The big screen industry is in a grim state after 19 months of a global pandemic and the streaming revolution, but Elevation Pictures co-chair Noah Segal is somehow still upbeat.
His Toronto-based film production and distribution company managed to have a 2020 bofo, releasing 35 films – not far from the 40 theatrical releases they handle in normal years.
Ten of Elevation Pictures’ films screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, including the Aboriginal thriller “Night Raiders”. And they’re working hard to film the sequel to Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor”.
Segal sat down (virtually) with the Star to talk about the insurance of film production during COVID-19, the unexpected successes of Elevation Pictures, and why he’s still confident theaters have a future:
What was the last movie you saw in theaters before the pandemic shut everything down?
This is a crazy question! I booked it because I think I made a Marvel movie, and then I recently saw “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”. It was the five-year shot in the Marvel movies – I saw one, then the whole world stopped, then I saw another Marvel movie.
I was at Disneyworld when the epidemic started, so I kind of got off on America’s last plane.
How did TIFF go this year?
We had 10 movies in TIFF format, which is not uncommon for Elevation: movies like “Spencer” and “Night Raiders” and “Charlotte”. Look, the last year was brutal at TIFF. They did their best, but there was nothing they could do – try to fill a quarter or half of the houses. I think they did a really commendable job trying to bring it back and I think it’s just a transition year. It’s like going to a Jays game – you see 15,000 people and you’re used to seeing 60,000.
We are in the midst of a change – and it is a positive change. It’s definitely a lot better now than it was last year. But some of the magic isn’t quite there yet. We’re all working on it, and I think it was nice to see the whole industry pushing this forward.
What was it like trying to produce movies during the pandemic?
Difficult, I would say. Everything is moving much slower and you have to be very careful. We finished a movie this summer called “Alice Darling” with Anna Kendrick and now we’re shooting a movie in Croatia and Hungary, Brandon Cronenberg’s follow-up to “Possessor” titled “Infinity Pool”. We are therefore worried. Every day I get the dailies and I’m glad we survived another day without anyone falling prey to COVID because it’s one thing to shoot in Toronto, it’s another to shoot in Europe. from the east where they have different rules and regulations.
But at the same time, it’s interesting because it’s harder to make content right now – the demand is extremely high because there is a huge appetite. Cronenberg’s film has already sold worldwide for pre-purchase. The only concern is insurance. It has been a challenge.
When we’re going to make a movie, we have to get insurance that says if someone gets hit by a car, we can pay through the insurance or keep making the movie because time is running out. is money. Many insurance policies have created COVID exemption policies, which obviously makes the task very difficult. If someone contracts COVID, they don’t pay. So the government stepped in and gave little policies to little films, which was great and very well received. This movie we made in June with Anna Kendrick had this policy. It probably would have been difficult if we hadn’t had it.
Having said that, most of the movies audiences want are higher budgeted and I speak on behalf of all producers in this country when I say the government should not only expand this plan but it should make it a slice of. broader insurance. It would be great if they extended this because the government is just supporting the risk and I think the payments were very marginal. I think most of the producers and directors in the game were all very attentive and very positive. Very few policies have had to pay.
Why are you so optimistic about movie theaters, especially in the transition to streaming that was already starting before the pandemic?
I think it’s pretty funny when people talk about it that way. I think this has an impact on the type of content that arrives in theaters. But look, before streaming existed, people weren’t dumb. They knew a movie was going to theaters, then 100 days later on DVD and VOD, then 100 days later on pay TV. They knew, after three months, that what they saw in the theater was going to be at home somehow.
Now with streaming, of course, it’s a bit earlier, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to watch it at home. This is everything. We know that a younger group of viewers tends to go to the movies, and empty nests, families with young children. Unless it’s a family-centric movie like Paw Patrol. I always think date night is date night. When you’re 19, you want to go see a movie. This gives you 90 minutes to be with someone and not have to have a conversation. And I think as you get older you want a place to hang out. Again, this is an excursion. I think people need this and they want it – and so I have been and continue to be optimistic.
