Producers without borders
From financing to casting to principal photography, it can be a challenge for any one production company to make a movie on its own—let alone reach a global audience. Time to partner up!
Have you ever heard the term “Europudding”?
If not, you’re likely too young to remember a time when films made with the cooperation of several European countries had a reputation of being dull, uninspiring, incoherent and inauthentic: trying so hard to please all participants that they end up pleasing none.
If you have, chances are you haven’t heard it recently.
“These days, that word never, ever comes up,” says Jan Miller, director of Trans Atlantic Partners (TAP), a training and networking program for producers from Canada, Europe and the US. “In the past, producers embarking on a co-production would say, ‘We don’t want a Europudding.’ But not anymore. I think it’s because we no longer have to justify the value of international co-production.”
An international co-production is a film or series created by production companies from two or more different countries. Canada has co-production agreements with over 50 countries, from Iceland to India, which allow producers to share the financial burden of their projects (often by tapping other countries’ funding bodies and tax incentives) while gaining an international audience. According to Telefilm Canada, recent averages show Canadian producers create more than 60 co-productions in a given year, for a total production volume of $500 million. One expects those numbers will only go up.
A recent study by the European Audiovisual Observatory found that European co-productions circulate almost twice as widely—and generate three times as many admissions—as purely national productions. These stats are European, but the trend is visible here as well. Canadian producers are heading to film markets, participating in trade missions, and rushing to find their next co-production partner. After all, the Canadian market is only so big, and movies need audiences.
“There’s no question that it is essential that we look for partners beyond our borders,” says Miller, who has been working as a co-production consultant for decades.
The Canadian government agrees. With its Creative Export Strategy— including a $7-million-a-year cultural-export funding program—the Department of Canadian Heritage is committed to “helping Canada’s creative industries open up opportunities in new markets around the world,” says former Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly.
Two of these opportunities include an updated co-production treaty with China and membership in Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s cultural support fund (Canada is the first non-European member to join). Both initiatives have already born fruit—including, on the Chinese front, a Norman Bethune biopic deal, and on the European front, The Hummingbird Project, a co-production between Canada and Belgium with a big-name cast and growing buzz.
Both projects, in very different stages of production and undertaken with very different partners, provide a useful glimpse into the realities of today’s “borderless” filmmaking.
All the screens in China
In the first quarter of 2018, China’s box office overtook the United States’ to become the largest in the world. The Chinese box office drew well over $8 billion USD in 2017. The biggest draws for the country’s massive cinema audiences are not only Hollywood blockbusters, but national titles like Operation: Red Sea and Monster Hunt.
Jordan Paterson, of Vancouver’s Rare Earth Media, is one of many producers taking notice” and advantage. He joined then-Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly’s creative industries trade mission to China in April, where he inked a deal with Ray Production to co-produce Phoenix, a biopic about Canadian doctor and Chinese cultural hero Norman Bethune. This was one of 23 collaborative agreements signed between Chinese and Canadian companies, worth nearly $125 million.
“The Minister’s team had clearly done their homework,” says Paterson of his experience on the mission, who previously worked with Ray Production to co-produce WWI documentary Tricks on the Dead. “I was surprised at how proactive they were.”
A proactive government is key to facilitating business deals with China, which is “a very government-to-government-oriented system,” says Paterson. “But our original co-production treaty was the first in China, and that puts us in good stead.”
Over at TAP, Miller strongly approves of the Canadian government;s efforts to update co-production treaties (including the new treaty with China, which came into force in 2017 and lowers the minimum financial contribution from one producing partner to 15%). But she expresses reservations about creative collaboration between Canada and China. “It does not quite translate that because you can sell widgets in China, you can expect the same kind of interaction with film or television. It’s really, really different,” she says. “It is a very complex fit.”
For his part, Paterson is pragmatic about collaboration between the two countries. He says, “It’s funny: everyone has roundtables about how to do business in China, and if you’ve been in China any length of time, you kind of sit there, shaking your head. For companies, the key to doing business in China is doing business in China. Go there and build relationships over the long term, engage with the language, engage with the culture, like you would anywhere.”
But he’s by no means naive about the realities of working in an emerging economy under the Communist Party of China. He notes that the script needs to be approved by the government’s censorship board (“Everything that we do in terms of content is scrutinized,” says Paterson). And production companies trying to work in China need to lean heavily on their own government for support (“If it’s left completely in the hands of the producers, there will be some successes, but very few,” he opines).
However, to Paterson, it’s worth it” and for reasons other than simply access to the world’s largest film audience. He had no grand plans to be making films in China for so many years, he says, even though his career is now largely focused on stories that bridge the two cultures. As a west-coast Canadian living in an area with a high Asian population, he feels drawn to 20th-century Chinese history, particularly the history and politics of Chinese immigration and the challenges faced by new migrants.
“That history is part of our national identity in Canada,” he says. I’m surrounded by it. I want to tell those stories. And the Bethune project grew really naturally out of that past experience.”
