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Alliance Atlantis and Thinkfilm Distribution Set To Change Channels

As the Toronto International Film Festival gets ready to unspool the best field of Canadian films in years, the current shake-up of Canadian distributors has an air of déjà vu.

Producers and distributors have been unsettled by events including a year-long upheaval at Alliance Atlantis Motion Picture Distribution and ThinkFilm’s ongoing activity in Canada despite being American-owned for one year.

"Things are in movement, for sure. I’m as curious as everyone else to see where everything lands," says Hussain Amarshi, president of Mongrel Media, which has titles at TIFF including The Jane Austen Book Club and Canuck auteur Carl Bessai’s Normal.

Also making waves is Robert Lantos’ new shop, Maximum Film Distribution, which will handle fest opener Fugitive Pieces, which he produced, and Entertainment One entering the ring by taking over Seville Entertainment, with former MPD president and CEO Patrice Théroux at the helm.

It is the second such distribution shake-up in a decade. The last time events so transformed the sector – lifting it, in fact, to new heights – was 1997.

That year – when Thom Fitzgerald’s The Hanging Garden grabbed the TIFF audience award – witnessed a changing of the guard, as players including CFP, Norstar, Malofilm and Everest Entertainment made way for upstarts Red Sky Entertainment, Equinoxe Films and Motion International.

Fast forward 10 years later, as uncertainty at MPD – formerly controlled by Alliance Atlantis, and now owned by Goldman Sachs and EdgeStone Capital Partners – has rivals eyeing output deals coming up for renewal with U.S. partners including New Line Cinema and Focus Features.

"Whatever uncertainty exists over there may provide opportunity for incumbent suppliers to look around," says Brad Pelman, co-president of Maple Pictures.

Elsewhere, Entertainment One looks to make a splash at TIFF after acquiring Seville, a move that follows the DVD distributor’s purchase of British distributor Contender Entertainment as part of its international expansion.

"We bought Seville as we want an established, mature distribution company in Canada to build upon. [Seville] has a track record, a good library of movies, and an operation where they can sell Canadian movies into the international market," Théroux explains.

Seville’s high-profile Canadian films at TIFF this year include Shake Hands with the Devil, Poor Boy’s Game and fest closer Emotional Arithmetic.

Th̩roux adds that Entertainment One will be acquiring global rights to product for international distribution Рexcept in the U.S. market, where he will focus on DVD and broadcast sales.

"It will allow us to negotiate multi-territory deals, and provide the collateral to complete the financing of individual films," Théroux says, with a focus on acquiring and releasing Canadian films.

"Our investment return will not be reliant on any one territory, and everyone will benefit from the sharing of distribution costs," he adds.

Théroux worked at MPD under Victor Loewy, who is currently negotiating for a promotion from consultant to CEO at that firm, Canada’s largest indie distributor, which is now under new ownership.

Loewy welcomes new competition, not least of all from former colleagues Théroux and Lantos.

"Those companies will bid for films, whether Seville or Robert’s new company. So there will be a realignment of sorts, and we’ll see how this plays out," he says.

Lantos is converting his near-half stake in ThinkFilm – sold along with the company in October 2006 to Los Angeles-based David Bergstein and Capital Pictures – into Maximum Films.

Tony Cianciotta and Charlotte Mickie, former Lantos employees at Alliance Releasing (as it was called before the merger of Alliance and Atlantis) are key in the new company, as managing directors of Maximum Film Distribution and Maximum Films International, respectively.

Over at ThinkFilm, CEO Jeff Sackman dismisses industry concerns over his company’s continuing presence in Canada under American ownership. He says Think is in talks with Canadian Heritage with an eye to settling all concerns.

Also stepping up its game is Christal Films, which is distributing pictures nationwide out of a new Toronto office. And Peace Arch Entertainment has launched a division to release movies stateside, and is combining the newly acquired U.S. DVD distributor Trinity Home Entertainment with Canadian home entertainment distributor kaBOOM! Entertainment to increase the Canadian distribution of its growing film slate.

Peace Arch president John Flock says his company is looking to follow Lionsgate in becoming a vertically integrated producer and distributor.

"We can’t do it on the margins. You have to be a distribution company if you want to succeed," he says.

For its part, Lionsgate, having severed ties with Christal, is mulling once again releasing its own titles in Canada after selling its Canadian distribution arm to Maple in 2005.

A Lionsgate spokesman says a few options are on the table, including enlarging its minority stake in Maple.

Maple’s Pelman says Lionsgate, as a technically Canadian company, can consider a return to distribution here at any time.

But he cautions that Lionsgate has "multiple years" left on its library and output agreements with Maple.

Despite all this hungry competition, Bryan Gliserman, president of Toronto-based Odeon Films (part of the MPD family), expects a strong market at TIFF’s 32nd edition for his company.

"While it is a very competitive environment in which to acquire films, we remain optimistic that with the hard work carried out by our skilled team, we may find a few valuable films," he says.