The Incredible Adapting Act
Turning a book, play, short film or series into a film is no easy feat on the best of days. Add in uncertain market conditions, razor-thin budgets and frenzied competition, and you’re left with a situation where only the fittest survive. Adapt or die, the saying goes—and Canadian producers are rising to the challenge.
Somebody will always insist that the book is better. Or the play, or the series, or the video game. But, given how many film adaptations get made around the world, producers obviously aren’t listening to that guy.
And why should they? According to Forbes, film adaptations of books make 44 per cent more at the UK box office and 53 per cent more worldwide than films made from original screenplays. While those may not be Canadian numbers, they hint at the irresistible draw of IP that has already been proven and found an audience.
Of course, none of this suggests that adaptations present an easy path for filmmakers. The road to a successful film adaptation is littered with a thousand decisions around what to add and what to leave, how faithful to remain to the source material, how to preserve what was seductive about the original work and translate it into an entirely different medium—all without, hopefully, alienating a so-called “built-in” audience and tarnishing the brand forever.
And, particularly if you’re making a movie in Canada, those challenges are met in the middle of an uphill struggle for funding, distribution, and eyeballs for your film—and hopefully coming out the other end with a bit more money in your pocket (or at least not less). In our increasingly competitive, topsy-turvy cinema landscape, one thing is clear: adapting to these ever-evolving conditions is every bit as tricky as adapting a book or play to a film, and even more essential to survival. Here, we share the stories of three producers, at different stages of their careers and in different ways, who are pulling off that trick.
The movie newbie
Virginia Thompson, president of Vérité Films, had never made a movie before, but she knew what made her brand tick. That brand is Corner Gas, the beloved, sleepy Saskatchewan sitcom that averaged over a million viewers an episode and ended its six-season run on CTV at the top of its game. And the thing that made it tick was its voice—or, more specifically, creator-showrunner-star Brent Butt’s voice.
“If you lose the voice, you lose everything,” Thompson says.
Preserving the voice of Corner Gas—oddball, folksy, deadpan—through six seasons, a movie, and a new animated series is Prairie Pants Productions’ (the company formed by Thompson, Butt and director David Storey) signal achievement. It is, arguably, the main reason the movie grossed nearly $700,000 over a five-day run in 100 cinemas across Canada, followed by a preview on The Movie Network and a broadcast on CTV. But the whole story involves a lot more legwork than that.
First of all, the motive: “We didn’t want to make a movie to just make a movie,” Thompson insists. “We were doing it as a gift to our fans. We wanted to say thank you for six incredible seasons.”
The rest of the tale plays like a comedic drama in its own right: Thompson, the plucky producer, demolishes obstacles and silences naysayers, ingeniously raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance the film, bypassing the lack of a tax credit in the filming location, and securing a theatrical release with a phone call to one of the biggest bigwigs in Canadian cinema.
“When you make a movie, it’s a very big deal. It’s a very big deal,” repeats Thompson, then laughs. “Listen to me, the TV girl, thinking she’s telling producers something they don’t know! But it is really tough to make a great movie.”
Adapting Corner Gas, the TV show, into Corner Gas: The Movie was one of the first hurdles. Thompson says she and Storey worked closely with Butt and some of the show’s writers (Andrew Carr and Dylan Wertz) to craft the film script, which was eventually written twice, to ensure that they had in fact created a movie, not just an extended episode. Butt and Carr worked with drama writer Andrew Wreggitt to help structure the screenplay, all while preserving Butt’s voice and unique brand of comedy. Recalls Thompson, “It was a very delicate balance, bringing in a movie writer to inform the process, while allowing Brent Butt to lead creatively. Adaptation is a very delicate thing.”
Thompson claims that while the team tried to secure development funding, they were ultimately unsuccessful. “Even with a great script, I think that the brand of Corner Gas, as a kind of iconic television brand, hurt us rather than helped us. At the beginning, nobody was convinced that the film was going to work,” she says.
So Thompson rolled up her sleeves and got down to research. She studied every detail of the Veronica Mars movie release, as an example of a successfully crowdfunded series-to-film adaptation. She saw a funding angle and a marketing angle through on-line fan engagement, where Corner Gas fans could drive viewers to the film’s release in theatres and then to television. She launched a Kickstarter campaign (and far-reaching digital engagement campaign) for the film, raising $100,000 in a single day, and close to $300,000 by the campaign’s end. Then Thompson set her sights on the next hurdle.
