Six men, two dories and the North Atlantic

They ended up in a typical kind of development hell, scrambling to put together a package that included a cast and budget in order to take to funding agencies like Telefilm and Film Nova Scotia, as well as broadcasters, distributors and even private backers.

Film Nova Scotia, the provincial film and television funding agency, liked The Disappeared, but wouldn’t commit until the project had its other financing in place. So they made presentations to Canadian distributors, the powerful folks who control what gets shown in Canadian cinemas. “They said they liked what we wanted to do,” Holt recalls, “but it wasn’t their kind of film.” It wasn’t, in other words, what Holt already knew it wasn’t – a Hollywood blockbuster.

They applied to the Canadian Film Centre’s features program, which provides 40-45 per cent of production costs for selected projects – but it didn’t select The Disappeared.

They had better luck at Canada’s pay television networks – the Movie Network and Movie Central – which agreed to invest in, and eventually broadcast the finished film.

With a broadcaster on board, the producers could finally return to Telefilm and Film Nova Scotia.

They’d initially hoped to shoot in the early fall of 2010 but, as they waited that spring for the key green light from Telefilm – “the last wall” – they became increasingly boxed in. Actors they’d cast landed other projects. And the longer they had to wait for funding decisions, the longer before they could start filming, which meant the less likely the always-chancy Maritime weather would cooperate…

They also knew they were competing with other filmmakers with other equally compelling projects, all of them hoping for a piece of the same very small pot of available money.

Telefilm turned them down.

There were a number of other worthy projects ready to go that fall, Whittaker remembers. “If we divided the pot and provided what we could to everyone, it wouldn’t be enough to make the film they wanted. [The Disappeared] was an ambitious film, very ambitious, and we were afraid trying to do it with less money would jeopardize the project.”

Saying no “is the most difficult part of my job,” he admits, “especially when you’ve helped develop and encourage the project. And, of course, it’s a small community where everyone knows everyone.”

“It was really disappointing, incredibly frustrating,” Holt remembers. “I got really emotional with Gord after and, later, I had to go back and apologize.”

“You go away and you cry,” Mitchell says. “You swear you’re done, you’re moving on, you’re finished with film… and then someone resurrects the idea. And the process starts all over again.”

Traditionally, success in the film business is judged solely on the basis of box office receipts.

It’s a yardstick on which Canadian films – especially Atlantic Canadian films, and especially small, “auteur” films like The Disappeared – can never measure up, largely because Canadian cinema screens are dominated by Hollywood blockbusters. They each often have more cash in their marketing budgets than Telefilm has to dole out to make a year’s worth of Canadian films.

But the entertainment business is changing – and quickly. DVDs, video on demand, online streaming, festival screenings, awards, international sales… all offer new revenue streams – and new ways of measuring commercial success.

Which is good news for Atlantic filmmakers.

Consider.

Hobo with a Shotgun, a gory, cult horror flick that premiered at the famous Sundance Festival, began life as a two-minute short by first-time Halifax director Jason Eisener. Posted on YouTube, it became a viral sensation and won the Grindhouse Trailer Competition, which generated enough industry buzz to secure funding for the full-length feature.

Last year’s Rollertown, a film featuring the Halifax comedy troupe Picnicface – which also won its initial international fame with viral YouTube videos – was partly funded by crowd-sourcing. The movie, which had a record five sold-out screenings at last year’s Atlantic Film Festival and went on to showcase at Utah’s Slamdance festival, has since secured a U.S. distribution deal that will make it available as a video-on-demand movie in millions of American homes.

Grown Up Movie Star, a Newfoundland-produced flick about a disgraced NHL star who returns to Newfoundland and life with his precocious daughters, not only became the first-ever Atlantic Canadian feature selected for the coveted international competition at 2010 Sundance Film Festival but one of its stars, Tatiana Maslany of the CBC television show Heartland, also won a special jury breakout role award. Which will help sell it elsewhere.

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