FINANCING AN INDIE FILM, THE DEATH OF THE CANADIAN PRODUCER
It was the year 2000 and my associate Jonathan and I were trying to cast our production company’s (Hiltz Squared Media) latest projects for development- Blizzard and Harmony. We decided to leave the comforts of our Toronto office and fly to LA with the intention of attaching some well known stars to our latest productions but a few roadblocks were creating setbacks for the films to enter pre-production.
Both films had been pre sold to Canadian broadcasters which accounted for 15% of our budget. 30-40% of the budget would be granted for the production by the federal and provincial governments. (yes the same government that refuses to pay CUPE ONTARIO and won’t let them strike) The issue was the remaining 40% of the budget was based on landing a known talent which in turn would cause a US distributor or major broadcaster to solve our financial situation. Financing Canadian films without a studio is a very tricky business. All studios mainly care about is have the producers attached “A” level talent to the project. At the same, all well known talent will usually only sign on if a studio or respected distributor is attached to the project. It’s a difficult dilemma for independent producers who don’t have deals in place with major US studios. Actually actors sometimes will agree to act in your movie but only in what’s called, “A Pay or Play” situation. Essentially the actor will receive full payment whether the movie is produced or not. However The LOI- (the Letter Of Intent) is a way around this conundrum of injustice. In other words, if the actor signs an LOI, a studio will consider investing. Unfortunately most name talents refuse to sign LOI’s.
Back to our trip…
It was a little unusual to say the least.
We didn’t really have the funds for a fancy hotel or even a crappy hotel for that matter. Last time we stayed at a dive called The Farmer’s Daughter and I can only compare it to the Russian prison recently seen in Stranger Things, season 4, where Hopper has been imprisoned.
Luckily my dad had a former medical school friend who was living in North Ridge, California who had accidentally shot himself in his while serving in the Vietnam war. His mansion was at least 7,000 square feet with a pool, jacuzzi, a full basketball court and as much cannabis as you wanted! I recall he was some type of surgeon who frequently showed up to dinner wearing his bloodied scrubs feeding his gigantic dog QP steaks. For some odd reason his family found the behaviour quite normal.
His wife was one of the most wonderful people you could ever meet, Her meals were heavenly except for the night she made cheese cake when both myself and Jonathan had the worst nightmares and stomachaches ever. Their kids were extremely nice to us as well. In fact, one of them was dating the daughter of a well known fashion designer. The other son explained to us that since Northridge had been the focal point of a major earthquake in 1984, it would never happen there again. Pass me another joint.
My favourite part of the trip was meeting Fred Savage. He read for the lead of our script Blizzard. He was absolutely sensational and nailed the part. The female lead we wanted was Thora Birch. Unfortunately she wasn’t in town during our LA trip.
BARNES & NOBLE
With time to kill between meetings we were reading magazines. This was before the pervasiveness of the online world. Out of nowhere I scribbled down on a napkin TITMF. (The Toronto International Teen Movie Festival) Jonathan thought the idea was amazing- a festival for teens nineteen and under to submit their films and have them seen on the big screen by audiences and industry heavy weights.. Jonathan’s first call was to his sister, my future wife Naomi. He pitched her the idea and she loved it. Literally his next call was to the marketing people at AMC (the world-wide cinema chain). My brother-in-law sold them on the concept in under 30 minutes. He’s one of those guys who could sell ice to the Eskimos. We had our location for the TITMF! AMC Toronto would hold the first ever festival.
BACK IN TORONTO
When we returned to Toronto, our excitement continued to build. We hired a PR company and signed them on. Afterwards Jonathan called up his friend at what today is Bell Media but at the time was known as The Movie Network who had produced my first two films, Jack’s House & Famous Dead People. They quickly agreed to sign on as our pay television sponsor. The winning films would have the opportunity to air on TMN. Our next call would be one of the most important of our young lives. We needed a title sponsor to pay for the gigantic event we were planning and had babbled to the world about. In fact, we had just paid for a full time staff and for a technical company to light the event and TITMF awards show which would also play on The Movie Network. More about that later. (we also hired on a production crew to shoot the awards show.)
About a month after I coined the term TITMF, we had our first meeting with Levi’s. They went wild for the concept. Their entire marketing team fell in love with the idea. In fact, they loved it so much Levi’s US became a major sponsor. Not only were we receiving free Levi’s clothes, they had created applications for kids and teens to fill out which were available in their stores. This was becoming too big too fast, like an out of control train veering off the tracks.
