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Since Elevation Pictures launched in 2013, its logo has become familiar to movie lovers across Canada. Just as the Janus Films logo guarantees a true arthouse experience or Blumhouse a deep dive into horror, Elevation promises Canadian moviegoers the best independent films from both sides of the border and beyond.
For company co-presidents Laurie May and Noah Segal, that kind of brand identity was both strategic and deliberate. “Quality is king, always has been. It’s good content and a good setup,” Segal says of Elevation’s slate of curated films, each handpicked by its team and designed to compete in theaters and on TV against Hollywood tentacles and streaming competition.
May and Segal were hardly new to the independent business when Elevation was launched. As veterans of previous players like Lionsgate’s Canadian arm and Alliance Films, the duo knew they had enough hands-on experience — and connections — in distribution to venture out on their own.
“The people involved with this company, Noah and I and (executive vp and GM) Adrian Love and (executive vp sales and distribution) Jeremy Smith, all here have many years of industry experience and really wanted to build a company that was passionate about of Canadian films and films that cross borders and elevate content,” says May.
As a result, Elevation has steadily risen to the top in Canada by combining its independent credit (and an expanding TV production arm) with the deep pockets of lead investor Black Bear Pictures. It was Black Bear topper Teddy Schwarzman who pre-financed Elevation after a pitch by May and Segal, setting the stage for Elevation to compete against bigger players in the Canadian distribution scene, including Toronto-based behemoth Entertainment One.
For Schwarzman, investing in Elevation allowed his US-based firm to fill a gap in the Canadian market after Alliance was acquired in 2012 by eOne and brought under its umbrella. The goal: to introduce a local mini-major also specializing in commercial indies and arthouse titles.
“I felt we could create Elevation and make a significant and meaningful contribution to the Canadian distribution landscape,” Schwarzman says DAY. One of the first releases of the indie was the one produced by Schwarzman The imitation game (2014), which grossed $10 million at the Canadian box office and won an Academy Award with eight nominations.
Elevation’s success in a Canadian market that accounts for a tenth of the North American box office comes from a focus on nurturing each theatrical release, rather than relying on volume. “We bet with Teddy’s support saying, ‘No, we believe if you focus on the visuals, the visuals will work better. And you’ll be more profitable,’” says Segal.
As an independent distributor, Elevation competes in the shadow of the Hollywood studios that dominate the local multiplex with star-led tentacles embracing independent directors in Canada and international arthouse titles.
“You want to be a blockbuster within the independent space. So that requires getting great movies that are independent movies, like Teddy’s Imitation game – and they’re well-distributed and far-reaching,” Segal says of Elevation’s steady stream of motion pictures in the US and abroad.
More multiplex hits followed, including gems in the rough Room (2015) e Moonlight (2016), an indie that won Audience Awards at the Toronto Film Festival before moving on to Oscar glory. Naturally, given the size of the Canadian market, Elevation had to further expand its network for content with greater commercial potential.
That means more mainstream releases in Canada for titles like this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner Everything everywhere all at once and the imminent My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 AND PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie, a big screen adaptation of the popular children’s television franchise. “We’re broader, because we can’t make 10 small independent films a year and hope one of them comes out,” May explains.
That also means running Elevation as a family, not a corporation, and empowering younger employees to ensure the company’s acquired films pass a creative litmus test. “There are eight of us sitting around a table like a big Italian family, typing out scripts or (questioning) our desire to see a film, whether it’s worthy, whether we all feel it or not,” says Segal.
Many of Elevation’s potentially zeitgeist-capturing releases come via production deals with American partners, including Black Bear, Neon and A24, with whom Elevation is a preferred partner north of the border.
In all, Elevation releases around 35 indie titles a year, with a third of those produced locally or festival-bought upon completion hopefully becoming box office winners.
The key to Elevation’s proven playbook is that it focuses on funding home-grown filmmakers and their films, with support from local funding agencies like Telefilm Canada to share the risks and rewards on what can be an uphill battle to launch and monetize Canadian indies.
Segal points to Stephen Campanelli’s Indian horse (2017), a drama that explores the dark history of Canada’s treatment of its indigenous peoples through residential schools. “It’s not easy to tell people, hey, spend your $20 on a Friday night to go see a class about how bad we’ve been,” she says. But the film grossed $2 million in Canada, making it a hit.
Recent homegrown versions include that of Clement Virgo Brother, about two Caribbean immigrants who grew up in the Toronto hip-hop scene of the 1990s (it was named Best Picture at the Canadian Screen Awards); Brandon Cronenberg’s Sundance headline Infinity pool, where a tragic accident leaves a vacationing couple facing a local culture filled with violence, hedonism and horror; Matt Johnson’s Berlin title blue raspberry, on the meteoric rise and fall of the first smartphone; and Marie Clements’ drama Indigenous Raven boneswhich garnered five Canadian Screen nominations.
Of course, Elevation accomplished all of this while navigating an indie landscape that is in great flux, with theaters closed due to COVID and global streamers continuing to disrupt theatrical cinema. For Segal, that means picking the right titles for Elevation to “eventize” in an effort to get moviegoers into theaters.
For blue raspberrySegal says, “We’ve worked with influencers, we’ve worked with press, we’ve worked with promotional partners. We flew in all the talent involved for special advance screenings and worked with the real people who made the film. We believed this was an event and made sure Canadians knew about it.”
The same goes for the streaming platforms or transactional VOD partners that Elevation does business with. “They don’t want volume. They want good stuff, on a regular basis,” notes Segal.
In 2016, Elevation, having crested with about 25 films a year, entered the production space in partnership with veteran Canadian film and television producer Christina Piovesan (the in-house head of production recently renewed her contract). “She kind of embodied where we were,” says Piovesan’s Segal, who oversaw recent Elevation-backed titles like the Anna Kendrick-starring film Alice, darling (2022) and by Zach Braff A good person (2023), with Florence Pugh. “She was really hungry. You killed to make shows. Quality (is) imperative.”
The launch of a production arm also allowed Elevation to offer production services to films and TV series filmed in Canada. Given the amount of production activity in Toronto alone, the company seems to be making a long-term bet that Canada’s role as a Hollywood backlot won’t change anytime soon.
For Schwarzman, this focus on the long game has served Elevation and its investment well. “It was a great fit, working with the team that is there,” he says. “We function less as investors and more as partners with them.”
Its lead investor’s focus on disciplined and steady growth plays well with Elevation’s principals, who add that their focus on their work is all-consuming.
Says Segal: “We eat, breathe and sleep in this company.”
This story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to register now.