To work in the Canadian film industry is to, as the apocryphal saying goes, “live in interesting times.” Between the rise of streaming services, the emerging Chinese market, a boom in Canada’s West Coast production sector and a thousand other small and large shifts, the industry is a perpetually shaky one to navigate. Vancouver-based producer Shawn Williamson knows all the ups and downs and, as president of Brightlight Pictures, he has carved out an intriguing niche in the Canadian landscape by balancing genre projects (White Noise, Bloodrayne) and critical darlings (50/50, It’s All About Love). A few weeks after Brightlight’s genre mashup Colossal scored critical raves, Williamson spoke with The Globe and Mail about Netflix, monster mash-ups and the benefits of being in British Columbia.
Can a production company survive if it only looks inside Canada?
Well, because the Canadian market is really so small, you can’t finance strictly in the borders here, no. You have to look at international sales and it forces your hand to become very adept at finding money wherever and however you can. It’s interesting to look at different jurisdictions as they rise and fall, too. There was a time when we were working with Singapore a lot because Singapore was throwing money in the hopes of building a film industry. You wouldn’t think of Canada and Singapore as film production partners, but 10 or 12 years ago, they were. But since then, the Singapore money has faded away. It was the same with Germany for many years.
Where is the current co-production hot spot, then?
China is the spot that everyone is trying to work with, but it’s in its infancy. We’re forever looking for partners, to find a way to tie projects into China. The Chinese have such a large market, though, that they don’t need the rest of the world. They’re instead looking to expand themselves, acquiring large American companies, so that they can produce more Hollywood movies than strictly Chinese movies.
Is there a benefit to being in Vancouver, in terms of proximity to China?
We’re in a good location in the sense of China, yes, but we’re also very close to L.A., too, which remains the hub of film and television production. But it doesn’t matter where you live in this industry as much as it matters your ability to access good material. It all starts from simply finding a good story.
How did Colossal come to be?
It was originally structured as a Canadian/Spanish treaty production. Anne Hathaway was attached and we were developing with the Spanish, but then Jason Sudeikis became attached and that gave us one too many American components. So we just packaged it as a regular movie and it all fell into place. It was a unique movie because we just didn’t know how to qualify it in which genre. It’s a monster picture, but not really. But it does speak to an audience.
How distruptive are streaming services to the industry landscape?
The number of sales opportunities you have has exploded online with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu. I met with a Chinese company last week which produces only for China’s version of Netflix, and they had stuff with 1.8 billion views. That territory has blown up and it means real money to studios and producers.
Do you see the nature of content being skewed toward Chinese tastes?
I think they are looking to Americanize or Hollywoodize their material more so than anything. Chinese audiences, from what I’ve seen, want a movie to feel more like it’s coming out of Hollywood than coming out of Beijing. Look at the Fast and the Furious series or Guardians of the Galaxy. These are big Hollywood productions that can get through the Chinese censors and work with the Chinese marketplace. They want to limit the number of American productions coming into that market but expand it considerably in terms of having a Chinese product that feels North American.
Thanks to tax credits and proximity to L.A., there’s been a huge boom in B.C. production. Do you see that continuing?
Well, you have the A-list crews, but the stars aren’t staying. Seth Rogen, for instance, he’s going to follow the power, and the power of film and TV is in Hollywood. But at the same time, you don’t see the same exodus of talent we saw 15 years ago. For writers, directors, actors, you can succeed at the highest level and still live in Vancouver.
This interview has been edited and condensed.Report Typo/Error