Salter team reborn at Halifax Film Company

Alliance Atlantis Communications' closure of Halifax-based Salter Street Films didn't keep Michael Donovan and Charles Bishop down for long. The ex-Salter principals have joined forces again in The Halifax Film Company, which officially launched in May, and according to Donovan, the new production company is emerging in a market of unprecedented opportunity.

Alliance Atlantis Communications’ closure of Halifax-based Salter Street Films didn’t keep Michael Donovan and Charles Bishop down for long. The ex-Salter principals have joined forces again in The Halifax Film Company, which officially launched in May, and according to Donovan, the new production company is emerging in a market of unprecedented opportunity.

‘The goal of this new company is to start up where Salter left off and to recreate the momentum it had a couple of years ago,’ he says, explaining that most of the Salter crew are now at HFC. ‘Ultimately it will be bigger and better and perhaps a little bit more focused on properties we think can be truly great.’

The company already has four series in production, is in development on two features, and according to Donovan, has a slew of other projects in the works. HFC currently has six full-time staff and is looking to expand to a maximum of 12. Donovan says the company is aiming to triple its production volume within a year or two, but is dedicated to keeping the team tight, familial and anything but corporate.

In April 2001, Alliance Atlantis acquired Salter in a deal worth $84 million, then, less than three years later, turned around and closed the company as part of its move to get out of the production business.

It is for this reason that Donovan says now is the best time in more than 20 years to start up a smallish Canadian production company. According to Donovan, the disappearance of large companies from the Canadian production landscape is a benefit for smaller prodcos, which struggle to compete against the economies-of-scale companies like AAC and Fireworks, which has also scaled back its production division.

‘I feel that there’s a tremendous opportunity right now. For almost the entire time that I’ve been in film and television production in Canada, there have been three or four big companies holding the center, and right now it’s much more dispersed,’ says Donovan. ‘In the past, you had to work in the context of these large companies, competing against them in ways that were extremely disadvantageous. Now [the industry] feels much freer and much more [amicable] for a company like ours located in Halifax.’

Working closely with Donovan and Bishop is head of business affairs Floyd Kane, also an ex-Salterite, and with this team in place, Donovan says the company is gunning to win another Academy Award or two to add to the statue Salter received for coproing Bowling for Columbine.

Not only do HFC principals see the domestic market as favorable to the new company’s ambitious goals, they also point to healthy international markets on the horizon.

‘My sense is that the foreign markets have bottomed out,’ says Donovan. ‘The markets [in the U.S.] have grown unabated over the last few years and the international market, which was flat, is now starting to grow again.’ He explains that a supply and demand imbalance, which hit international markets in 2000/01 after a glut of programming overcapitalized the market in the late ’90s, seems to have leveled off.

So, with international markets set to rebound and the Canadian landscape becoming increasingly favorable for smaller independent production companies, Donovan says there couldn’t be a better time to launch HFC. The only caveat to this, he says, is a lack of support from the Canadian government.

‘It’s been very difficult in Canada for the last few years because the level of support has been held even by various forces such as broadcasters and agencies like Telefilm. Their budgets have basically been kept the same over six or seven years, while [the cost of] everything has increased,’ says Donovan, explaining that he expects no increases in government support for Canadian film and television going forward and rather suspects funds will decrease over time.

Nonetheless, HFC is going forward with some ambitious projects, including a feature film adaptation of Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, a book written by retired lieutenant general Romeo Dallaire about his experiences of the Rwandan genocide. HFC has acquired the rights to and will coproduce with Toronto-based Barna-Alper Productions. The coproduction has received a commitment from Telefilm.

In addition, HFC recently acquired the rights to Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, a book from Toronto author Dr. Margaret McMillan, about the Versailles Treaty. Donovan says HFC is looking to work with yet-to-be-announced international coproduction partners on a feature film based on the book.

Currently in production at HFC is the ex-Salter property Open Book with Mary Walsh. In addition, the company is in production on two stop-motion animated children’s series, CBC’s Poko and the new Lunar Jim, which are being coproduced with AAC.