In 2012, two years before the team got down to work on the movie, Saskatchewan had eliminated its film tax credit. “Of course, a lack of tax credit is problematic for any producer, and obviously location is extremely important to Corner Gas,” Thompson says. Unfazed, she went straight to the Saskatchewan government. In this case, the iconic Corner Gas brand saved the day: “We had really constructive meetings with the government to see if there was a way that we could make filming work there. Because of the huge tourism component to Corner Gas, because we’re such a part of the fabric of Saskatchewan, they found a way to make it work without the tax credit. Which was a huge relief and opened to the door to CTV and Telefilm’s support.”
Now the funding pieces were in place. Next obstacle: securing a theatrical release in the absence of interest from any of Canada’s distribution companies. Solution: cold-calling Michael Kennedy, Cineplex’s Executive Vice President of Filmed Entertainment.
“I didn’t know him, but I called him,” Thompson explains. “We were determined to get in theatres. We didn’t want to make a television movie. We wanted to create a theatrical event that could sell out theatres and drive viewers to television.” For that, they needed Cineplex and Bell Media (owner of CTV) to work together on windowing. At her meeting with Kennedy, he told her Cineplex was in. And Prairie Pants became the film’s distributor.
It’s a heartwarming ending to a never-say-die tale: the movie sold out theatres for its brief run, bringing in close to $700,000 at the box office, ultimately reaching 7 million fans around the country to television across Bell Media channels. This success set the stage for a new permutation of the brand, Corner Gas Animated that’s just been green lit for a third second season on CTV Comedy Channel. And, on top of that, the ending has a dash of feel-good IP retention: while Bell Media is the official distributor of Corner Gas the sitcom, they have entrusted Prairie Pants Distribution with the sub-distribution rights. Prairie Pants Distribution is also the official distributor of the movie and animated series. The new distribution company released the sitcom and movie on Prime Video Direct in the US in December 2018, with a digital marketing campaign focused on fans south of the border. The titles quickly became audience favourites.
And in early October 2020, Prairie Pants Distribution announced a major US deal with IMDb TV, Amazon’s new streaming service free to all Americans. Corner Gas: Animated seasons 1 and 2 will debut on IMDb TV as an IMDb Original series. The sitcom and movie were also licenced to IMDb TV. The entire Corner Gas catalogue (animated, movie and sitcom) will release in the US on IMDb TV on October 15, 2019. In Canada, the catalogue is exclusively available on CTV Comedy Channel, CTV Throwback and Crave.
It’s a great ending, but it was hard won. According to Thompson, “To make the movie, I wasn’t just a producer, I was a distributor, I was a marketer, I was the head of social media, brand and fan engagement. Our little office did all that work on a classic feature-film budget, putting all the money on the screen and trying our very best to make our fans part of the movie experience.” By putting together an entire marketing, crowdfunding and distribution plan before meeting with funders, Thompson illustrates the advantages of staying far ahead of the game: “It was all worked out beforehand. I didn’t just go in and say, ‘Hey, this is a great script. Do you like it?’”
She adds, half-joking, “I mean, making the film nearly killed me. Even just thinking about making another movie—I don’t know if I have the stomach for it.” Then, with an independent producer’s instinctive self-forgetfulness, she says brightly: “But the movie was hit! And look where we are now!”
When the short you produce for your film-school thesis gets into TIFF, what’s your follow-up act? How about adapting the short into a feature film that gets picked up for international distribution before it premieres at TIFF, gets on the festival’s year-end Top Ten list, scoops up an armful of Canadian Screen Awards, and nabs you the Kevin Tierney Emerging Producer Award at the Indiescreen Awards? If that sounds like a dream for a first-time feature-film producer, Caitlin Grabham is living it.
In 2018, Grabham and her writer/director partner Jasmin Mozaffari (Prowler Film), expanded Firecrackers, the short film they made in their final year at Ryerson University, into a feature of the same name. But Grabham insists a longer film wasn’t in their sights while they were developing the 15-minute short.
