This Sunday, the Toronto International Film Festival will wrap up its big, splashy, back-to-reality 47th edition when it hands out a slew of awards. Lacking any insider and/or embargoed knowledge, I cannot say which title will take home the coveted best Canadian film honour. No matter which movie wins, though, it is safe to say that micro-budget production company MDFF has the metaphorical Canadian cinema trophy locked.
The Toronto-based outfit run by Daniel Montgomery and Kazik Radwanski entered this year’s TIFF with a highly respected reputation, having already produced Radwanski’s acclaimed films, including last year’s searing character study, Anne at 13,000 ft. But MDFF will leave TIFF with a trio of excellent Canadian films in its stable, each of which have left critics swooning and audiences – at least the devoted, curious kind of cinephiles who steer clear of, say, celebrity-packed titles such as Glass Onion – buzzing.
Ashley McKenzie’s dual character study Queens of the Qing Dynasty, Graham Foy’s beautifully haunting drama The Maiden and Antoine Bourges’ sensitive life-in-immigrant-Toronto tale Concrete Valley will all be theatrically released by MDFF as part of the company’s new move into distribution. It is an extension of MDFF that Montgomery and Radwanski hope will not only grow their company’s indie-cinema footprint, but also prove that the country’s emerging filmmakers can hold their own on the global art-house stage.
“The old guard of Canadian distributors have figured out their systems, and new companies come and go. But we’ve learned a lot of the past 10 years that have shown there’s a successful model for handling smaller-scale releases with intimacy, transparency, and attention to detail,” says Montgomery, noting MDFF’s long history of hosting one-off, special screenings across Toronto of hard-to-find films.
“We keep our overheard low, and we push the marketing spend as much into the film as possible to give the best chance of providing these films with a meaningful life in the cinema.”
And it is the cinemas, as opposed to the increasingly crowded digital arena, where MDFF wants to focus.
“As filmmakers, we know what it feels like to hand over everything to a company that could easily skip theatrical and just push content out on video-on-demand with no audience or critical engagement,” says Radwanski. “A theatrical release in cinemas is imperative for a film to have a life and to engage meaningfully with audiences and critics.”
Queens of the Qing Dynasty, McKenzie’s long-awaited follow-up to her acclaimed debut feature Werewolf (which won the $100,000 Toronto Film Critics Association award for Best Canadian Film in 2017), will be the first release on the new MDFF slate, hitting theatres in late 2022 or early 2023. The Maiden and Concrete Valley are set to arrive in 2023.
While home-entertainment platforms will follow – in addition to VOD partners, there are plans for Blu-rays, such as the one MDFF put out this year for Anne at 13,000 ft. in collaboration with U.S. distributor Cinema Guild – the priority is on limited, exclusive theatrical engagements in the typical markets (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver) and locations with direct connections to the films, such as Nova Scotia, where Queens was shot.
What unites all the disparate-on-paper titles? They are eclectic, unconventional and engaging – works that are synonymous with the notion of “authenticity.”
“The benchmark for us is that they feel essential. They have to screen in Canadian cinemas for Canadian audiences,” Radwanski says. “But a major check-and-balance for us is that we feel that all of these will chart internationally. For a Canadian film to truly resonate back home, it also needs to be celebrated globally. There’s nothing more empowering than when a Canadian film can add to the world cinematheque.”
As Montgomery and Radwanski extend their operations into distribution, the pair are busy. Radwanski is currently in the midst of shooting his next feature, a dramedy tentatively called Matt and Mara that reunites Anne at 13,000 ft. co-stars Deragh Campbell and Matt Johnson. And MDFF is continuing to host its year-round MDFF Selects screening series, which grew from tiny Toronto venues such as Double Double Land to its home today inside TIFF’s own gleaming Lightbox.
“We love seeing young people there, watching new films by festival favourites that aren’t released by A24,” Radwanski says, name-checking the cool-kid U.S. indie distributor. “Like hearing that it’s someone’s first time seeing a Hong Sang-soo movie at our screening, then they embark on a 27-film marathon to watch his entire filmography. That’s a true story!”
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