Distribution limbo

Film production in English Canada is an oddly masochist pursuit.

Film production in English Canada is an oddly masochist pursuit. Everything you produce is treated with indifference by default: the largest source of serious production financing comes through government handouts, and Canadian distributors are essentially paid to release your films. Then there is the retail market: English-Canadian films account for less than 1% of Canada's box office. So it is the rare and truly blessed Canadian producer who lands a distribution deal in the United States, where exposure legitimizes a film in almost any other territory. Maybe even in Canada.

Chris Nanos of Toronto-based Radke Films considered himself twice-blessed. His production, Everything's Gone Green, gained a coveted launch pad at September's Toronto International Film Festival. Two months later at the American Film Market in Santa Monica, Calif., he and co-producer Elizabeth Yake of True West Films signed a distribution deal with Los Angeles?based First Independent Pictures. Their calling card: screenwriter Douglas Coupland, the author of such zeitgeist-defining titles as Generation X and Microserfs.

Everything's Gone Green is pure Coupland. Set in Vancouver, it's a gentle satire about society's pursuit of easy money, exemplified by the popularity of lotteries. Win, and everything goes green.

But something happened still rarer than the sale of a Canadian film to the U.S.: the sale of a Canadian film distributor to the U.S. ThinkFilm is a hybrid: it releases films on both sides of the border. Entrepreneur David Bergstein, who purchased Toronto- and New York?based ThinkFilm, was interested in the U.S. business. But ThinkFilm happened to hold the Canadian rights to Everything.

A Canadian feature film can tap government financing and higher tax credits only when it has a signed contract with a domestic distributor approved by Telefilm Canada, a federal agency. Moreover, with the exception of the grandfathered major studios, foreign-owned distributors may not distribute films in Canada. As ThinkFilm was no longer Canadian, Everything was in limbo. “Douglas Coupeland is known for his irony,” says Nanos. “It did not go unnoticed.”

The ThinkFilm sale was completed in October. In a letter to the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office dated Dec. 12, 2006, company president Jeff Sackman wrote: “ThinkFilm is currently negotiating with a Canadian distributor to sell our Canadian content assets….We take our responsibility to these films and the filmmakers seriously and do not wish to jeopardize their CanCon status.” Sackman declined to comment for this article except to confirm that ThinkFilm's sale affects “between 20 and 50 productions.”

For Nanos and Yake, the situation was acute. First Independent was planning the U.S. release of their film for April 13. Ideally, the Canadian release would be tied to the U.S. debut to facilitate — in three months time — a North American release of the DVD. But nearly six months after ThinkFilm's sale, Everything remained an orphan at home.

In a Hollywood-like happy ending, Montreal-based distributor Equinoxe Films stepped up on March 5. ThinkFilm agreed to return the rights to the producers, and Everything will be in cinemas in Vancouver and Toronto on April 20. Now if only the box office can go green.