MONTREAL — The announcement that Montreal-based distributor Christal Films Distribution is under bankruptcy protection sent shockwaves through the Canadian film industry.

Christal topper Christian Larouche has been one of the dominant players in Canadian film distribution for the past 15 years, and Christal has handled many of the top Quebec and European titles in Canada in recent years.

Everyone in the film milieu knew that Christal had been facing financial difficulties in recent months and had been having trouble paying off some of its bills. But the news that the distributor obtained bankruptcy protection from Superior Court in Quebec took industryites completely by surprise. This, after all, was the company that had last year’s top-grossing Canadian film, the Patrick Huard-directed comedy “3 Little Pigs.” In recent years, it distributed “March of the Penguins,” “L’Auberge Espagnol” and the hit French-Canadian hockey comedy trilogy “Les Boys.”

“It’s tragic,” says Canadian producer Kevin Tierney (“Bon Cop Bad Cop”). “It’s a terrible blow to the Canadian industry. It raises significant questions about the viability of distribution in this country. Last year, we were talking about all these new Canadian distributors. So what happened?”

It’s unclear what led to this financial crisis at Christal. A major contributing factor, however, was Christal’s split with Maple Pictures of Toronto. Until the spring of 2007, Christal had been handling all of Maple’s pics in the Quebec market. That was a significant source of revenue for Christal, because Maple has Canadian rights to all Lionsgate releases.

But last year, Maple began using Christal’s rival Seville Pictures to release Maple pics in Quebec. Execs from Christal and Maple were not available for comment on why the deal fell apart. It was a strange development because Maple remains a stakeholder in Christal, which is a private company.

The problems at Christal have created uncertainty for a number of high-profile Canadian films coming down the Christal pipeline. Federal funder Telefilm Canada recently awarded funding to three major Christal projects, Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies,” Frederick d’Amours’ “Noemie” and Sylvain Guy’s “Leo Huff.” In addition, there are several Canadian films set for release later this year, and it’s not certain if Christal will be there to release them. These pics include Louis Belanger’s much-anticipated adaptation of Trevor Ferguson novel “The Timekeeper,” Patrick Huard starrer “Cadavres” and Philippe Falardeau’s “C’est pas moi je le jure.”

Christal has already lost a few films as a result of its problems. Rival distrib Equinoxe picked up “My Blueberry Nights” and Gallic pic “Paris”; Maple took the controversial Canadian romantic comedy “Young People Fucking,” and veteran distrib (and old Larouche pal) Andre Link has taken rights to the smash French hit “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis.”

Christal owes money to, among others, Technicolor, the National Bank and Quebec investment agency Fidec.