“The short came out of our desire to see women that we could relate to on screen,” says Grabham. “We didn’t make it thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll turn this into a feature one day.’ We were just really focused on trying to make a good film. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend making a short in order to make a feature. Those can read like teasers, and can fail to develop their own identity.”
Grabham’s short film—about two teenaged best friends struggling to escape their grim northern Ontario town—underwent major transformation on its journey to a full-length film. The feature preserved the premise, but expanded the narrative arc, added a raft of characters, and replaced the original leads, who had aged out of the roles.
“Some of the most consistent feedback we got on the short film was from young women who said they felt like it was just a glimpse into a world,” says Grabham. “They wished they could see more. So we knew that we were onto something special, and the idea to make a feature developed quite naturally. We didn’t start from scratch, exactly—the characters and the base were there—but we didn’t hold ourselves to the short at all.”
Another transformation was the budget, from $15,000 for the short to a quarter-million dollars for the feature—“which was still very tight,” Grabham notes. A portion of that came from Telefilm’s Talent to Watch Program (formerly the Micro-Budget Production Program), a fund for first feature-length films. The program is surely a lifeline for first-time filmmakers, but their tiny budget meant Grabham and Mozaffari had to go with non-union actors (“We looked at ACTRA, but there was no way we could afford it”), Grabham had to move back home with her parents while working on Firecrackers (“It’s not necessarily ideal, but I would not have been able to make the film without that support”), and the pair have yet to collect a penny for their efforts.
“People seem to expect that because we made this well-received film, things are just going to take off,” says Grabham. “But we worked on this film pretty much full-time for about three and a half years, and we’ve made zero dollars off of it so far.”
By reinvesting all of her funding back into the film, by finding skilled crew members who were still on the verge of success, Grabham accomplished the incredible feat of making a movie in Canada. But she doesn’t feel that the model is a sustainable one, and when she’s asked about financing by other new filmmakers, she says, “I really don’t know what to tell them.”
It’s a grim reminder that, in Canada, even the best-case scenario—making an attention-grabbing, award-winning feature film on your first try—isn’t the fairy tale it appears to be. There are positive signs on the horizon for Grabham, however. She is working with Conquering Lion Pictures, trying to gain experience and figure out how to make money making movies. She’s eyeing TV, since “the barrier between film and television is pretty much dissolving,” though she doesn’t think she’ll ever give up on feature film. And, since the Talent to Watch Program doesn’t allow the writer/director/producer teams to share ownership with other partners, Grabham and Mozaffari own the Firecrackers IP entirely.
“I don’t think we’re going to do anything more with Firecrackers,” Grabham says. “But who knows? Maybe in a decade we’ll do a TV series.”
However the success of Firecrackers is defined, Grabham defied all odds, buckled down and made that movie—with determination and self-sacrifice that will doubtless serve her well in the industry.
“We were the first people in our year at school to make a feature film, which I really didn’t expect,” she admits. “There were other people who seemed to have so much more experience or who were getting into different festivals. But we really dedicated ourselves to doing this.”
The seasoned pro
Christina Piovesan is a good person to talk to about being a film producer in Canada these days. She’s the principal of First Generation Films, where she produces everything from feature films to web series (she’s got three films and one short being released this year alone). Past movies include The Whistleblower (based on the experiences of a UN peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina), The Lesser Blessed (based on a novel by Richard Van Camp) and Mouthpiece (based on an award-winning play by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava). She’s also the co-chair of the CMPA’s Feature Film Committee, which means she thinks quite a lot about making movies in Canada.
“Working with established IP is really important for an independent producer,” says Piovesan. “It’s an extremely competitive time, and it’s always helpful if someone else has already proven that the IP has found an audience.”
While audience is important, in her adaptation work, Piovesan does not chain herself to the source material. “With a book or play, you need to read it or watch it and then walk away from it,” says Piovesan. “But at the same time you want to honour the spirit of the book. Because if you are going to take it and not keep anything, what’s the value?”
In fact, Piovesan did not even see Mouthpiece, the play, until she had wrapped production on Mouthpiece, the movie. Nor did she wish her team, led by writer/director Patricia Rozema, had done anything differently. The play is a high-concept art piece in which two actors play one woman. The movie also features two actors playing one woman, but Piovesan insists that while they echo each other, they are very much separate entities.
