Canadian Film Stuck At U.S. Border

American buyers love Canadian film C.R.A.Z.Y, but it's not quite "long and boring enough" to make it into their theatres.

It's Monday night at the ArcLight Cinema on Sunset Boulevard, at the American Film Institute's festival in the heart of Hollywood, and a Canadian film has worked magic on the hushed audience. The credits roll, the house lights go up and, with them, the applause. Jean-Marc Vallée, director, Pierre Even, producer, and Marc-André Grondin, star of C.R.A.Z.Y., produced by Montreal-based Cirrus Productions, are basking in the glow. Outside, in the lobby, the atmosphere is entirely different. As the ushers tell everyone to move along, Marie-Claude Poulin, the film's sales representative, tells how she has been getting the same treatment from U.S. film buyers.

“They like the film,” she says, her temperature just south of seething. “It's just not long and boring enough”–a.k.a. not “foreign” enough. Not to mention a few minor issues with the soundtrack.

Canadians are voracious consumers of American film. That's why, despite our supposed sovereignty, we're considered an important part of the U.S. “domestic” marketplace. But just try selling a Canadian movie to Americans–especially a French one.

Still, C.R.A.Z.Y. looked like it might have been different. The film has earned $5.9 million in Quebec and sold in 40 countries. However, the U.S. is the final frontier, and so far the film is stuck at the border.

Written by Vallée and François Boulay, the story is straightforward–a father and son come to an impasse over the boy's sexual orientation–but its execution is stunning. Mixing harsh reality with magic realism, Vallée constructs a vivid world, instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. But it is the film's use of music that sets C.R.A.Z.Y. apart.

In one scene, 15-year-old Zach is feeling trapped at midnight mass, when he begins to imagine that the choir is doing the trademark woo-woo from the Rolling Stones' “Sympathy for the Devil.” As Jagger and Richards kick in, Zach rises messianically toward the cathedral ceiling, and the entire congregation joins in the chorus. David Bowie's “Space Oddity” and Pink Floyd's “The Great Gig in the Sky” are used to similarly potent effect. Vallée has woven three pop anthems into his tapestry; the songs are integral to the story.

Which is part of the problem. C.R.A.Z.Y. has one of the most expensive soundtracks in Canadian film history; nearly $600,000, or almost 10% of the entire budget. Producer Pierre Even was well aware of the difficulty of landing a U.S. sale when he and Vallée started planning the production. For that reason, they decided to license the songs everywhere but the U.S. The savings were dramatic–but a potential U.S. distributor will now have to spend at least US$250,000 completing the license fees.

C.R.A.Z.Y. shared the AFI Fest's Audience Award for Best Feature Film with a South African film, Tsotsi; both are their respective countries' submissions for the foreign-language category at the Academy Awards next February. But even that won't make a jot of difference to getting a deal.

“It's criminal, I know,” says a U.S. distribution executive in the lobby, who asked not to be named. “The film is too mainstream to work as a foreign-language film [in the U.S.].” But, he adds, his face brightening, “It's totally remake-able.”

“We'll see what happens,” says Poulin. “We'll likely wait until Jan. 31 [when the Oscar nominations are announced]. If we get a nomination, we'll get a good deal for sure. And if not, we'll still have a deal.” Just one they might not be too crazy about.