You can forgive Niv Fichman if, over the manic opening stretch of the Toronto International Film Festival, he begins to feel a little like Bill Murray in the classic deja vu comedy Groundhog Day.
That's because, beginning Saturday night and stretching through the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Fichman, one of Canada's leading independent producers, will be walking one red carpet after another and glad-handing his way through the world premieres of no fewer than four films over four nights that his company, Rhombus Media, is bringing to the festival.
On Saturday night, he'll be in the thick of the paparazzi crush at the Winter Garden Theatre for the Ellen Page-Evan Rachel Wood survival drama Into the Forest; Sunday is the Newfoundland gay-coming-of-age drama Closet Monster; Monday brings Paul Gross's Afghanistan war pic Hyena Road; and Fichman's marathon finishes with the loopy Brazilian-Canadian head-trip Zoom, premiering Tuesday night.
After a relatively quiet period for Rhombus, this year's TIFF represents an unintended, and unprecedented, embarrassment of riches.
"The timing is kind of a fluke," explains Fichman, 57, during a long lunch this week at O&B Canteen, the popular ground-floor restaurant in the TIFF Bell Lightbox. A few hours earlier, he had flown in from Vietnam, where he had spent the long weekend helping an actor develop a project; after lunch, he will meet with the writers of Rhombus's beloved 2003-06 TV series Slings & Arrows to discuss something they've been working on over the past few months.
"All four of these films have their own lives," he says. The timing, "has to do with circumstances: casting, availability of people, funding coming together, just a confluence of factors." While it made for a frenetic time last year, especially when three of the films were simultaneously in production, "I learned a long time ago, when somebody from upstairs gives you a signal of some sort – you gotta go."
In the past, that has led to such festival favourites as Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin. In 2008, Rhombus brought director Fernando Meirelles's Blindness and Paul Gross's Passchendaele to TIFF. Fichman has been back at the festival since then – in 2013 he walked the red carpet with Jake Gyllenhaal and director Denis Villeneuve for Enemy, and also produced the Ken Taylor documentary Our Man in Tehran – but, behind the scenes, Rhombus has been going through some changes.
Founded in 1979 by Fichman and the director Barbara Willis Sweete (Our Man in Tehran director Larry Weinstein joined shortly thereafter), Rhombus initially focused on documentaries and films that featured music and other performing arts. But, Fichman said, the three partners have largely worked independently of one another for many years now. So last summer, he started talking about a separation; a few months ago, the split became official.
Fichman said the move was spurred partly by the uncertain economics of Canadian filmmaking. "At the time, I was about to embark on four films, and I wasn't sure whether any of them were going to make any [producer] fees." Like most Canadian film production companies, Rhombus is a tiny operation, with a handful of staff. And, mirroring the rest of the industry, the budgets of its features have shrunk. Blindness was made for $25-million; Passchendaele cost $20-million; the budget for Hyena Road is only $12.5-million.
Hyena Road grew out of Passchendaele, in a way. In 2010, Gross was invited by the Canadian Forces to observe airdrops in Afghanistan. "On his first visit, he went with Guy Lafleur," Fichman says. "He was taken around to [forward operating bases], just talked to people and hung out, boosted morale – the Canadian version of the Bob Hope [USO] tours." Gross returned home with some ideas for a new film.
Fichman says he told Gross, "'Please, please try to think of another movie. War movies are hard to make and finance.'" Instead, Gross came back with an early draft of Hyena Road. "I was praying it was bad – and it was so good."
As Fichman spoke about the process, two young filmmakers, TIFF bags slung over their shoulders, came over to say hi: Albert Shin, whose low-budget drama In Her Place was nominated for best motion picture at this year's Canadian Screen Awards; and actor Connor Jessup, the lead in Closet Monster. Both are currently working with Fichman on other projects.
He revels in these connections, in the conviction that he is helping to cultivate the next generation of Canadian filmmakers. He points out that he has produced the first or second film of many directors, including Don McKellar (Last Night), Peter Mettler (The Top of His Head) and François Girard (Thirty Two Short Films).
Still, as lunch winds up, there is an unusual moment as Fichman speaks about Denis Villeneuve, the Quebec-based director whose Mexican hitman thriller Sicario is one of the most anticipated films of TIFF.
On the way over to Canteen, Fichman says, he spotted a billboard for Sicario that read: "From the director of Prisoners and Incendies" – the latter being a critically acclaimed 2010 drama.
Why, muses Fichman, couldn't the billboard have name-checked Enemy instead? "It's there for the whole world to see and humiliate me. It's right next to my apartment, too!" he says. Does he take that personally? "Not at all! I think it's hilarious!"
Fichman is laughing, but there's something mirthless about the moment. "It's totally a joke!" he insists. And then he orders a double espresso. His TIFF marathon is just beginning.