Title: C.R.A.Z.Y. lawyer wanted to be in pictures
Sub-title: Cirrus Communications hit a home run when C.R.A.Z.Y. became one of the summer's top grossing domestic films. But in the Quebec film industry, lawyers, accountants and tax experts are just as important as the actors.

Josée Vallée waded into the middle of a crowd of cameramen and stylists on the set of Naked Josh, a television series that Cirrus Communications is producing for Showcase. With open arms, she exchanged double-cheek kisses and jokes with the first half-dozen people she saw, all of whom she seemed to know well.

"Kisses are part of the business," she said with a grin. "If you are nice to me I'll give you one too." Naked Josh, is about is an anthropologist who returns to Montreal to teach sexual behavior theory.

The mood on the set is a mixture of boredom and excitement. In the scene they are shooting, actor David Hirsh, who plays the lead role, has to walk alone down a hall, turn a corner and knock on a door. Nobody is too clear why, but they are shooting what should be a relatively simple sequence for the eighth time. Later, a girl who is walking around the set in a bathrobe, will star in a scene on a stage styled as a porno set.

Oddly, Vallée, a lawyer, who got her start in the business negotiating contracts for the Union des Artistes, seems right at home in the midst of the chaos. "I know it sounds crazy, but I love being on the set," said Vallée, who took over as Cirrus's president last month, from founder Jacques Blain, who remains with the company. "I pay close attention to what's going on and I always watch the dailies (footage shot that day). Of all of the things that I do, my producer's role is the most important."

Vallée could not have become Cirrus's president at a better time. This summer, one of the company's films, C.R.A.Z.Y., a coming out story, about a homosexual youth growing up in a typical Quebec family, became one of the province's top grossing films of all time. C.R.A.Z.Y. is also Canada's entry in the best foreign film category for an academy award and could receive a nomination when the finalists are announced this January.

Other than Naked Josh, season three of which is currently being shot, Cirrus is also in the midst of post-production work on Nos Étés, a period drama. The company also produces a series about books titled M'as-tu lu? But the big news right now is the success of C.R.A.Z.Y., which has leapfrogged Cirrus into the top ranks of Quebec's 100 or so television and film production companies.

Despite its small domestic market, Quebec has one of the most talented pool of artists, directors and technicians in North America. The industry has been seeing tough times lately due to the strong Canadian dollar, which has made it more expensive for American companies who want to come up and shoot their productions in Montreal. But domestic production is going great guns.

According to Statistiques Québec, more than $1 billion worth of television, films and documentaries were produced in the province during the 2003-2004 season, an increase of 16 percent from the previous year. Quebec films are also getting increased respect on the world stage in the wake of the success of Les Invasions Barbares, which won an Academy Award.

Although Vallée loves being on movie and television sets, her skills were fine-tuned in boardrooms. During her initial stints as a legal advisor to the Union des Artistes and at the Association des Producteurs de Films et de Télévision du Québec, she got to know many of the industry's stars and key players, contacts which later came to be extremely useful. But like most top industry professionals, Vallée's talents are often devoted to raising cash.

Although Quebec's film industry has seen numerous high-profile successes, local production is highly subsidized. Almost 85 per cent of the $3.58 million average cost of the 34 long fiction films made by Quebec companies last year, came in the form of subsidies, tax credits and other government mandated funds. The balance comes from pre-sales to distributors and of television rights. According to Statistiques Québec, the province's producers put up only $6.4 million of the $154.3 million spent on domestic film production, and $38.2 million of the $807.1 million spent on television production last year.

But that doesn't mean the producers have it easy. No matter how good their ideas are, if Quebec creators don't know how to convince the bureaucrats at Telefilm Canada and the Société de Dévelopement des Entreprises Culturelles (SODEC) of their project's value, these likely won't see daylight.

"Financing a movie in Quebec is very complex," said Suzanne D'Amour, an industry consultant who helps producers raise funds. "And very few of the films, even the most successful ones ever show a profit." The problem says D'Amour, is Quebec's small market, coupled with the fact that the province's films do not generally sell well in the rest of Canada and on the international stage. To compensate, production companies make their money from a flat commission ranging from 12 to 15 per cent of the film's production costs.

Despite the challenges, Vallée isn't wavering. In fact she's focused squarely on the future. Like many producers, her desk is swamped with screenplays and pitches, the best of which she tries to market to television stations and financiers each fall. Although she won't discuss specifics, among them are ideas for a new feature length film, a documentary and a half-hour fiction series. As for the possibility of attending the Oscars, she remains sanguine. "If it comes I'd be glad to go," Valée said, "But for now I've got other things to worry about."

 

 

 

Fact Box:
Company Name: Cirrus Communications
Location: Montreal
Owner: Attraction Media, Josée Vallée, André Berard
Founded: 1996
Products: Television and film production
Estimated sales: $24 million
Employees: 14 permanent, plus up to 600 contact workers, depending on the projects in production
Phone #: 514-270-1918

 

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