MONTREAL — Suddenly there is a lot of action on the usually quiet Canuck film-distribution scene.
For years, the film biz in the Great White North was remarkably calm, with gusts up to downright-dull. Alliance Atlantis ruled the roost, thanks to a virtual lock on all the major U.S. studio output deals for the country, and a handful of much smaller companies had to fight for the leftover crumbs. But there’s a whole lotta shaking going on in distribution north of the border and most industryites are a tad puzzled as to why things are heating up now.
Well-financed new player Entertainment One plans to go mano a mano with Motion Picture Distribution, the dominant company which used to be owned by Alliance.
Entertainment One, a Toronto-based DVD distributor, recently announced that it was buying Montreal distributor Seville Pictures in order to garner a foothold in the theatrical market in Canada. The plan is to up the Seville release slate by around 24 pics annually and the new titles will almost all be bigger-budget, higher-profile films destined for the English-Canadian marketplace. Until now, Seville was much more of a niche outfit, with a focus on Euro and Quebecois releases tailored to the French-Canadian market.
There are also big changes coming at Motion Picture Distribution. It used to be an income trust controlled by Alliance Atlantis, but it has been taken private by a joint venture pairing Toronto private equity firm EdgeStone Capital and Goldman Sachs.
That deal will have to be scrutinized by the government regulators and it could raise potential issues if the federal culture watchdogs feel Goldman Sachs has effective control of the company. Non-Canadian firms cannot own film distributors in Canada. The bosses at EdgeStone say it’s a non-issue because the Toronto firm is in the driver’s seat in the partnership.
It is also unclear what the new management structure will be at Motion Picture Distribution. Victor Loewy left the company in a huff last year when his longtime colleague Patrice Theroux was fired following a clash with management, but Loewy was reinstated at Motion Picture Distribution when his old pals at New Line insisted the company find a place for Loewy. Now the rumor is that Loewy might well take over the top job under the new ownership.
Former Motion Picture Distribution CEO Theroux, meanwhile, is head of the film division at Entertainment One, and he will be the point man for that company’s expansion into theatrical in Canada and the U.K.
Producer Robert Lantos of Serendipity Point Films is also on the verge of announcing the creation of his own distribution company, likely to be called Maximum Films. It is expected to be more of a boutique operation, handling Lantos’ own productions and a smaller slate of titles.
The small-world feel to this scene is heightened by the fact that Lantos is a former colleague of both Loewy and Theroux’s. Lantos and Loewy founded Vivafilm, which went on to become Alliance, in the early 1970s in Montreal, initially releasing soft-core porn titles and foreign pics. Lantos ran Alliance and both Loewy and Theroux were execs there.
But some veteran distribs wonder if there’s really room for any new players here.
“It’s an interesting time in Canada,” says Jeff Sackman, CEO of ThinkFilm, a Toronto-based distributor that was itself sold last year to Los Angeles-based entrepreneur David Bergstein.
“But it’s fair to say the jury is out” on the impact of the changes, Sackman says.
“There are these new projects, but at the end of the day, next year’s Canadian box office will be the same as this year, no matter how many players there will be.”
Christian Larouche, president of Montreal-based Christal Films, was equally skeptical that Entertainment One or Lantos’ company will sudden rise to the top of the Canuck distribution sweepstakes.
“What’s the difference?” Larouche asks. “You still have to pick the right film. It’s not just a matter of money.” Christal, which used to focus mostly on Quebec, is also in expansion mode and is increasingly buying higher-profile films to launch across Canada.
Theroux from Entertainment One plans to increase the flow of films into Canada both by individual acquisitions and also by hopefully snaring output deals, perhaps with newer U.S. distribs looking for Canadian partners.
“I’ve been involved in Canadian distribution for years and I think there’s money to be made,” Theroux says. “You just need to have enough money to do the right job for the movies.”
Entertainment One indeed has deep pockets, at least by Canadian standards. Marwyn Investment Management, a British hedge fund, bought the Toronto company earlier this year, took it off the Toronto stock exchange and then launched it as a public company in the U.K. Entertainment One also bought U.K. distrib Contender Entertainment Group in July.
Entertainment One plans to be active in the international sale of pics, which fills in a void in the Canadian biz ever since Alliance Atlantis exited that arena several years ago. Seville had a small international sales operation, but Canuck producers have lacked a major well-financed international distrib to turn to in recent years.
Unsurprisingly, Seville co-president David Reckziegel is pumped about all these moves. He and Seville co-founder John Hamilton have sold their stake, but both have signed long-term contracts.
“It’s been status quo in Canada for many, many years,” Reckziegel says. “Times are changing and it needed to change.”