Harvey Weinstein almost killed Hussain Amarshi’s career before it even got started.
In 1994, Amarshi had just launched Mongrel Media, dedicated to the firmly unglamorous business of distributing documentaries and short films on VHS tapes to educational institutions and libraries. At the Toronto International Film Festival that year, he happened to catch a screening of The Silences of the Palace, a slow-boil feminist drama set in 1950s Tunisia. Although he had no experience in theatrical distribution – and at the time had no intention of getting into such a risky undertaking – Amarshi was so entranced by the film that he asked the sales agent if he could pick up the Canadian distribution rights.
“Harvey is doing it,” she is said to have replied, referring to the co-founder of the U.S. indie powerhouse Miramax Films.
But that plan fell through – apparently because, as Amarshi recalled the other day, Weinstein wanted to edit the film against the director’s wishes: “He was known for that.” (Weinstein is now known for other things.)
And so, Amarshi picked up the film as the first theatrical release for what would become perhaps the premier independent film distributor in English Canada, a company whose trajectory – director-driven arthouse and foreign-language hits powering impressive growth, until recent serious headwinds and retrenchment – parallels that of the North American indie film world.
This month, Mongrel celebrates its 25th anniversary with a retrospective at the TIFF Lightbox with screenings of a handful of films it brought to Canadian audiences over the years, including Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s The Corporation, Deepa Mehta’s Water and Michael Haneke’s Amour. Recently, Amarshi, 57, sat down for a long lunch at Parallel, the Middle Eastern restaurant on Geary Avenue: an edgy, industrial strip in Toronto that is also the site of Mongrel’s office, after the company cut staff and leased out its elegant Siamak Hariri-designed showpiece headquarters on Dundas Street West.
You took an unusual route to the business. After growing up in eastern Africa and Pakistan, you moved to Toronto in 1984, did a degree at the University of Toronto in political studies and then a master’s at Queens University. You didn’t set out to be a film distributor, did you?
Well, yes and no. I was at Queens and I started a film festival. The idea was partly related to what they called Development Education. That was funded by CIDA [Canadian International Development Agency]. And the mandate was to do programming about what was happening in the [developing] world. It was not easy to get films that were not distributed in North America. I had to go to European sales agencies and get the prints from them, or go directly to the filmmakers. It was quite an undertaking, particularly at that point, with no internet –
Sure. You’d have to find them first.
And when I finished my master’s, I came to Toronto to run the Euclid Theatre. And had to deal with the same sort of issues: How do you find those films? How do you get them here? Because mostly, they’re not distributed locally. I learned that, if films are not picked up by U.S. distributors, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll get distribution in English Canada.
After Silences, you distributed a couple of Israeli films, Under the Domim Tree and The Summer of Aviya. How did you find an audience for those?
There was that whole quote-unquote “arthouse” audience that would follow a review in The Globe and Mail or wherever, but there was also the non-arthouse audience that had to be found –
I understand you were wandering the streets of Mississauga for Silences.
I was certainly wandering the streets of Mississauga –
Handing out flyers.
In Arabic, yeah.
How’s your Arabic?
[Nonexistent.] I had somebody write the [copy], and people on the street would speak to me in Arabic. It was the same when I was promoting Under the Domim Tree or The Summer of Aviya up on Bathurst Street.
You were handing out flyers and people were –
Yeah, [assuming] I’m Jewish.
Well, sure. You could pass for Arabic, you could pass for Israeli.
The same thing happened with Iranians when I did Iranian films. It worked out.
Well, you always saw yourself as a mongrel, as a citizen of the world.
That was the idea. Exactly.
I was with Shyam Selvadurai, who wrote [the novel] Funny Boy. I’m producing a film of it with David Hamilton [directed by Deepa Mehta]. That’s why I was just in Sri Lanka. Shyam was there, and he remembered Summer of Aviya from 24 years ago. It was quite impactful. This was a first time that an Israeli film was getting a proper theatrical release, in a cinema, five showings a day.
You really helped diversify film choices for Canadian audiences. But also, there’s an article in The Globe archives from 1994 which notes that, when you were just beginning, you spoke about the lack of representation of visible minorities on the Ontario Arts Council and what was then the Ontario Film Development Corporation.
I was on the board there, yeah. With Cameron [Bailey, now the co-head of TIFF].
Are you surprised at how long it’s taken to get to – well, whatever point we’re at?
And it still is very – I mean, the power is still very much ....
What’s the adjective you were going to use there?
