Three reasons to feel good about the Canadian film business

Someone has been reading Telefilm Canada's dream book. It's a fantasy featuring not one but two golden girls, a golden boy and a host of bright lights.

Someone has been reading Telefilm Canada’s dream book. It’s a fantasy featuring not one but two golden girls, a golden boy and a host of bright lights.

Sarah Polley was already a dream come true. She generates an almost parental sentimentality: we’ve literally watched her grow up. Born and raised in the center of the Canadian cosmos, a star at nine, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker at 27. More impressive still: she didn’t go away from here; she brought Away from Her to us, casting Julie Christie beside the quintessential Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent.

But Polley keeps on giving. Now she is writing and directing her second feature, Take This Waltz, and has cast one of the golden boys of Canadian comedy, Seth Rogen. And the film is set in Toronto. The presence of lead Michelle Williams, one of the best actresses of her generation, is icing on the cake.

The other golden girl is Reese Witherspoon, whose prodco Type A Pictures is teaming up with Vancouver’s Brightlight Pictures and Toronto’s Rhombus Media.

I know, I know, it’s pathetic to feel validated when the star of Legally Blonde attaches herself to something Canadian, even tangentially. But Witherspoon is a kind of American version of Polley. She was sensational in her first film, The Man in the Moon, at age 15, and has always radiated an intelligence beyond her less-than-inspiring acting choices.

Her producing instincts are another matter. This isn’t another comic book adaptation. She and her Type A partner Jennifer Simpson optioned Toronto writer Rebecca Godfrey’s book Under the Bridge. It’s about Reena Virk, the B.C. teen who was murdered in 1997 by a group of her seemingly ordinary peers. It’s a story that needs telling.

Meanwhile, in Montreal, another local hero is keeping the production flag flying.

John Hamilton has left Seville Pictures/E1 Entertainment to start his own production company, Hidden Agenda. He will hang his shingle at E1 for two years, where Patrice Théroux and Co. will get first kick at any project.

I asked Hamilton why anyone would leave a nice safe job in distribution for the hurly burly of production. Is this move a vote of confidence?

He supposed it was. ‘The Canadian film business is as healthy as it’s ever been,’ he told me. But his motives were more personal. ‘To be honest, E1 has gotten very big. But it’s a pure distribution business. We don’t get much input creatively.’

Before E1 bought out Seville, the company he co-founded with David Reckziegel, Hamilton had been producing and coproducing, including such titles as This Beautiful City, Amal, Peepers. ‘I decided to stick with what I’m good at, the creative side of things.’

Hamilton said he plans to focus on higher-budget Canadian coproductions and on lower-budget features from first- and second-time directors. ‘The mid-range,’ which he defines as $3 million to $7 million, ‘is dangerous.’ Noted.

And the hidden agenda behind the name Hidden Agenda? ‘It’s kind of catchy,’ he said. Clearly, Hamilton has reached his own serendipity point.

Looking south, Alexandre Franchi’s The Wild Hunt was picked up for U.S. distribution by Hannover House, a new player on the American indie scene, following its premiere at Slamdance. It’s another coup for indie veteran Marie-Claude Poulin, who sold C.R.A.Z.Y. to the U.S. back in ’05. All well and good.

But my curiosity was piqued when I heard the U.S. release schedule. Not only is it going into the market in May – hello Robin Hood – it’s going out in New York, Dallas, Minneapolis and Arkansas. So I called Hannover’s CEO Eric Parkinson and asked him if he realized that The Wild Hunt is a Canadian film and that one doesn’t release Canadian films in the U.S. in May. Especially not in Dallas, Minneapolis and Arkansas.

There is method to Parkinson’s madness. Dallas, Minneapolis and Arkansas were not selected by throwing a dart at a map. Dallas is the corporate home of Blockbuster, Minneapolis is the home of two retailing giants, Target and Best Buy, and Arkansas is home to Walmart, which sells one out of two DVDs and Blu-rays sold in the U.S.

It seems The Wild Hunt’s Canadian distributor TVA had targeted Aug. 31 as the DVD release date in Canada. This forced Hannover to set the same release date in key U.S. video markets in order to honor the 90-day window – the possibility of Canadian DVDs leaching across the border would undermine sales at Hannover’s principal retail customers in the U.S. (see above).

In order for Hannover to honor the theatrical window and hit the DVD release, Parkinson is parking the film in the backyards of those principal retail customers, as if to say, this really is a high-value product.

‘We chose it because it was the audience winner at Slamdance. It could have been from Romania. It has great performances, a great concept, and from a marketing angle there’s a whole community to tap into with all these great hooks. The fact that it’s Canadian won’t be in the marketing, but we’re not ashamed about it.’