Film executive Noah Segal wants you to know that he’s an optimist. From outside the movie industry bubble, it might appear that the business looks like a dumpster that’s been set afire, and then covered in the detritus of another dumpster: delayed releases, uncertain theatrical reopenings, insurance-less productions struggling to adapt to a COVID-19 reality. But Segal, co-president of Elevation Pictures, Canada’s largest English-language film distributor, “is a believer!” And he wants you to be one, too.
“These are tough times but Canada has been blessed with an infrastructure that puts us in a unique position. We have built tremendous crews, tremendous locations and a system that exists to support us,” says Segal, whose company is handling three buzzy titles (The Father, Ammonite, I Care a Lot) at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “If I can send one message, it is that now is the time to think big.”
Which is exactly the ethos that Elevation is pushing as it ramps up its production arm with two high-profile films – the Jude Law/Carrie Coon domestic drama The Nest, which opens in real-deal cinemas Friday, and the Lucas Hedges/Michelle Pfeiffer comedy French Exit, which will close the New York Film Festival next month – in the midst of a pandemic.
Taking a quick break from the virtual duties of a hybrid TIFF – “I think you can only accomplish about 20 per cent of what you set out to during this festival, which is no one’s fault, but we shouldn’t have any illusions about it” – Segal spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about making movies in the age of COVID-19, and what a Canadian movie may or may not smell like.
Elevation started distributing films in Canada in 2014, then got into production in 2016, bringing in Christina Piovesan. What’s changed since then for you and (fellow co-president Laurie May)?
From the day we started the company, and working with [financier Teddy Schwarzman], you can’t ignore the links between production and distribution. Even when we’re prebuying scripts for distribution, we’re giving notes to make the product we’re buying better. We’ve always talked about being more involved in creating content, so can we do that and make it a profit centre, too? We quickly established ourselves in three categories: service, which is foreign productions that come here to shoot, co-productions between Canada and other countries, and wholly owned and developed productions. And because we’re distributors, we’re able to help walk productions through the minefield of a very intricate system.
You have The Nest this week, but if COVID didn’t happen, what situation would you be in?
We were up to four films a year, and our goal was three and maybe a television show. With The Nest, everyone is proud of it. There’s a big fear in co-productions like this that they a) rely on heavy subsidies to get made and b) don’t exit the Canadian market in terms of value proposition. But here’s a film with movie stars and a Canadian director [Sean Durkin], and an appetite outside the marketplace. French Exit is one of the few films ever in Canadian co-production history that was prebought for distribution by a major U.S. studio, Sony Pictures Classics. It’s a real success story: It got into the New York Film Festival, not TIFF for whatever reason, but once again there, Canadians are not supporting their own. ... But it’s become a calling card for us to Los Angeles, in that it’s a commercial film that Canadians are making. It doesn’t smell of provincialism: It’s an international film. We want to be viewed as crossing borders seamlessly.
What do you mean you don’t want movies smelling like, well, they’re Canadian?
I say that strictly as a means to generate revenue outside the territory. I’m a huge advocate of Canadian culture. French Exit is based on a Canadian book by Patrick deWitt. [Elevation’s 2015 film] Room is based on a Canadian book. I’m a big advocate of Canadian stories getting told, and by Canadians. But in terms of the world we’re living in right now – one of winnowing subsidies, increasing barriers and challenges – as a Canadian producer you’re obligated to think about customers not just locally but internationally.
We’ve been very supportive of strong, Canadian-messaged films – Hyena Road, Indian Horse – which were big swings for us. But when we set out to produce, the best way to win the day was to make movies that speak to Canadians and everybody else, too. Semi Chellas’s American Woman, that was about Patty Hearst but in an interesting way. Jay Baruchel, he comes to us and says he wants to make a horror film with Random Acts of Violence – okay, great! When a major horror streaming service like Shudder says, “Please give us that movie,” that tells me a lot. As opposed to a Cancon sale on television that isn’t the ideal home for it.
Can you elaborate what you mean by “Canadians not supporting their own”?
I feel like it’s an ongoing battle with people at [TIFF]. It’s not 300 titles like usual this year, but it’s always a traffic jam there, and with Canadian film it’s a challenge to get good placement. More than not we fight harder at TIFF and get less results than we’d like. It’s fair to say that people at TIFF are trying, but in a world of COVID, it’s just highlighted in so many way how we’re all in the same sandbox together: Telefilm, distributors, producers, the talent and, of course, TIFF. If we find a way to work better together to amplify the message that these are important movies, then those films will exit Canada with better exposure. TIFF has reached a level where it’s not just a Canadian festival, but an international one. It’s incumbent on them to find ways to elevate Canadian fare.
One of the discussions that’s been rocking the film industry this summer is how much room is being made for diverse voices. In Elevation’s production strategy, is there a defined priority for making sure under-represented talent is given more opportunity?
Obviously we feel they’ve been under-serviced. First on a level of entry into the market. It’s a hard enough business to get into, and talent alone doesn’t always do it. You need to have that little opportunity to open the door. What’s limiting is the little friendship with someone more senior. So yes, we have to open the door to get them in. But we want to also make sure that content is king. We need to create opportunities. Case in point: We have two strong episodic projects we’re looking at that are representative of BIPOC creators, including a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo set in the professional basketball world with Clement Virgo and Damon D’Oliveira. Are we listening to these conversations? We absolutely are.
Even before March, there were struggles in the Canadian theatrical market. Is Elevation inching away from the theatrical distribution game?
This business is so reflexive. As soon as one thing happens, everything happens. So the world stops and theatres are dead. Obviously we found with Cineplex, the moment they were able to open, they did and audiences came back. There was definitely something in the air with the birth of streaming, so yes there is a change. But I don’t think this is tectonic. We all want predictiveness, but we’re in a very unpredictable time.
This interview has been condensed and edited
The Nest opens in Canadian theatres Sept. 18
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