I would say – it’s not representative. We talk about how diverse a city Toronto is, and yet in the corridors of power it still remains very much – I’d say it does not reflect the diversity of the city. I would say that continues to be the case in many cultural and arts organizations. There are attempts to change the board here and there, but at the core it’s still very much … the centre is still holding.
Holding on to its power.
I would say so, yeah.
The programmer’s note for the TIFF retrospective says that “despite the constant quest for higher profits and lower costs, the film business survives on the ingenuity of people who think beyond the bottom line.” Which is a nice sentiment, but you still need to make the numbers add up.
True. My intent was never to make Mongrel into this mega kind of [operation]. We’ve got all kinds of films in our catalogue, but the films that matter are the ones that personally, and from a company point of view, we can really get behind. Films like Maudie, or films like Boyhood. Or Deepa’s films. There’s a purposefulness to those films, and we find our job of matching those films to an audience takes a different kind of purpose.
So, how does the deal you struck this year to distribute the films of Lionsgate fit in?
Lionsgate is one of the big studios out there. It’s quite an honour, really, to be able to work with that scale.
Okay. But when I think of Mongrel, I don’t think of the action film John Wick.
You certainly don’t. Yes. Well, what we’re dealing with is a situation where there are more films getting made, but fewer and fewer films make sense economically, in our marketplace. So in that context, to keep us sustainable, we are looking at all kinds of possibilities. And this is an unusual opportunity, in that it allowed for a collaboration between us, [the distribution veteran] Victor Loewy – who comes with 50, 60 years of experience – and Ellis Jacob of Cineplex. So it was an unusual but very attractive opportunity, that it allows us to enhance our skill set. Knives Out [which opens Nov. 27] will open on significantly more screens, roughly our biggest ever. We’re looking at more than 250 screens.
Not a surprise, really. It’s not The Silences of the Palace.
No, certainly not. Very far from Silences of the Palace. But at some level, Knives Out does fit in very much with what we do. These are very high-quality films.
I’m not denying it’s a high-quality film. Its director Rian Johnson –
He’s an auteur. And the film following, that is Bombshell [about the sexual assault allegations against the late Fox News founder Roger Ailes], and that’s also a very current film. It is dealing with a very topical issue.
Yes it is. Again, not necessarily a –
Silences of the Palace?
I was going to say “Mongrel film.”
Although Silences of the Palace is also very much a #MeToo film. [Laughs]. But in order to sustain a company for the length of time that we have, and hopefully for much longer, you need to be able to be malleable.
You’ve retrenched recently.
We had over 30 [staff, in 2015]. Now we’re down to 12.
The economics are not there to continue to sustain the same independent film scene that we’re used to.
That’s the real challenge right now. In this context, the Canadian content situation: How are we going to ensure that our stories get made and get told, and that we find an audience for those stories? That’s always been a challenge for us. Particularly in English Canada.
It’s interesting to see how you’ve become a champion of Canadian films, even though they still don’t represent the bulk of what Mongrel does.
We’ve always done five to seven Canadian films a year. Where we get the most satisfaction is when we’re able to bring our own stories, and find an audience for those stories. The kind of audience attachment to a film like Maudie was phenomenal, particularly in Atlantic Canada. And we don’t have many of those stories. We’re not making them. Partly it has to do with economics. For a film to be able to get financed you need American stars, well-known stars. Not easy to attract them. It’s become much more difficult now, especially in this golden age of television, where there’s so much work.
And so much money being thrown at them.
Millions of dollars.
Funded in part by Netflix taking on billions of dollars in debt, which some believe is inflating a market bubble.
Exactly. So it’s become much harder than ever before.
How did the retrenchment feel?
The last office was a beautiful office, and it was built with this sense of optimism. We were just starting our international sales division. But it was becoming clearer that unless we pivoted to something else, the prospects of what we were doing were going to be challenged. We would have to reimagine ourselves, possibly going back to the past. One of my happiest times was working out of my garage, a few years after I started, on Melville Avenue. I had to just walk 10 steps and I was in my office, had a small office, four or five of us were working there, and it was, like, you had your hands on everything you were doing. The videos were stored upstairs. And there was a sense that we were controlling our context. And so, in some ways, by moving into – it’s called the Artisan Factory, the building that we’re in now, and there are all kinds of other businesses that are very tactile, very hands-on. So, from that point of view, it’s great to be able to come to work here. It’s such a small space, compared to what we had. But we’ve settled in quite nicely.
This interview has been condensed and edited
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