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Toronto Elevation Pictures’ co-president Noah Segal on TIFF, diverse filmmaking and why he thinks people will always flock to the Big Screen despite streaming’s pandemic moment

Toronto Elevation Pictures’ co-president Noah Segal on TIFF, diverse filmmaking and why he thinks people will always flock to the Big Screen despite streaming’s pandemic moment
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The silver screen business is in a grim state after 19 months of a global pandemic and the streaming revolution, but Elevation Pictures’ co-president Noah Segal is somehow still optimistic.

His Toronto-based film production and distribution company managed to have a bofo 2020, releasing 35 films — not far off the 40 theatrical releases they handle in normal years.

Ten of Elevation Pictures’ films screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, including Indigenous thriller “Night Raiders.” And they’re hard at work filming the followup to Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor.”

Segal sat down (virtually) with the Star to talk about insuring film production during COVID-19, Elevation Pictures’ unexpected hits, and why he’s still confident movie theatres have a future:

What was the last movie you saw in theatres before the pandemic shut everything down?

That’s a crazy question! I bookended it because I think I did a Marvel film and then I’ve recently seen “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” It was the five-year blip in the Marvel movies — I saw one, and then the whole world stopped, and then I saw another Marvel movie.

I was in Disneyworld when the epidemic started so I kinda got out in the last plane out of America.

How was TIFF this year?

We had 10 films in TIFF which is not uncommon for Elevation: films like “Spencer” and “Night Raiders” and “Charlotte.” Look, last year was brutal on TIFF. They did the best that they could, but they couldn’t do anything — trying to fill quarter to half houses. I think they did a really commendable job trying to bring it back and I think this is just a transition year. It’s like going to a Jays game — you’re seeing 15,000 people and you’re used to seeing 60,000.

We’re in the middle of a shift — and it’s a positive shift. It’s certainly way better now as opposed to what it was last year. But some of the magic is still not quite there. We’re working towards it, all of us, and I think it was nice to see the entire industry pushing that forward.

What’s it been like trying to produce films during the pandemic?

Challenging, I would say. Everything moves a lot slower, and you have to be extra careful. We finished a film this summer called “Alice Darling” with Anna Kendrick and now we’re in the middle of shooting a film in Croatia and Hungary—Brandon Cronenberg’s followup to “Possessor” called “Infinity Pool.” So we’re concerned. Every day I get the dailies and I’m glad we made it through another day without someone falling prey to COVID, because it’s one thing to shoot in Toronto, it’s another thing to shoot in Eastern Europe 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’s a tremendous appetite. The Cronenberg film has already sold out worldwide in a prebuy. The one concern is insurance. That’s been a challenge.

When we go to make a movie, we have to get insurance that says if someone gets hit by a car, we’re able to pay out through the insurance or continue making the movie because time is money. A lot of insurance policies have created COVID exempt policies which obviously makes it very difficult. If someone gets COVID, they don’t pay out. So the government stepped up and gave small policies to smaller films which was great and really well received. That film we did in June with Anna Kendrick had that policy. It probably would have been challenging if we didn’t have it.

That said, most of the films that the audiences want are higher budget and I speak for all producers in this country when I say the government should not only extend that plan, but they should make it a larger insurance bracket. It would be great if they extended that because the government only backstops the risk and I believe that payouts were very marginal. I think most producers and directors in the game were all very mindful and very positive. Very few policies had to pay out.

Why are you so bullish about movie theatres, especially in the transition to streaming that was already starting before the pandemic?

I think it’s quite funny when people talk about it that way. I do think it has an impact on the kind of content that make their way to theatres. But look, before streaming existed, people were not foolish. They knew a movie went to theatre and then 100 days later went to DVD and VOD and then 100 days later went to pay-TV. They knew, within three months, that what they were seeing in theatre was going to be at their home somehow.

I’m not naive to think streaming won’t shift the business. I think there’ll be some changes. Certain theatres will shut down, just like certain Starbucks locations are shut down — but I don’t think people are going to stop drinking coffee at coffee shops because of COVID. They’re not going to all just make coffee at home.

Out of the movies you’ve produced or distributed during the pandemic, which ones have done better than you expected?

Why do you think “Songbird” did well despite the fact we’re still living in a pandemic?

I think it was because it was a thriller. If it was a drama about a pandemic, I think people would have said ‘that’s what I’m living — I don’t want to see it.’ When you have an action thriller where the guy’s being chased by bad guys who want to kill him because he’s immune to the pandemic and he just wants to save his girlfriend, you’re taken out of it a little bit. It’s what’s in everybody’s head about being superhero.

It’s definitely this idea that ‘I can survive the pandemic.’

Exactly, exactly. I wouldn’t have bought a dozen pandemic films during COVID, but to have one like that — it actually delivered. It was kind of neat because it really was the first big movie that had that theme in it. Michael Bay produced it, so it had scope. So it was a fun sort of thriller.

I wanted to turn to one of the films you’re producing, “Night Raider.” How are you trying to approach filmmakers with diverse perspectives without just going back to them for trauma porn?

We don’t want to make it look like we’re just pandering to that. Elevation is a Canadian company — it’s our job to tell stories you can’t get anywhere else. We’ve touched on heartstrings before. We had “Hyena Road” which is about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Then we had “Indian Horse” which was clearly referencing the residential schools and the painful trauma that has been faced by many Indigenous people in this country. Basically, it was an autobiographical story. That touched Canadians — both Indigenous Canadians and Canadians that weren’t Indigenous that realize this is becoming a firebrand issue in Canada. We realize that those approaches are both extremely successful, particularly “Indian Horse.” We realized that this is an under-represented marketplace. We wanted to see what’s out there and we’ve been doing outreach to do it.

So we did “Blood Quantum” which was an Indigenous film — a zombie film. Then Paul Barkin, who is not Indigenous, 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 of a zombie film, and then we had “Indian Horse,” which is anything but. You can hang onto the genre, but you can also hang on to true storytelling.

We’re consistently invested in getting Indigenous storytelling and any BIPOC storytelling, frankly, as well as white filmmakers that are commercial. We feel all those stories are very commercial in their own right.

How do you balance that, though? There are excellent stories out there from Indigenous and Black filmmakers and there’s a problem in the film industry of looking at these stories and believing they won’t sell.

There’s definitely a political challenge right now where people say BIPOC filmmakers have not had enough presence in the market. They haven’t had a chance. And I think they’re correct. It’s our job to expand their horizons, which we’re doing. And we also have to be responsible to our shareholders and we have to also show other stuff that is straight-down-the-middle commercial fare. How do we balance it? We just make sure we do not ignore the other side.
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