Best of the year: Item 7

Playback's film producer of the year is behind Kim Nguyen's Rebelle (War Witch) and the upcoming post-apocalyptic thriller The Colony.

As Playback counts down to the end of the year, we’re rolling out our “Best of” stories from our Winter 2012 issue. Here, Marie-Claude Poulin and Pierre Even, the co-founders of Montreal-based Item 7 productions and the producers behind Kim Nguyen’s War Witch, talk strategy and selling.

Film Producer of the Year: Item 7

It’s been a busy couple of years for Item 7 cofounders Pierre Even and Marie-Claude Poulin.

The Montreal-based prodco only opened its doors in 2009, but Even and Poulin are long-time collaborators and colleagues, having known each other since the 1990s when they first worked together at Malofilm.

Item 7 has already put its name and money behind five high-profile theatrical features, and has a full slate, including the upcoming post-apocalyptic thriller The Colony, directed by Jeff Renfroe and starring Canuck Kevin Zegers, with Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton.

Even and Poulin have also formed a solid relationship with director Jean-Marc Vallée under the Item 7 banner of late.

Despite the producing duo’s crowded resumes, which include Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y., Canada’s 2005 Oscar entry (on which they worked separately, pre-Item 7) and last year’s Café de Flore, produced by Item 7, Even and Poulin have tested their perseverance over the past three years, particularly with director Kim Nguyen’s tale about child soldiers, Rebelle.

Says Poulin, “Based on the script – when we were pitching the film before it was made – we couldn’t give it away for foreign sales. But once we showed the almost finished film, we had a bidding war.” Even adds that bidders were attracted by first-time actor Rachel Mwanza’s strong performance, the power of the story, and Nguyen’s directorial craftsmanship.

But the stress of selling it was nothing compared to filming it in the impoverished and strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“It was very challenging because you can’t rely on any legal system. [Agreements are] all built on the relationships, and we were very fortunate because we had a production location manager who had worked on two films before in Kinshasa,” says Even of the experience in 2011, adding that the crew had to pay all equipment costs in the country up front, and couldn’t secure guarantees they’d get what they paid for.

Associate producer Anne-Marie Gélinas spent four months in the Congo line producing the film and even at one point found herself dealing with the business end of the Congolese military, after a communication breakdown brought a battle-hardened army tank unit to the door of the compound where they were shooting on the first day the crew used gunshots.

In the end, Poulin, who spent five weeks in the Congo, had to appear on national TV to alert the public that their gunfire, which is all too often real in the country, was just for the film.

Despite these hurdles, Rebelle had its day at the Berlin International Film Festival in January.

“We changed the entire post-production schedule of the film to be able to finish in time for Berlin. We were supposed to finish late March, and we had the entire team working through Christmas and New Year’s Eve hoping that we’d be chosen for Berlin,” says Even.

From Berlin, Rebelle went on to win awards at multiple festivals. Following the Toronto International Film Festival it was selected by Telefilm Canada as the Canadian Best Foreign Language Film Oscar contender, and has now been theatrically released in about 20 territories.

Given such success, it’s no surprise that Even and Poulin plan to continue producing feature films.

“The business plan for us is to work in English and French. As long as the creative team behind it is strong and we feel there’s a great script, we will work within a broad range of genres, whether it’s a comedy or an arthouse film,” says Poulin.

“We still believe in theatrical film, and produce films that have theatrical potential. It doesn’t mean that we’re not focusing on new platforms, but we strongly believe in the format of taking 90 or 120 minutes to tell a story, and tell it in the best way possible,” adds Even.

Both Even and Poulin credit their success to their ability to craftily take advantage of the federal and provincial incentives that come with coproducing a film and their ability to attract the right partners, be they in other parts of Canada or in Europe.

Looking forward, Even and Poulin show no signs of slowing their momentum as they continue shooting Rudy Barichello’s Meetings With a Young Poet, in which a young poet forms a complex friendship with Samuel Beckett, through December in Montreal. The Colony, which is being distributed by Alliance and Sierra Films, is slated to complete post-production in 2013, while production on Daniel Grou’s ensemble drama Miraculum will begin shooting in March.

Click here to view Playback‘s Winter 2012 issue online.