THE PRESS CONFERENCE
The next logical solution for our team was to hold a world-wide press conference and fly in as many big stars as we couldn’t afford. For the conference we flew in Emily Hampshire (Schitt’s Creek), Thomas Ian Nicholas (American Pie), Gabrielle Union (Bring It On), Eric Lively (So Weird), Robin Dunne (Sanctuary) and a few other local Canadian talents. The press conference was unbelievable with media showing up from around the world. Over 500 articles appeared online and in papers.
THE BIG 3
With Levi’s as our main sponsor, The Movie Network as our television sponsor we then signed on Much Music World as our music television sponsor. A few weeks later we were shooting commercials with myself, Jonathan and Naomi eating pizza (Pizza Pizza was a big sponsor) and ranting about our cool new fest. The commercials played in all AMC theatres and on The Movie Network and Much Music. The three of us were becoming ‘d’ list type celebs, the kind of people that showed up on comedy central to roast a celebrity who had been famous. Subsequently, the commercials were so loved Jonathan and Naomi were asked to star in a movie review show on CBC NEWS WORLD.
Our next marketing move was to fly the team to New York City and put everyone up at one of their most expensive hotels for two weeks while eating in some of the best restaurants. Of course, we hired an American PR team because our Canadian PR team just simply wasn’t bringing in enough press. Keep in mind by this time our executive team was thinking of changing the name of our company to Hiltz Squared Studios and contemplating expanding into the toy market and maybe even buying a basketball team in the recently revived American Basketball Association. I remember being in Hawaii for a weekend with my parents and while everyone else was building sand castles, I was hanging out on the beach creating out of sand the Hiltz Squared Studios while drinking Pina Coladas and glued to my Rogers cellphone. Did I mention Rogers was a major sponsor?
At the time we came very close to purchasing a team if money hadn’t been a factor. While in New York we stayed at the “Avenue” on Columbus and met Pink before she was Pink! We frequented parties and clubs every night and I met the director of American Psycho which was amazing! Our film Jack’s House had a one week theatrical run in NYC and also won Naomi, the best Director award at the New York Independent Film Festival for her efforts! We did interviews with Teen Vogue, and a number of other trendy teen publications. The trip was beyond fun and expensive.
So the Levi’s Toronto International Teen Movie Festival was born. Say that two times quickl!. Next we promised the cosmetics company Maybelline the naming rights to the festival awards show, and host in the same stratosphere as Brittney Spears. Unfortunately, the stars wanted the type of loonies and toonies that weren’t in our budget. Cut to, plan B- myself, Jonathan and Naomi were set to host the awards show, with a bunch of “c” list local talent no one had ever heard of. Did I mention we were also on the cover of the festival program magazine? (our egos were growing faster than the festival budget!)The awards show took place at the outdoor main stage of Ontario Place. Our backdrop was a large LTITMF sign and we sat on a nice white couch. Who knew it would pour?? As we tried our best to be cool and funny, the rain managed to turn away a number of fans in attendance except for the nominees who froze their collective asses off. Truthfully it may started hailing. After the show we went inside to take photos with our celebs no-one had hear and looked at all our sponsors who were wearing their best fake smiles. By the way on November 9, we flew to England for a month.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
The events of September 11, (the day the twins towers collapsed) were obviously absolutely horrible. They also proved catastrophic for a first year event that was planned for October 27-November 4. I remember driving all over the city with Naomi, completing a crazy check list of things to do while the radio was constantly blaring news about September 11 and the implications of it. Not only was it difficult psychologically to deal with but the attendance we’d expected would no longer met our expectations. People all over the world were now terrified of flying and that meant the cancellation of flights to our event.
The actual festival went amazingly well. We probably went 30 percent over budget but the kids loved it. A film from Sweden won best over all film and the best Canadian flick was called Pariahs which played on The Movie Network. The AMC theatre was packed for every screening and the sponsors promoted their brands in the lobby and parking lot. Trojan, couldn’t have been happier. Disney even come on board and had a special screening of the Wizard of Oz which was tremendous.
The second year of the festival wasn’t as crazy and we managed it much better. It was a smaller event but still had the glamour of sponsors like Warner Brothers.
But after two years of running a worldwide event and with the constant need to find sponsorship we realized our true passion was filmmaking. Ultimately we sold the festival and it was renamed Young Cuts and to this day is run out of Montreal. As for our films Blizzard and Harmony they were never realized as the event was virtually a full-time gig for three years.