Co-Production Studies: Strategic Partners Forum

Guest post by Yael Bergman A few days at Strategic Partners, Halifax, Canada and a crash course at International Co-Production Financing.

I saw Ted in Toronto a few days before heading to Strategic Partners in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He suggested I write on his blog with what went on there. I am reporting back now...

I write this as an Australian producer who recently produced a romantic comedy in Australia called I Love You Too.  It was completely financed within Australia, largely with Australian and state government investment, and the tax rebate (up to 40 per cent of Australian spend). We are fortunate in Australia to have this public funding as a resource, and whilst it is perpetually competitive, it is the way most film and television is made in Australia. It sustains the industry and ensures we continue to tell Australian stories.

My producing partner, Laura Waters, who is originally from Colorado but has lived in Australia for almost 20 years, regularly comments that she can't believe governments actually give you money to develop and make stuff here. Well, it's true!

To some independent American producers, this must sound like the gold pot at the end of the rainbow, but the reality is it's a limited pool and the funding bodies (and consequently, the producers) are always trying to work out a way to make it stretch further.

One good way is via co-producing, i.e. we split the cost of making a project over two or more countries that has a vested interest, and then we can each claim it as our own as a “national film”. Arguably, the project should be culturally relevant to each producing country and there needs to be a fair split between creative elements and financial contribution, but on the whole, with a bit of juggling, it can work very well if the project calls for it.  (NB: This applies for international producers entering into an official co-production with Australia, the project becomes automatically entitled to the Producer Offset rebate as an Australian project, up to 40% of Australian spend.)

Australia has official co-production treaties or Memorandums Of Understanding (MOU) with countries such as Canada, China, Singapore, Israel, NZ, UK and most European countries. Canada has treaties with more than 50. Unfortunately for the American independent producer community, no official treaties exist with the US. If you are an American independent producer and "that sucks" has just crossed your mind, be aware that its not all upside - dealing with bureaucracies to make films is often slow and time-consuming, which is time and energy that could otherwise go into the creative process… but nonetheless, we are absolutely grateful it exists.

The state of play is, however, changing. As the marketplace gets tighter and more competitive, there is a general appreciation, certainly within Australia anyhow, that we need to open up to wider markets, including the US. We just need to be creative in how we do it.

So, it was with much curiosity that I noticed the organizers of Strategic Partners, the international co-production market in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, from Sept 16-19 (which I attended thanks to support from my local state funding body, Film Victoria…) decided to spotlight the USA, as well as Germany, as potential co-production partners. Despite having no official treaty, is there a way international producers can partner up with US producers? Apparently yes. While the spirit of traditional co-productions is to align the interests of international producers whose domestic markets are too small to compete with the US in the global marketplace, it appears that unofficial alliances between US and other countries, are becoming more accepted, especially via co-development and co-financing. (Note: in Australia, Screen Australia has launched a development program where they will match development funds up to $50,000 with funds from a third party with marketplace credibility i.e. financier, sales agents, distributors, broadcaster, etc. who can be from any country).

So within this context, over 3 and a half days at Strategic Partners in Halifax, 180 international producers, financiers, distributors, TV executives, sales agents, and representatives from national and state Canadian funding agencies were matched in 30 minute meeting blocks at tiny tables in a large hotel ballroom to talk about projects, possible collaborations, exchange information and hopefully find some common ground. These sessions were interspersed with inspiring guest speakers who generously shared their war stories and views on the current state of play. Christine Vachon spoke about the challenges of working with first time filmmakers in this risk averse environment, the downward pressure on budgets, and the opportunities opening up within the digital age, but her overarching message was that its always been tough and we keep getting used to the changes, so we just need to keep producing creatively (Christine is now producing a TV series for the first time for HBO with Todd Haynes directing, based on the original book of Mildred Pierce.)

Other keynote speakers included Toronto-based producer Laszlo Barna (whose company Barna-Alper Productions was acquired by E1 Entertainment in 2008) who was big on the message that Canada’s potential as a co-production partner is still underexploited.

Another Canadian producer and EP, co-production treaty expert and former law professor, Martin Katz, also shared his experiences, and among his many anecdotes, he shared how financing on Hotel Rwanda came together just days before cameras rolled with the last piece from Italy conditional upon casting at least one Italian role, so the writers wrote in an Italian Priest. Katz admitted they chose not to finance Hotel Rwanda as an official Canadian co-production because European casting rules are more flexible than Canadian.

There was a session on how to wrangle money from private investors. Essentially, the panelists concluded that money is still around and wealthy investors who have been waiting out the GFC, are poised to come back in given the right sort of project compatible with their philosophical and/or risk profiles. One panelist remarked investors like to feel good about projects they invest in, so it isn’t always about a financial return. There was also talk about how to creatively finance today by breaking down the rights, and assigning values to rights such as digital, soundtrack and itunes rights which traditionally haven’t offered much value.

Continuing the idea of rights, there was a fascinating session tightly facilitated by Janet Brown of Cinetic Rights Management on the current state of digital revenue, especially cable and broadband VOD, game outlets such as X-Box, Wii and Playstation, and mobile rights. Whilst this space is becoming increasingly significant as a potential content revenue stream, and the major companies are aggressively entering it, the golden goose example of how everybody will benefit over the traditional model is still elusive.  When it finally happens, and it is close, the landscape is destined to change…

By the end of the few days at SP, I felt as though my own personal landscape had changed in view of financing, producing and collaborating on film and television projects with global partners.  It’s a big world and partnering can open up creative choices. Can co-producing help us tell bigger stories to more people?

Of course, there are a million questions some of which are technical, and many of which are creative,

(…is there a place for local stories in global partnerships? How do we make sure bureaucratic box ticking doesn’t get in the way of creative decisions?) but like all aspects of producing, naturally it comes down to whatever works best for the project.

Personally, I love the idea of potentially reaching bigger audiences by working with talented storytellers from around the world with something in common to say. It seems, today at least, that it has never been easier to do it.

Yael Bergman has been working with Melbourne-based production company Princess Pictures ("Summer Heights High", "We Can Be Heroes", romantic comedy "I Love You Too"), developing and producing projects for film and television since 2004. She also co-wrote and co-produced the low budget feature film "Love and Other Catastrophes" which sold to Fox Searchlight.

You will laugh, you will cry...

Oh, we know this story, don't we? Get's me every time, even when it's robots telling it instead of my friends and collaborators -- which isn't to say there aren't some well-deserved happy endings either.

Check out the other episodes too. There are five of them.

Hat tip: Chris Monger
P.S. Watch "Temple Grandin" which Chris co-wrote on Sat 2/8 on HBO. I would, if I had cable or the DVD...