Hitting the Screens: Cdn. flicks navigate distrib gamut

Three high-profile Canadian films are in the midst of being rolled out by Malofilm in their home market as well as internationally by various distributors. All offer insight into some of the pitfalls and potentials of Canadian films vying for domestic and worldwide screen space.

Despite rave reviews capped with an accolade at Cannes, Cosmos, directed by an ensemble of Quebec filmmakers, almost didn’t make it onto English Canada screens. As a French-language film shot in black and white, its marketability and commercial opportunities are dim for a cross-Canada play.

Following a one-print run in Quebec where prospects were brightest, the film generated only a box office total of $47,201. Before its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Malofilm’s Andy Myers admits ‘there was indecision’ as to whether the film would be given a wider release. But indicative of the pivotal role the festival circuit plays, it was the strong audience and critical response at tiff that led Malo to open the film for a week-long, one-screen run at the Bloor beginning Oct. 17.

Still, many would question if financially a release is worth the effort. Landing Canadian distribution isn’t a guarantee that a film will see the big screen, Kari Skogland’s The Size of Watermelons, handled by Norstar, being a case in point.

‘We are definitely facing a challenge in terms of putting ‘fannies on seats,’ says Myers, calling the English Canada release an experiment.

Funneling cash into a promo campaign on a specialized Canadian film won’t garner wider audiences and make a dent at the box office, he says. One of the ironies of the Canadian theatrical landscape is that our films are most often handicapped in the domestic market by the difficulty in landing a u.s. release. If the all-pervasive American media machine is backing an American launch, the film has the extra push needed to propel Canucks, with their voracious appetite for American tv and magazines, into seats.

Take last year’s festival hit, Deepa Mehta’s Fire, as an example. Released in the States two weeks prior to Malofilm’s Sept. 19 Canadian opening, the film brought in over a quarter million dollars in four weeks. The first week, Canadian results registered $30,000. Total figures (as of Sept. 29) are over $45,000.

On the basis of this early success, a wider release into every key and sub-key market is in the works and additional prints are to be issued, with over 11 cities booked for Ontario alone throughout October. Fire’s strong box office numbers were fueled in part by piggybacking the American opening, says Myers

Cosmos, without a u.s. deal doesn’t have this backing. Pumping more money into marketing and promotion isn’t the answer, says Myers, when editorial support is the ingredient for success of a specialized indie film.

‘How do you buy the equivalent of a feature story in Premiere magazine or the film director’s appearance on Good Morning America or encapsulated reviews in all the u.s. weeklies – all of which are seen by hundreds of thousands of people in Canada? That’s all free press,’ he says.

With a spunky red-head cast in the leading role, Nelvana’s animated family movie Pippi Longstocking has a 50-year-old internationally loved character to bolster its path to the big screen. Although a bankable franchise with its Aug. 29 u.s. release, the $10-million movie did face the challenge of going up against the $60-million kids’ flicks packaged at Disney and the other majors, which often have promo budgets in the same ballpark as production costs.

Pippi hit 50 u.s. screens behind a roughly us$400,000 to us$500,000 campaign. Liberty Distributing’s three-wave strategy began with a three-week matinee-only play date in seven cities which pulled in the solid gross of us$231,665.

Screen penetration was expanded Sept. 19 to include Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Sacramento and Portland. Accumulative gross as of Sept. 29 is us$384,000, respectable numbers for an indie film with matinee-only slotting.

A rollout in four more u.s. cities (Denver, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle) is set for Oct. 17, and trailing the theatrical, Warner Bros.’s Family Entertainment has set Nov. 24 for home video release.

Nelvana’s Clive Smith anticipates that the staggering of the Canadian opening after the u.s. (at press time, Malofilm’s late October release had been delayed) will generate the momentum required to reel in similar box office results in Canada, even though Malo will likely open initially in Toronto/Vancouver/Montreal Famous Players theaters.

Although Malo’s plans for Canada have not been finalized, Smith says early discussions have pegged the promo budget in the same range as its u.s. counterpart. With an animated tv series version set to debut Oct. 17 on teletoon, additional Pippi hype will set the stage for the release.

The wave of European releases, where the Pippi character is likened to a crown jewel, is expected to ring in boffo numbers. Behind a us$500,000 promo campaign, not including prints, the film opens in Sweden Oct. 3. Norway follows Oct. 17, the Finnish date is Dec. 19, and Christmas Day will see Pippi on Denmark screens. The German opening is slated for Jan. 22. An interesting aside, European native Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered a print for his private theater.

For Cosmos, the challenge is maximizing a modest one-print campaign on a limited promo budget. Choosing the guarantee of a week-long opening at the Bloor over the unpredictability of an open-run cinema was the first move. At the Bloor, Cosmos is likely to capture its built-in loyal cinephile audience as well as the college crowd more likely to take a risk on a film where tickets are half the price, explains Malofilm publicist Bonnie Smith.

Opening at a rep cinema is also a good bet as moving over into open run is possible if the film becomes a break-out success. On the flip side, if a picture flops in open run, a rep cinema generally offers only a one-night second run (in not the most prominent slot) rather than a week-long guarantee

Another obstacle small indie flicks face at open-run cinemas is being bumped all over the release sked as bigger name, and potentially more lucrative films, vie for screen space. One can imagine the havoc this plays on attempts to put together a promotional campaign.

In the long run, working specialized films slowly across Canada is the way to nurture audiences and sell seats.

With this in mind, Smith anticipates the theatrical life of Cosmos to last into February as it moves from the Bloor into one-night bookings across select Ontario cities. Art house cinemas in major cities across Canada will be targeted beginning in November.

Cosmos is being positioned to target a hip, youthful audience. Stylized, funky silver postcards with a visual from the film bill Cosmos as ‘a modern mosaic of scenes from the urban jungle’ and will be distributed in Queen Street West bookstores and the College Street district. A promotional soundtrack with an underground rock/jazz feel will be dropped off at college and mainstream radio stations. Ticket and cd giveaways are also planned.

Dealing with a well-loved franchise, Pippi’s box office success depends largely on creative decisions made early in development rather than a campaign blitz. Bad press could easily be generated if critics and initial audiences decided the film strayed too far from its original character, yet the story had to be modified to appeal to modern-day kids and the animated medium.

Consulting with the Pippi creator Astrid Lindgren helped ensure Nelvana remained true to the original spirit of the tale,’ says Clive Smith. The film is a treaty copro between Nelvana, Sweden’s AB Svensk Filmindustri and Idunafilm/ Trickompany Filmproduktions GmbH in Germany, and Smith says there was some uneasiness from his European copartners when Nelvana decided to go with a musical version, fearing a backlash from ardent fans. A test screening in Sweden met with great critical review, he says, so the overseas partners breathed a sigh of relief.