The Canadian indie film market, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

So in the wake of Entertainment One’s acquisition of Alliance Atlantis in 2012, it is only natural that a new generation of upstart indie distributors has stepped in to fill the void.

Led by industry veterans, this new breed of distributor, including Elevation Pictures, Search Engine Pictures, D Films and Pacific Northwest Pictures, is targeting the films overlooked by industry giants like eOne, and the smaller-but-still-mighty Mongrel Media.

Their strategy? Smaller slates, high quality and a focus on ancillary market potential.

One of the highest profile launches of 2013 was Elevation Pictures’ debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. Led by co-presidents Laurie May and Noah Segal, the company was launched with an output deal with, and financial backing from, Teddy Schwarzman’s boutique house Black Bear Pictures.

Teddy is the son of Stephen A. Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of hedge-fund giant Blackstone with a net worth nearing $10 billion. The New York-based producer credits include Broken City, starring Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe, The Imitation Game, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost.

Black Bear’s ownership deal for Elevation was brokered by CAA when it saw Alliance and eOne merging, and judged the Canadian market needed new competition.

Since then, Elevation has been busily growing its film release slate and profile after the Berlin and Cannes film festivals and heading into Toronto’s 2014 edition. Recent domestic releases from Elevation include the genre film Oculus, distributed in the U.S. by Relativity Media and Locke, starring Tom Hardy, released stateside by A24.

Their strategy? Smaller slate, big swings.

“We want to ensure a manageable slate, and don’t ignore the ancillary markets,” says former Alliance Films and eOne executive Naveen Prasad, who joined Elevation Pictures as EVP and general manager to oversee distribution, sales, and operations across all media this spring.
Elevation is looking to release 15 to 25 films a year, “allowing proper and deliberate exhibition” Segal explains further. “It’s a quality, not quantity business right now.”

Also launched in 2013 was Toronto-based Search Engine Films, led by former Maple Pictures and Lionsgate exec John Bain.

Bain says he saw an opportunity when Alliance Films acquired Maple Pictures and then in turn was swallowed by eOne, leaving an opening for new competitors at the bottom end of the Canadian distribution sector.

Bain argues that while movies with wide release potential get picked up by bigger players like Entertainment One and Mongrel Media for Canada, specialized films get orphaned and Canadian filmmakers have fewer distributors to bring their films to market.

Bolstered by a May 2014 minority investment from Tim Nye’s Abbolita Films, Bain’s strategy is to target specialty film titles. His TIFF bound slate this year includes debut features from two first time directors: Wet Bum, from Canadian Lindsay MacKay, and Rosewater, from late night TV host Jon Stewart.

“We’re generally steering clear of any wide-release type films, but otherwise are looking for quality films that generally have a unique viewpoint and have publicity and marketing hooks,” Bain explains. “We’re not frightened by challenging content. Buy them at the right price and hopefully release them with more nuance than with mere muscle,” he adds.

Also attracting the attention of investors this year is Toronto-based D Films, which recently closed a financing deal with the U.S.-based East West Bank to raise its game in what it sees as a growth market.

“The recent market consolidation has created a surplus of lucrative investment opportunities,” D Films president and CEO Jim Sherry says. “D Films’ recent financing will assist the organization in accelerating its growth plan to take advantage of this surplus and grow our portfolio of content, both in volume and commercial scale,” he added.

Upcoming releases for the company include the Paul Haggis-directed Third Person (which debuted at TIFF last year) and Backcountry, a Canadian film directed by Adam MacDonald that will screen at TIFF this year.

Of the new breed of distributor, Vancouver-based Pacific Northwest Pictures could now be considered a veteran. Launched in 2010, the company has targeted the Canadian specialty film market, acquiring eight to 12 movies a year for theatrical release, including the upcoming October Gale by director Ruba Nadda.

Having spotted opportunity early in a rapidly consolidating distribution market, Pacific Northwest Pictures president Zanne Devine says her company remains focused on specialty films with high value in ancillary markets. “There’s definitely a need in the marketplace for companies that can handle specialty films in Canada,” she says.

The company this spring promoted former Alliance Films and Union Pictures exec Lindsey Hodgson, who joined the company in 2013 and is now director of distribution and acquisitions, Hodgson contributes oversight to a slate that last year included Cas & Dylan, and this year includes Cameron Labine’s Mountain Men, recently selected to open the Whistler Film Festival Borsos competition with a world premiere.

There is clearly no shortage of Canadian films in the pipeline, and as the recent surge of interest from private investors indicates, still plenty of room for growth in the Canadian indie distribution market. That is, of course, until the vacuum fills once again.