Telefilm initiative bears fruit

TORONTO — Everyone knows Canadians are funny — especially Canadians, who keep homegrown standup, radio and TV comedy thriving. But bigscreen laughs tend to be a different story.

A few years ago, bizzers told government film funder Telefilm that Canadian comedies weren’t making the leap to Hollywood and beyond, says the Canadian Film Center’s film and TV programs director Kathryn Emslie. That led to the forming of the Telefilm Canada Features Comedy Lab, which was launched to help make comedy click at the domestic box office. It kicked off its third annual session Nov. 14 at the CFC in Toronto, a key lab partner along with Montreal-headquartered Just for Laughs.

“Filmmakers with comedy scripts weren’t looking to Telefilm, because most of that financing went to drama,” says Michael Sparaga, the Toronto-based writer/co-producer of lab project “Servitude.” “So the announcement of the lab marked a big shift in priorities.”

The lab also is a mechanism for determining if the projects are worthy of Telefilm development money. “The hope for the participants is that the relationship with Telefilm will continue,” say Emslie.

The lab, which focuses on fast-tracking script development and packaging of Canadian feature comedies for domestic and international auds, has already had a degree of success.

“Servitude,” a workplace comedy helmed by Warren P. Sonoda (“Cooper’s Camera”) that was developed in the lab’s first year, will close the Whistler Film Festival and is set for spring release by Alliance Films. “Atlantic Gold,” a romantic comedy penned by John Hazlett from the lab’s second year, has previous lab mentor Donald Petrie (“Miss Congeniality”) attached as director.

Several more alumni comedies (five are selected each year via a rigorous process) are now speeding through the pipeline, thanks to the lab’s project-specific matchmaking, which pairs teams of creatives — typically producer and writer and/or director — with industry heavyweights.

The lab began with an intense script-focused November session (this year’s mentor/guest roster features Kirsten Smith, David Frankel, Mike White and Ron Yerxa, among others) and concludes with a week of meetings in Los Angeles in the spring, with script drafts and frequent tete-a-tetes among creatives and mentors.

Sparaga’s first lab-enabled meeting was with Ivan Reitman, who urged the writer to make his script semi-autobiographical and R-rated. A year later — after several drafts and a writers-room style punch-up in L.A. — cameras were rolling.

Montreal-based “Atlantic Gold” producer Antonello Cozzolino found a champion in veteran producer and 2010-11 mentor Joe Medjuck. “It’s tough to get your script noticed by the right people,” Cozzolino says. “By the time we hit L.A. for the lab’s second session, we were meeting with major agencies and high profile-directors — the packaging started happening very fast.”

Three of this year’s participating projects are from British Columbia: “How to Change Everything Without Doing Anything” (producer Blake Corbet, writer-director Kris Lefcoe); “Zombie Love” (producer Mark Stephenson, writer Jonathan Williams); and “How to Break Up With Your Mother” (producers Elizabeth Levine and Adrian Salpeter, writer Kellie Benz). Another, “Fit to Print” (producer Michael McNamara, writer-director Daniel Perlmutter), is from Ontario; and “Birthmarked” (producers Pierre Even and Marie-Claude Poulin, writer Marc Tulin) comes from Quebec.

Let the crossover laffs begin.

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