Phoenix, currently in pre-production, is a “passion project” for Paterson. With 85% Chinese and 15% Canadian contribution and a healthy mix of both English and Mandarin, the film will be aimed squarely at China’s massive market, though Paterson hopes—”as every good producer hopes”—to reach secondary markets in North America and Europe. He adds, “We’re going to do our best to dig deeply into the material to bring out a story that is relevant to people now. We want to set Dr. Bethune in context, and innovate on the level of story structure, character and relationship. We cannot take the classic biopic genre for granted. It won’t be easy, but filmmaking never is—or shouldn’t be. That’s why he’s thankful for his Chinese collaborators and their fertile working relationship.
“Everyone loves a good idea,” he states. “And it’s exciting to work on it together to see if you can’t realize that idea.”
Content on the continent
Pierre Even, of Montreal’s Item 7, has produced both French-language (C.R.A.Z.Y., Pays) and English-language films (Brooklyn, Eye on Juliet). For the former, Even has a hard time securing co-producing partners, finding that most national cinemas (in France, for example) are focused on their own markets. But for the latter, Even declares that “co-production is really essential—almost a must.”
According to him, “Producing a 100 per cent Canadian film is extremely difficult. If you want to be able to make films that will have a place in the international market, co-production is almost an obligation.”
Item 7 produced Eye on Juliet (2017) as a purely Canadian film when co-production with France fell through at the last minute, but Even would do it differently if given a do-over—
“I would try to find another partner in Belgium, in Ireland, wherever.”
Brooklyn (2015)He’s not just rattling off random countries: Ireland and Belgium have been fantastic partners for Item 7. Exhibit A: the Ireland/United Kingdom/Canada co-production Brooklyn (2015), which was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and was Canada’s highest-grossing domestic film of the year (its Canadian box office was over
$4 million, and its total gross over $62 million USD). Exhibit B: The Hummingbird Project, a Belgium/Canada co-production, directed by Montreal’s Kim Nguyen and starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Salma Hayek and Michael Mando. The film (about two high-frequency traders trying to build a fibre-optic cable between Kansas and New Jersey) is set to premiere as a Special Presentation at TIFF 2018.
The Hummingbird Project is notable for another reason as well: it’s one of the first Canadian films to receive funding from Eurimages since Canada became a member.
“Of course I think it’s great that Canada is part of Eurimages,” says Even. “It’s great to have another source of financing. But also, in the past, European producers would call me to look at doing a co-production with Canada, and then decide not to because they wanted to get Eurimages funding. So now we have an edge with European producers.”
TAP’s Miller agrees that signing on to Eurimages “is really important and valuable. I think that was a fantastic initiative led by Telefilm’s past executive director Carolle Brabant.”
Canada’s membership in Eurimages can only be good news for Canadian producers looking to build international audiences—which is to say, almost all of them. For Item 7, it led to a partnership with Belga Films, a well-established company brought to Item 7’s attention by its sales agent, HanWay Films. Unlike Brooklyn, The Hummingbird Project is a majority-Canadian film: the Canadian producers and director control the vision of the movie (which is entirely shot in Canada), while post-production, visual effects and music are done in Belgium. The sound engineer is Belgian, as is one actor. And, of course, Belga supplies some of the financing.
“We have a great relationship with Belga, but there is no doubt that we are the lead producers,” says Even. “Our co-producers are there to support us financially, and support us in realizing our vision of the film. With Brooklyn, we were the ones supporting the vision of the director and the lead producer. That movie, for us, was really a great example of how successful a co-production relationship can be.”
Stepping up our game
As positive as the government’s initiatives are—Eurimages, China—there’s always room for improvement. For example, Even would like to see Telefilm receive more production funding: “They are underfinanced now. Telefilm hasn’t received an increase in production funding since the early 2000s, and we need to access adequate financing to compete internationally—to be on an equal footing with our partners around the world.” Miller would like to see a shift away from the official-language requirement—the necessity of a film to be in English or French to receive production financing—because “more and more of our producers, more and more of our talent, are not English or French based.”
As for producers who are ready to move on to the next stage of their career, with bigger movies and bigger budgets—that is, ready to move on to co-productions—Miller advises that they begin attending markets like the European Film Market in Berlin and the Marché du Film in Cannes. And keep attending them.
Says Miller, “I see Canadian producers regularly at markets, and that’s very important. They’re developing relationships and they’re following up with relationships. You can’t dabble in the international; you have to commit in the international.”
Pierre Even certainly appears to be all in. Moving forward, he plans to keep adding creative partners to Item 7’s roster; that includes looking to China, “a huge land of opportunity.” Even, like Paterson, was on Minister Joly’s China trade mission, where he signed on to a feature-film deal with another Montreal outfit, Transfilm International, and two Chinese production companies.
“We’re going to try to see what’s happening on the other side of the world, going to try to work with Chinese partners,” he says of his future plans. “We’re going to keep building relationships with creative people, wherever they’re from, and try to get their vision on screen. That’s what we do best.”
As international co-production inevitably gathers steam, as governments continue pursuing film-friendly initiatives at the international level, building relationships across borders may soon become what all independent Canadian producers need to do best. With any luck, the result will
be more films like The Hummingbird Project and Phoenix, poised for global success from the very start.
“Co-production is complex, it can obviously take way more time, it increases legal fees and so on,” says Miller. “But the creative that comes out of it can be so rewarding.”
In other words, when it comes to the value of international co-production, the proof is in the pudding.