I’m not naive to think streaming won’t change business. I think there will be changes. Some theaters will close, just like some Starbucks locations are closed – but I don’t think people are going to stop drinking coffee in cafes because of COVID. They don’t all make coffee at home.
Which of the films you produced or distributed during the pandemic did better than expected?
Everyone is asking the same question. People are wondering if the public wants to watch movies about the pandemic. We had a movie, “Songbird,” which was a futuristic thriller – but a pandemic thriller. And it was extremely successful on the video-on-demand platform when all theaters were closed. We were very impressed because we didn’t know how people were going to take it. Classically, when there is a war – say, the Gulf War – if you put out a war movie, it underperforms because people are tired of watching CNN. So it was very interesting that people really wanted to see “Songbird”. The numbers were fantastic.
On the other side of things, we had an Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan movie called “Wild Mountain Time” which was really a cute little romance that we released over Christmas time – and, again, we surprised with interest. It was a beautiful, very evasive Irish romantic comedy and people clearly wanted to escape COVID. They wanted to see movie stars kissing – and we provided that to them. Then there was “The Father” and “Minari”, which were Oscar movies. We had no idea how these were going to perform without a theatrical installation, but coming to the Oscars, they did very well.
Why do you think “Songbird“ did well despite the fact that we are still living in a pandemic?
I think it was because it was a thriller. If it was a pandemic drama I think people would have said “this is what I am going through – I don’t want to see it”. When you have an action thriller where the guy is chased by bad guys who want to kill him because he’s immune to the pandemic and just wants to save his girlfriend, you’re kind of removed from it. That’s what’s on everyone’s mind about being a superhero.
It is certainly this idea that “I can survive the pandemic”.
Exactly exactly. I wouldn’t have bought a dozen pandemic films during COVID, but having one like this – it really delivered. It was pretty neat because it was really the first big movie that had that theme in it. Michael Bay produced it, so it had reach. So it was kind of a fun thriller.
I wanted to turn to one of the movies you produce, “NFlight raider.“ How do you try to approach filmmakers with diverse perspectives without just coming back to them for traumatic porn?
We don’t want to give the impression that we are just flattering it. Elevation is a Canadian company – it’s our job to tell stories you won’t find anywhere else. We have already touched the sensitive chords. We had “Hyena Road” which talks about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Then we had “Indian Horse” which clearly referred to residential schools and the painful trauma that many aboriginal people in this country have faced. Basically it was an autobiographical story. It has touched Canadians – both aboriginal Canadians and non-aboriginal Canadians who realize that this is becoming a burning issue in Canada. We realize that these approaches are both extremely successful, especially “Indian Horse”. We realized that this is an under-represented market. We wanted to see what was going on and we did some outreach to do it.
So we did “Blood Quantum,” which was an aboriginal movie – a zombie movie. Then, Paul Barkin, who is not native, worked with Danis Goulet to make “Night Raiders”. We loved it because it was somewhere in between. We had “Blood Quantum,” which is an allegory from a zombie movie, and then we had “Indian Horse,” which is anything but. You can hang on to the genre, but you can also hang on to the real storytelling.
We constantly strive to get native stories and any BIPOC story, frankly, as well as white filmmakers who are commercial. We think all of these stories are very commercial in themselves.
How do you balance that out, though? There are great stories of native and black filmmakers and there is a problem in the film industry to watch these stories and believe they won’t sell.
There is certainly a political challenge right now where people are saying that the BIPOC filmmakers have not been sufficiently present in the market. They were unlucky. And I think they are right. It’s our job to broaden their horizons, which we do. And we also have to be responsible to our shareholders and we also have to show other things that are purely commercial. How to balance it? We are just careful not to ignore the other side.
This interview has been edited and condensed.