The Evolving Landscape of Canadian Distribution

by Carrie Gadsby on October 25, 2010

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As a filmmaker or screenwriter, there was a time when a distributor was a good bet for getting your movie made. With the right relationship, a distributor would be able to take your script to various film markets – AFM, Cannes and Mifed – and do international presales based on the strength of your screenplay and its genre. Distributors rode the wave of trending genres, which would often fluctuate year to year, but could bring in predictable sales.

International presales to the major territories, would provide the shooting budget so the film could be made. Various countries had certain preferences for casting and packaging, and they would all weigh in on how the film would be cast and put together. Once the film was complete, all the additional international territories would be sold for pure profit – or gravy – if you prefer. The percentage split between the writer and the distributor would vary depending on their working relationship, and their associated track records.

Canadian distribution is still a delicate dance involving many variables that must be carefully navigated.

So in today’s market, how can a Canadian writer get their script looked at, and hopefully even made? Paul Gardner, President of Distribution at Peace Arch Entertainment was able to provide some insight and answers.

Do international presales still exist?

Not in the same way. Many of the international territories now want to put their funding into making indigenous product, with their own actors and in their own stories.

Peach Arch Entertainment

How has overall distribution changed in the last decade?

In addition to territories being increasingly less interested in North American films and more interested in making their own product, the DVD market has seriously eroded. New platforms like Netflix Subscriber Video On Demand, Cable Video on Demand and iTunes, are becoming more viable and forcing distributors to re-think how films should be made available to the consumer in an economically sound manner.

Are markets and festivals like Cannes and Sundance still relevant?

Very much so. Sundance takes place in January, and is the first major festival of the year. It is an ideal place to screen completed films for acquisition and distribution, as is the Berlin festival and market which takes place in February. The Cannes film festival in May, and the Toronto Film Festival in September are also very important places to do business. Completed films that are totally available are becoming increasingly rare, and often are looking only for distribution in Canada or the US.

So can a Canadian writer with a good script take it to a distributor for help in getting it made?

Yes, but you have to do your homework. The more you can bring to the table, the better. Having a realistic budget, some funding in place, perhaps through Telefilm, and any attachments in the way of a director, producer and even recognizable actors, is going to make your project more attractive, and hopefully stand out. And of course, the script has to be good!

So where does Telefilm fit into it all?

Telefilm can be a good place to start. If they like your project, they may provide some development funding, and perhaps even some production financing if you have a distributor attached. It is unlikely they will provide financing for production if you do not have a Canadian distributor, and that is where it helps to have your ducks in a row. Put as many elements together as you can before you take your project anywhere.

Can you make any suggestions with regard to Canadian distributors?

Right now, the biggest in Canada are Alliance, E1, Maple (the distribution arm for Lionsgate) and Mongrel.

Any other thoughts or comments?

Pay attention to detail, and get as much in place as you possibly can. It is very likely that you are shopping your project unsolicited, which means you are asking someone to take two hours out of their day to read your script and contemplate your project. Give them as many reasons as possible to pursue it further. If the answer you get is a “no”, at least you know and can move on.

Paul Gardner, as well as other industry professionals, often stress the importance of knowing who you are pitching your project to, and what their preferred genre is. Certain production/distribution companies lean toward specific kinds of projects, and it is key that you take this into consideration before you knock on their door.

Telefilm is now trending toward larger, more commercial projects that will have farther reach, and also have their new Canada Features Comedy Lab which is a unique and distinct program that seeks to advance the comedy genre in Canada and generate comedies that achieve commercial and critical success.

The unique “gems” are becoming increasingly rare, but it all starts with a great concept and identifiable characters. Know your target audience, and elicit the help of a professional to help you refine your script – it can help pave the way to a green light. If you are planning to take your script to a distributor for help, do your research before you get there. Find out what kinds of projects they champion, what genre, what budget level, and what kind of attachments are going be the most helpful to differentiate your project from the others.

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