Agility has been key to surviving the pandemic, says Canadian film producer Noah Segal
Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
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Since Elevation Pictures’ birth in 2013, it’s become a major player in Canadian film production. You probably recognize the logo from dozens of movie intros: travelling through space, a group of stars link up like a constellation to form the company name as the high notes of a synthesizer shape into a slight melody.
Even in a complicated year like this one, the Toronto-based company released 30 titles including The Nest, Possessor, Blood Quantum, The Broken Hearts Gallery and Random Acts of Violence. Oh yeah, and Minari, The Father and The Mauritanian — award-winners all.
Elevation’s latest movie, French Exit, was released in February. Briefly an Oscar hopeful, French Exit is based on Patrick deWitt’s most recent novel (deWitt himself wrote the script). The drama follows Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Manhattan socialite quickly burning through her inheritance. Unwilling to adapt to a more practical lifestyle, Frances takes her son (Lucas Hedges), her cat and all the cash she can muster and moves to Paris. The plan, as far as she has one, is to abruptly “depart” the moment the money runs out.
French Exit was produced by Noah Segal, who’s also Elevation’s co-president. I had the opportunity to speak with him about the status of the Canadian film industry following a uniquely challenging year. Some answers have been edited for length.
There’s no job in film more vaguely defined than producer. What kind of producer are you?
We have a team approach in the production division. There’s me and Christina Piovesan. Cristina is a more on-the-floor producer, making sure the team has what it needs. My job consists in finding good material, befriending the talent and finding a way to get the financing. One of the secrets of the production business is that most of your problems are solved in prep.
Elevation seems to be bucking the curve by growing its production slate. How’s that model sustainable?
It’s like David and Goliath. We live in a world not only with big studios, but one in which the streamers now occupy the same space. It has become harder to find product and release it. The reason why it’s working for us is because the business is built around curation. It comes down to gut: you can run numbers all you want, but if someone doesn’t get behind those numbers with belief, you get nowhere. That’s how the company moved into production, because we saw an opportunity in the market. We were looking to buy movies, but we didn’t find many so we started making our own.
How do you feel Elevation has fared during the pandemic?
We were very sad to see cinemas closing. We understand why it had to happen, but it was very disappointing. Cinemas are drivers, meaning when a movie goes into theatres, half the consumers go and see it and the other half goes “I missed it, I want to see it somewhere else”. We’ve done well with the transactional business. Consumers have found our movies in VOD services, not only the new ones but our catalogue: The Imitation Game, Room and Moonlight have performed extremely well. But we’re anxious to get people back in theatres. It helps us all.
You also find yourself in the position of trying to guess what kind of market you’ll encounter once the pandemic is over.
We had movies change dates I can’t even tell you how many times. It was like that scene in Airplane “your flight will be arriving in gate 8… gate 9… gate 10…”, but we learned. Going forward, the agility we found is now stress-tested and can help us in the future. We believe theatres are going to open the second or third quarter this year. In the U.S., 90-per cent of their movie screens are open and Canada is two to three months behind, based on the vaccination process. There’s a clear interest by consumers in different windowing. Some people are willing to pay extra to see a movie early in premium VOD. But certain films just demand cinemas. I expect movie theatres to come back in a big way, an expanded transactional business with different tiers and an expanded role for streamers.
Do you imagine producing a film in Saskatchewan considering the province has no competitive tax credits to offer?
We’re in a boom time for creating content worldwide. For the last 20 years (tax credits) have proven to pay off in millions of ways. They build infrastructure, foster Canadian production and cultural impression. There’s a correlation between training Canadians to make content and them telling their own stories. I’m from the Prairies myself (AB), so I understand the value of bringing productions there. You need crews, to have crews you need volume, and to have volume you need incentives. There’s a reason why BC, ON, QC and AB renew these incentives. They work. The best thing would be an annualized approach. If Saskatchewan were to offer a significant tax credit, it can always pull back if it wasn’t working.
What do you look for in a script?
The bottom line is this: does it move me, or gives me a ride? Good content tends to be successful, so we look for the best stuff. Secondarily we rely on popular genres. Drama is a harder genre, but has also led to our biggest successes.
What’s big right now?
Specificity. Historically, people made generic stuff because they were afraid if they made a movie about Saskatoon it wouldn’t resonate worldwide. Now you turn on Netflix and you can watch series in Spanish and French that are extremely successful. It shows we didn’t give the consumer enough credit. A romance in Saskatoon is different than a romance in Toronto and that difference may drive interest. It goes back to the tax credits, we need to sell our culture, people are interested in our stuff. Think of Blood Quantum, an indigenous perspective on zombies, you don’t see that.