U.S. distributors wary of trend as Toronto nears

TORONTO — When it comes to landing pic rights, Canada’s distribs are seceding … and succeeding in charting their own course.

Increasingly, Canuck rights to key indie titles are being snapped up before U.S. buyers have a chance to put in their usual all-encompassing North American offers. So U.S. distribs heading to the Toronto film fest will be keeping a closer eye on Canadian distribs this season.

To be sure, most of the pics being snapped up early by local distribs have a Canuck hook: Toronto screener “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” is a Canadian co-production. “Chloe” is helmed by native son Atom Egoyan. And Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Micmacs” is a French-language film. All were taken by Canadian distribs before Yanks could speak up for all rights.

But such Toronto Gala pics as “Agora” and “Chloe” have no U.S. distribution yet, and several other hot prospects at the fest landed Canadian distribution deals well before their U.S. pacts were made.

“Canadian distributors have been pushing hard for some time to have Canada regarded as a separate territory, and we’re winning more of those battles,” says E1 Entertainment co-president David Reckziegel, whose Les Films Seville was one of several Canadian and international companies acquired in E1′s early days.

The scenario isn’t exactly new. Foreign pics, in particular, have long found it desirable to have a Canuck distrib attached pre-fest to fly their banner and, it’s hoped, send a message to U.S. buyers.

What’s changed is that multifaceted industry powerhouses E1 and Alliance Films, both international companies with European theatrical territories, as well as such midsize players as Maple Pictures, are increasingly jumping in at the script stage — and not just for Canadian fare.

“We’re extremely active and acquisitive, and many of our titles were pre-buys — of course not knowing they would get into the festival,” says E1′s Reckziegel.

“Mr. Nobody,” “Harry Brown” and “Triage” are just a few examples of E1′s early pickups.

For its part, Alliance has cemented the coordination of its acquisitions strategy with its U.K. and Spanish partners, putting the company in strong position to greenlight such pics as Colin Firth starrer “Dorian Gray,” which is in Toronto’s Gala selection but still without a U.S. distrib.

A major theme underlying the shift is that indie producers are finding it increasingly difficult to put financing together.

“In the past, the more buoyant market was rife with private money. But a lot of that funding has dried up,” says Alliance VP Mark Sloan. “So producers are back to the old-school game of giving up territories, and you gotta be able to split off Canada. And I think all those (U.S.) guys understand if a producer can finance a film by selling off Canada then the cost to a U.S. distributor is cheaper.”

While Alliance, in particular, but also E1, Maple and Mongrel still have output deals with U.S. companies, the shrinking market on both sides of the border has created opportunities for boutique Canuck distribs like D Films, which hung its shingle last week with plans to not only acquire titles at the fest but also get busy in Canadian feature film development.

“If I were an American distributor sure I would want North American rights, I’d be a bully in insisting, and so far they’ve gotten away with it,” says D Films acquisitions director Tony Cianciotta. “(But) when something is forbidden you’ve gotta think of other ways to make things happen and get creative rather than sit and be served, and in Canada we’re becoming more aggressive because it’s worth it.”

And possible complications related to split rights — unsynchronized release windows and piracy, for example — don’t seem to be causing much concern south of the border. Most Canuck distribs release either day and date with the U.S. or after, taking advantage of the U.S. media coverage, and contracts always spell out the rules.

“We’ve always taken Canada as a specific market and work our films within that context,” says Mongrel president Hussain Amarshi, whose Canuck pre-buys of pics that will play at this year’s fest included Patricia Clarkson starrer “Cairo Time,” set for release in Canada on Oct. 9.

“Canada has a specific cultural makeup and although the media penetration from the U.S. certainly helps us tremendously, it’s not always essential,” he says. “Patricia Clarkson gives ‘Cairo Time’ a U.S. cachet, and I don’t think our strategy should affect U.S. interest.”

Alliance, on the other hand, is not making any plans yet for “The Trotsky,” Jacob Tierney’s Montreal-set comedy featuring a Jay Baruchel.

“We know that even without the U.S. media behemoth we will get eyeballs in front of the film and that, by the end, we’ll have a U.S. distributor,” says Alliance’s Sloan.

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