature films in Canada has never been an easy business. English- Canadian pics rarely have attracted large audiences in their home territory. Traditionally, they have been a tough sell internationally. French-lingo films from Quebec have usually done better at the box office, but even French-Canadian feature producers have fallen on tough times in recent years, with Quebec audiences following the worldwide trend toward greater consumption of Hollywood blockbusters.

Federal and provincial government belt-tightening measures have made the situation even tougher. The Canadian film industry has always been a heavily subsidized sector, but federal funder Telefilm Canada, one of the main motors of Canuck production, and the various provincial funding agencies all have had their budgets slashed in the past couple of years. There is less public money available, and that trend is expected to continue.

The feature industry somehow has managed to survive and, sometimes, thrive in spite of lackluster audience support and the lack of public coin. There are three different feature sectors in Canada, all boasting some recent success stories. First, there are the big-budget – at least by Canadian standards – pics, such as Allegro Films’ C$13 million ($9.6 million) sci-fi actioner “Screamers” and Alliance’s “Johnny Mnemonic.” Few producers in Canada, however, are making films at this level.

Then there are the arty, auteur-style pics, which are Canada’s best-known film exports. Again, Quebec’s French-speaking helmers have generated better B.O. results in this area, with films such as Denys Arcand’s “The Decline of the American Empire” and Jean-Claude Lauzon’s “Leolo.” But helmers such as Atom Egoyan and Patricia Rozema are proving that English Canada can also produce art films with B.O. potential.

Canada is most commonly associated with this upscale auteur fare, but the country probably produces more genre pics than anything else. Companies such as Norstar Entertainment and Cinepix Film Properties are increasingly active in this field, and Canuck outfits are often able to generate decent profits via non-theatrical markets around the globe.

Telefilm Canada executive director Francois Macerola feels Canada’s industry has perhaps put too much emphasis on theatrical B.O. performance.

“English-Canadian films do capture audiences, but it’s not through theatrical distribution,” Macerola says. “It’s through television.”

Macerola thinks Canada’s biggest problem is the relatively small number of features it produces annually.

“I’ve always said the problem is not one of quality, it’s a question of rhythm,” Macerola says. “The only way to create a star system is by having a certain number of films on the screen. I believe we should be imaginative enough to find new ways of financing these films in order to be able to increase the critical mass of films available.”

One company attempting to help increase that critical mass is Alliance Pictures, the newly renamed division of Alliance Communications. The indie producer has had a couple of B.O. disappointments this year with “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Never Talk to Strangers.” Nonetheless, Alliance Pictures prexy Andras Hamori is confident the company will fare better with high-quality pics, such as David Cronenberg’s “Crash,” lensing in Toronto.

“What we want to do is go in the direction of director-driven projects – projects that don’t try to copy the studio movies,” Hamori says.

Upcoming Alliance projects include helmer Costa-Gavras’ “No Other Life,” and new films from helmer Hal Salwen.

Montreal’s Allegro Films began making more high-profile pics with “Screamers,” which is set to unspool on 1,200 screens across North America in January. Allegro also has just inked another deal with Columbia Tri- Star, to make the $16 million thriller “Jackals.” Allegro used to concentrate on low-budget pics.

“Our move into the ‘ Screamers’-‘ Jackals’ type movie is driven by an analysis of the market-place,” Allegro prexy Tom Berry says. “The video ‘ B’ titles are still in retreat. Our strategy is to look for other niches and to move up-market in the film world.”

Montreal-based Cinepix Film Properties has upped its production slate significantly in the past couple of years, and it shot 10 features this year.

The Feature Film Project in Toronto is a government and industry-supported nonprofit initiative to help first-time helmers. The new outfit has already produced a couple of critically acclaimed titles, notably Clement Virgo’s Cannes entry “Rude” and the innovative black comedy “House.” Its latest project, currently shooting in Toronto, is “Mister Happy.”

“I think we (in Canada) are being recognized internationally for making pretty good films,” Feature Film Project executive director Colin Brunton says. “But things are going to get tougher because of all the funding cuts.”

Norstar Entertainment has recently moved into the family-film area with “Salt Water Moose,” but the company has no plans to stray too far from its action-thriller roots.

Producers Network Associates of Toronto uses international presales and aggressive marketing to help finance its low-budget sci-fi films without the aid of public money. Its pic “Replikator” garnered interest on the fest circuit. Currently, the Network is shooting “Carver’s Gate” in Toronto.

“We’re proud of the fact that we’re coming up with this production base and doing it without public funding, ” says Philip Jackson of the Producers Network Associates. “We saw the decline of public funding and planned accordingly.”

Montreal-based Filmline Intl.’s production slate this year included thrillers “The Algonquin Goodbye,” with Dolph Lundgren, and “Hollow Point,” with Donald Sutherland.

“There is definitely a niche for these types of productions if you develop the right casting and strong stories,” Filmline head honcho Nicolas Clermont says. “It’s no longer the end of the world if a movie is not theatrical.”

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