A year ago, the Whistler Film Festival launched its China Canada Gateway for Film Script Competition with much fanfare. After a pitch session at the B.C. mountain resort festival, three Canadian producer-writer teams would be selected by three Chinese film companies and get their projects produced, potentially as Canada-China co-productions, and perhaps so quickly that they would be in production – or at least further along – by this year's festival.
Three projects were selected: an animated children's movie, Butterfly Tale; a romantic comedy set primarily in France, Blush; and The Eddie Zhao Story, based on a real-life Chinese immigrant to the United States who fell victim to a con man and became a private eye. But, 12 months later, all of the deals made at Whistler are off.
"You walk out of the room thinking that your movie is finally going to get made," says Heidi Foss, who wrote Butterfly Tale. "It kind of sounded too good to be true when it happened, and it turns out it was."
The competition, run by the festival in association with Telefilm Canada and China Film Group, is meant to encourage co-productions between the two countries. Canadian filmmakers can access development money and the increasingly important Chinese film market as they try to get their movies made. And China, eager to become a film powerhouse, gains access to the expertise of Canadian screenwriters and producers as they look for works suitable for both the Chinese domestic and international markets.
For the inaugural competition last year, up to $15-million was on the table for production financings. Applicants were advised in the application form that Chinese film projects are "incredibly fast by North American standards. From concept to release in 12 months."
For all of the promise, however, no productions have emerged from the competition's first year. The Gateway certainly offers no guarantees that a film will result, even if last year's winners may have felt like they had hit the jackpot when they were selected. But organizers remain optimistic about the initiative, and say the main point of the Gateway is to make connections between Canadian filmmakers and Chinese studios.
"Any victory in trying to bring those two markets together is a victory because the cultures are so different. It's easy to measure success by the three projects that are picked but I would rather take a broader look," says Jane Milner, one of the architects of the Gateway competition and the festival's director of special projects. "Obviously, I would have been happier if we had three movies, but it's a giant learning experience."
Each deal fell apart for different reasons.
Accessing development financing was a problem for both Butterfly Tale and Blush. In both cases the writers were reluctant to do work on their scripts on spec.
"Am I going to change my beautiful little film with no money up front?" says Montreal-based Foss, who is confident her film ultimately will be made outside this deal. "I'm not going to do a million rewrites to satisfy a company that hasn't made a commitment other than sort of a handshake at the end of the competition."
Richard Bell, Vancouver-based writer of Blush, says he and his producer had a hard time contacting the studio in China, and when he was encouraged to flesh out his synopsis, he refused. "I thought to myself: 'My time would be better spent playing video games on my Wii than writing this script.'"
The Eddie Zhao Story, meanwhile, fell victim to personality and culture clashes with the giant, state-owned China Film Group, which had swooped in during the competition and scooped up the project from the smaller production house that selected it.
Raymond Massey, the Vancouver-based producer of Eddie Zhao, is confident his film will be resurrected with a new partner (he left for China shortly after we spoke, in part to shop it around).
To encourage the production of future Gateway winners, the competition is now asking applicants to also submit a development plan. The number of entries is down this year – 26 compared with 110 last year – but Milner says the proposals are stronger this time around. Twelve finalists will pitch their projects this week. At least three will be selected for development.
Both Bell and Foss, in the runup to this year's festival, say they have been approached by other writers and asked if it's worth their while to enter the competition. Both said no.
But Massey says the competition was a huge boost to his project, even if his film didn't end up getting made through the Gateway.
"The main point is that Gateway provided instant feedback. It was the first time we presented the project to any buyers or financiers and it validated immediately that we had a good project. The fact that it didn't work out with the party that offered the deal is par for the course. Some of those things work out, some don't."
The Whistler Film Festival runs in Whistler, B.C., to Dec. 8. whistlerfilmfestival.com