A screen at the beginning of Hevn (Revenge) reads, “Med Stotte fra Norsk Filminstitutt, Vestnorsk Filmsenter, and Ontario Media Development Corporation.” So what is an Ontario funding agency doing in this Norwegian psychological thriller, shot on this breathtaking fjord, peopled with all these stunning Scandinavians?
The answer is, 20 per cent. That’s the amount a Canadian producer has to put into an international co-production, financially and creatively, for it to qualify as a Canadian film. And that’s what producer Paul Barkin (The Tracey Fragments), with help from the OMDC, delivered – 20 per cent of the $2.5-million budget, including post-production in Toronto, a Canadian composer for the score, and one more thing: When the script called for a kick-ass karaoke song, Barkin suggested Alannah Miles. Which is why Hevn momentarily lightens up as a bar full of Norwegians belt out “Black Velvet.” If that isn’t cross-cultural, what is?
Hevn is the first Canadian/Norwegian co-production in nearly 20 years. It’s also an experiment for the OMDC, which doesn’t get involved in many foreign-language films. It’s the fruition of initiatives the funding body put in place a decade ago to nudge Canadians into the world of international co-production – in other words, the present.
Any country that isn’t the U.S., no matter how generous their tax credits and funding agencies may be, has a hard time scraping together the money on its own to make a film that’s good enough to compete in the international market. Since the 1980s, any time you’ve gone to, say, a Belgian film, what you saw was likely a Belgian/French/German co-pro, or some similar concoction. (The U.S. doesn’t have co-pro treaties. Co-pro treaties were invented to help other countries stand a chance against the behemoth that is Hollywood.)
Canada has co-production treaties with 64 countries – India’s, signed in 2014, is the newest – but despite that, we’ve been slow to join the co-pro party. “Our greater amount of funding prevented us from having to look outside our borders,” Barkin says in a phone interview. “Telefilm used to fund 49 per cent of a film. They don’t any more, and some people say they should bring that back. But I disagree. In order for us to better our films, we need to expand our horizons” – creatively as well as financially.
A few Canadian co-pros have a made a splash lately – the feature films Room and Brooklyn (both co-productions with Ireland); the TV series Vikings and The Borgias; the limited series The Book of Negroes (a co-pro with South Africa). But the push for those projects began about a decade ago, when the Liberal government gave the OMDC a whack of dough to spur Canadian production, say the OMDC’s Karen Thorne-Stone (president and CEO) and James Weyman (manager of industry initiatives) in a joint phone interview.
With some of that money, they created an international financing forum at the Toronto International Film Festival, so Canadian producers could mingle with the world here at home. (That was overdue. Far less-glossy festivals had had them for years. In retrospect, the idea is such a no-brainer, it belongs in Tim Horton’s current, “Why didn’t we think of this before?” maple coffee campaign.) Since it began, 60 projects (some in production, some completed) have resulted.
They also created an Export Fund to send our producers out into the world, to festivals and business forums where they could build relationships that might lead to co-productions. “We’re not making films for our friends,” Weyman says, laughing. “They have to be able to compete on the world stage.”
Beginning in 2010, the OMDC began targeting Scandinavia as a logical place for Canadian co-pros. Scandinavians share our chilly climes, our sensibilities, our politics. They speak perfect English. And their countries work together the way Canadian provinces do: same basic peoples, despite distinct regional differences.
So in 2010, Barkin headed to the Norwegian International Film Festival, hoping to find funding partners for his sci-fi thriller The Colony. “I didn’t,” he says, “but I made friends.” Two years later he went back – with Afterland, about a polar expedition that gets stranded on an ice floe in the 1870s – and made more.
In 2014, one of them called him: A producer friend had a great script, Hevn, that was missing its last 20 per cent. Barkin fell for its female point of view and slow-burn psychological cat-and-mouse story. (A woman claiming to be a travel journalist shows up at a remote hotel that’s just closed for the season. Her hosts welcome her in, not realizing they have a shared history.) He signed on as a producer in June, and in September, stepped off a plane in Norway for the first day of production.
Co-pros are a very “I scratch your back, etc.” arrangement. One film might be 20 per cent Canadian and 80 per cent Icelandic, but on the next film, those numbers might reverse. That Canadian film will then get more screens in Iceland. And vice-versa: Canadian involvement gives co-pros a precious toehold in North America. A committed producer like Barkin will, as he puts it, “bicycle the film across the country,” from Halifax to Toronto to Vancouver. If it plays here, it may get the brass ring, a deal in the U.S.
Plus, no matter what the country, “funding agencies are staffed by government bureaucrats,” Barkin says. “So if another country says a script is cool, they think, ‘We can say it’s cool, too.’ It’s evidence of market interest, which they want. And what government doesn’t like building relationships internationally?”
The films that result from co-productions are also more sophisticated than they used to be. In the 1980s, different countries would jam elements into a picture willy-nilly, so you’d get these so-called Europuddings, where a film ostensibly about the French countryside would be peopled inexplicably with Danish and German actors. Now it’s understood that majority partners have final say on creative elements, and that films do better when their distinct voices and points of view are protected.
Advances in technology, too, have bolstered the push for co-pros: Making a movie is like having a child, Barkin says, so it was important for him to spend a lot of Skype time getting to know his Norwegian partners. A few short years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible. As well, Weyman believes that streaming services like Netflix have whetted audience tastes for eclectic international fare, and made North Americans less allergic to subtitles.
Barkin’s European relationship-building has certainly paid off. He’ll shoot Afterland in Malta and Manitoba, with an Icelandic director. His film Bloody Knuckles will be a co-production with Ireland. He’s developing The Bird Catcher with a Norwegian writer, along with “a couple of projects in Finland.”
“I won’t make a movie now if it isn’t an international co-pro,” Barkin sums it up. “The opportunities are great. The world is wide open.”