Canadian films booming in Toronto

Eclectic slate offers hope to sluggish industry

TORONTO — If this year’s crop of Canuck features world preeming at TIFF is any indication, domestic auds will soon enjoy one of the most eclectic arrays of homegrown pics to come along in recent years — that is, if they know about them and hustle to the local multiplex.

Canuck pics claimed only 3.2% of the domestic box office last year (down from 4.2% the previous year), mostly from French-language titles. Although that’s status quo — the percentage rising or falling within a point from year to year — hope springs eternal that ’08 will see double digits with the strong domestic box office performances of French-language comedy “Cruising Bar 2,” hot doc “Up the Yangtze” and India-set charmer “Amal” (now in theaters), the latter two buoyed by foreign festival buzz.

And then there’s Toronto opener “Passchendaele,” starring its director-writer Paul Gross (TV’s “Due South”), set to open on 200 screens in Canada Oct. 17. The crowd-pleasing C$20 million ($18.9 million) WWI romantic epic — fully funded within Canada — has a marketing budget that allowed distrib Alliance to get a teaser campaign rolling last Christmas and TV spots placed during Olympics broadcasts.

Screening in Toronto’s Special Presentations, “Heaven on Earth,” a film of more modest means but with name recognition — Oscar-nommed helmer Deepa Mehta (“Water”) and Bollywood star Preity Zinta — opens in Canuck theaters Oct. 24. “It’s a step forward for Deepa creatively, and very topical given its context of immigration,” says Hussain Amarshi, president of Mongrel Media, the domestic drama’s Canuck distrib.

But Amarshi and others agree that limited marketing budgets and a marketplace crowded with Hollywood product make attracting domestic auds a perpetual challenge, particularly for English-language films that face more outside competition than do French.

That’s why some producers prefer their Canuck distribs wait until a U.S. deal is in place to release a pic.

J. Miles Dale, exec producer of “Pontypool” (screening in the Vanguard section), whose start-up Crescent Road Films allowed outlaw helmer Bruce McDonald to eschew the usual public funding process, favors simultaneous North American release, preferably on Valentine’s Day (when the pic is set). Of course that’s for Maple Pictures to work out with the eventual U.S. distrib. Dale is confident from advance discussions that the literary zombie thriller will nab U.S. distribution within a few days of its preem. “We’re not going to open on 3,000 screens,” he laughs. “The film needs a distributor that gets its smart script and edgy ideas.”

With Canuck distrib TVA in place before one frame was shot, Canada First! opener “Edison & Leo,” a $9.4 million stop-motion animated feature (the first ever in Canada), is looking for U.S. and foreign rights buyers. “Our goal is to find partners that follow our belief there’s a growing audience for mature-themed animation,” says producer Dean English, encouraged by positive prefest buzz.

“In the past few years, there’s been more emphasis on commercial viability and reaching audiences in the Canadian film scene, which is very healthy,” says Nicholas Tabarrock, now L.A. based, who exec produced “Down in the Dirt” (Canada First!, Mongrel distribution) and produced the Jason Jones-Samantha Bee holiday laff-fest “Coopers’ Camera,” which his new Boutique Films has in Canada. “If it’s a good film, it should be so on its own merits, no matter where it’s made.”

Still, being very Canadian could be the key to popular success both at home and abroad. Ontario helmer Michael McGowan (“Saint Ralph”) nabbed a Gala slot for road-tripper “One Week,” starring Joshua Jackson (“Dawson’s Creek). Amarshi, whose Mongrel will release the pic in March ’09, calls it “a love letter to Canada and the Canadian spirit.”

“Of all the Canadian films I’m aware of, this one has a real possibility to connect universally,” he says. “Canada may not be exotic to us, but it is for many people all over the world. And I think it will be a revelation to our audiences as well.”

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