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
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.