“There were so many ways in which the film became its own thing,” says Piovesan. “Patricia introduced the central character of the mother, who is not present at all in the play. Even things that the team was trying to preserve—little vignettes, musical centrepieces—were ultimately cut back in post-production, because we felt they didn’t fit into the language of film. It was really in post that the film, thanks to the work of Patricia and our editor Lara Johnston, really found its cinematic voice.”
It’s a wonderful picture of the way the entire film process, from script development to filming to post-production, comes together to create an entity that’s both dependent on and divorced from the original text. IP opens the door, but filmmakers walk through it.
Just as she is happy to leave out what’s not working in her films, Piovesan isn’t beholden to any preconceived notions of what a Canadian production company should look like or who it should work with. It’s a philosophy that has allowed her to team up with partners from all corners, rather than “chasing a passport.”
“Who your buyers are, how you finance your project, how you pull it together—sure, use the tools in your own backyard, but you also have to go out and get tools and resources from anywhere in service of creating your own IP,” says Piovesan. “You can’t get bogged down by old rules.”
Casting off the “rules,” keeping only what works, finding new ways to rise above the challenges endemic to filmmaking in this country: it’s Piovesan’s approach, but it’s also the approach of many producers and production companies across Canada, who are finding innovative ways to adapt and develop IP.
Take Wattpad Studios, the content-creation arm of the wildly popular self-publishing app best described as “YouTube for fiction” (see “Wattpad Lights Up the Black Box” in the fall 2017 issue of Indiescreen). According to Wattpad, its access to a vast amount of user data and community insights essentially “de-risks” the adaptation process. A number of Wattpad stories have already been released as box-office-topping films in the Philippines, and the YA romance After, produced by Aviron Pictures in the US, hit theatres in April 2019, grossing nearly $70 million worldwide. Entertainment One is planning series based off Wattpad stories The Numbered and Kairos, and hopes to swerve around any potholes in the adaptation process by running the pilot script by fans of the original stories.
In similarly disruptive style, The Coup Company runs film accelerators, in which filmmakers upload pitches and audiences vote on them. Filmmakers can garner support and a fan base before their project is even optioned or greenlit. The campy WolfCop movies and the horror Hellmington are two films to emerge from the initiative.
From these examples and many others, it’s clear Canada’s independent production industry is filled with keeners, innovators and experimenters— survivors. They’re determined and they’re dedicated, no matter the forecast.
Somebody will always insist that this industry is too tough, the hurdles too high. But Canada’s independent producers clearly aren’t listening to that guy.
The short and the long of it
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Interested in turning your short film into a feature? We spoke with Justine Whyte, Director of the Canadian Film Centre’s CFC Features program—which helps writers, directors and producers make their feature films a reality—to glean best practices for emerging producers looking to tackle the adaptation process.
Find your audience. Get your short seen by as many people as possible by submitting it to festivals in Canada and around the world. Consider releasing it online. You can find a market for your feature before it’s even made.
Get feedback on your project. Putting your short out into the world isn’t just about getting seen; it’s also an opportunity to learn and adapt accordingly. What did audiences and critics love about it? Give them more of what they want in your feature. Leave out what didn’t work.
Look at your short film as a trial run. In addition to figuring out what did and didn’t work, think about who worked and didn’t work. You have to believe in the team you’re working with, both above and below the line. Don’t rush into the feature without your dream team in place.
Think of your short film as a calling card, both for your film and for you as a producer. The more you get your film out there, the more you’ll be exposed to individuals in the industry who could help you get your feature off the ground.
Find the right partners to help you produce your film. Consider public and private funders (Harold Greenberg Fund’s Short to Features Program, Telefilm Canada’s Talent to Watch Program, your provincial government funding agency) as well as industry organizations (CFC, National Screen Institute, provincial trade associations, the CMPA).
It’s about the art of the possible. Make sure your concept is truly workable as a feature-length film. If not, consider another project; you can always come back to this one later.
Don’t let yourself be boxed in by your short. Your short and your feature are two completely separate pieces of work. Adaptation is, by definition, something new. It can take you to unexpected places. Embrace that.