Six men, two dories and the North Atlantic

Ralph Holt had decided he wanted to see the world from the other side of the film funding desk.

After more than 20 years with Telefilm Canada – including a stint as its Atlantic regional director, during which time he’d green-lit the agency’s funding of such iconic regional productions as Random Passage, Rare Birds, The Hanging Garden, Trailer Park Boys, 22 Minutes and Theodore Tugboat – Holt decided he wanted to try producing himself.

In 2009, he teamed up with partner Karen Franklin, another ex-Telefilm executive, to form Toronto-based Hill 100 Productions. Because of his earlier experiences at Telefilm’s regional office and the fact he’d been born in Nova Scotia, he was especially interested in finding “Maritime properties” he could help develop.

During one scouting trip to Halifax, he met with Forsyth, whom he’d known from his work in the industry. “He had a few suggestions and, at the end, he said, ‘Mind if I send you a script?’”

It was a draft of The Disappeared that Forsyth and Mitchell had now been fiddling with on off and on for the past five years.

“I read it and this was like the hammer on the head of the nail of what I’d worked for at Telefilm. There were these rich characters and this very powerful, very Maritime story. I said, ‘let’s go, let’s do it.’”

But making a film – as Holt knew, or should have known, from the other side of the desk – is never that simple.

Jan Miller smacks her tambourine against her hip. It’s her signal to wrap up this round of half-hour, one-to-one pitch meetings, and for the pitchers to move on to the next table to meet their next pitchees. The pitchers are producers with film and TV projects seeking investors; the pitchees are producers, distributors and broadcasters looking for film or TV projects to invest in.

This session in a Halifax hotel ballroom dotted with dozens of small round tables is part of an annual international coproduction marketplace known as Strategic Partners. Over the course of three hectic days in the middle of the Atlantic Film Festival each September, 200 carefully selected producers and industry dealmakers from all over the world participate in over 1,000 pre-arranged face-to-face meetings, hoping to strike co-production deals – or at least make the connections that may ultimately lead to deals.

Miller, a former actor and industry veteran, created the now 15-year-old event – the only one of its kind in Canada and one of the few in the world – in part because it has become too expensive and too complex for individual producers to make shows on their own. They need the kind of international partnerships they can forge at events like Strategic Partners. And they do.

Combat Hospital, a recent, short-lived Canadian-American-British TV series about military surgeons in Afghanistan, was conceived during Strategic Partners in 2009.

Strategic Partners is especially important for Atlantic Canadian producers because 30 per cent of the coveted spots at the invitation-only event are reserved for them.

Miller points proudly to Strategic Partner’s recent “instrumental role” in connecting New Brunswick producer Tony Whalen and Winnipeg-based Phyllis Laing. Their co-produced feature, All the Wrong Reasons, was filmed in Nova Scotia this summer.

It doesn’t always work out, of course. It didn’t for Ralph Holt. When he was regional director at Telefilm, he’d encouraged Miller to launch Strategic Partners. As a newly minted producer, he returned with a portfolio of potential projects, including The Disappeared, to pitch.

There were no takers.

But that didn’t mean, he is quick to add, it was a waste of time.

“We learned a lot about what works – and what doesn’t.”

In the winter of 2010, Holt, Forsyth and Mitchell were ready to begin pitching their movie in earnest.

“It’s a chicken and egg thing,” Mitchell reflects. “You need the people (the cast, the director, the crew) in place to get the funding, but you can’t get the people without the funding.”

They haunted film festivals, hoping for a chance to hand a script to an actor they’d like to cast, or to schmooze with key decision makers.

“You’d get one piece of the puzzle in place,” Mitchell remembers, “and then you’d lose another.”

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