Lauren Denhartog

Toronto-based distribution company Mongrel Media has worked to unite audiences with Canadian independent and foreign-language films from around the world. To suggest that the company’s founder and president, Hussain Amarshi, has learned a lot about the business in the 13 years Mongrel has existed, would be an understatement.

Amarshi admits that choosing films for distribution often comes down to luck. “The reality is that most of the time you don’t know how a film will do. You go by your gut instinct and hope that you’re right,” he says, comfortably leaning back in a chair at his Queen Street office.

Amarshi learned of the challenges facing the foreign film distribution industry while running the Kingston International Film Festival in the late 1980s. Most Canadian distributors, he discovered, are wary of investing in foreign films because of their unpredictability at the box office.

After completing graduate studies in international development at Queen’s University, Amarshi moved back to Toronto and ran the Euclid theatre, which featured international films, documentaries and short films. Following a long struggle with corporate owned multiplex theatres, such as Famous Players and AMC, the Euclid closed its doors in July 1993, leaving Amarshi free to contemplate his next career move.

“It started as a desire to bring the films that I was interested in to Canada,” Amarshi says of Mongrel’s modest beginnings. One film that sparked his interest was director Moufida Tlatli’s The Silences of the Palace, which was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1994. “I had no idea what the film was about but was intrigued by the fact that it was from Tunisia by a woman filmmaker,” he recalls.

An encounter with Helen Loveridge, from Fortissimo Film Sales, resulted in Amarshi telling her that if no one else picked up the film, he would. “I felt that it was such a wonderful film that I should find a way to get it seen by more people in Canada.”

Four months later, at a film festival in Rotterdam, Amarshi bumped into Loveridge again and The Silences of the Palace was his. “I did feel passionate about the film but I did not know what to do with it and it took me several months to meet with some key people and figure out what I had to do to release it theatrically.” The film, which opened on November 3, 1995, was a success.

Mongrel began adding Canadian titles to its repertoire years later with Deepa Mehta’s Bollywood/Hollywood. “When Bollywood/Hollywood came out, most people did not believe that it would do well, and we did very well,” says Amarshi. While he admits that choosing films for distribution is difficult, the technique he uses is simple. “My approach is that we’re not looking for a home run. We are looking for films that we believe in.”

Filmed in Hindi, Water, Mehta’s tale of widows in India, is another film Amarshi endorsed. “I completely believed in the film. It moved me tremendously when I read the script and I believed very much in Deepa.” Water went on to earn $2.2 million in Canada.

Traditionally, foreign-language films have not broken blockbuster records in Canada or the United States. “I don’t think it’s possible to predict how well any film will do at the box office,” says Georgia Sourtzis, manager of communications at Cineplex Odeon.   “It’s really up to the audience and what they want to see.”

Matching a film with an audience is the distributor’s main role, Amarshi says. “When I look at a script or I look at a synopsis, I’m imagining an audience for that film and thinking, ‘OK, who are these people that will go and see this film and how am I going to get these people?’” This isn’t always an easy task, considering the diverse subject matter in Mongrel’s collection.

Nevertheless, Amarshi seems to have a knack for uniting Canadian independent and foreign films with Canadian audiences.  Mongrel distributes more than 250 films from around the world. It’s the official Canadian distributor of Sony Pictures Classics, a branch of Sony Pictures Entertainment that produces and distributes independent and foreign-language films, including Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver and Yimou Zhang’s Curse of the Golden Flower.

Amarshi has come to value niche-market films that appeal to smaller audiences. “We don’t have the resources to go after a film that will appeal to three million people because we don’t have the resources to reach those three million people and take the risk,” he says. Unlike most Hollywood films, which are backed by large marketing campaigns and a seemingly endless promotional budget, Canadian independent and foreign-language films rely on the strength of their narrative. “Films should be original, they should have an angle that makes it original or an open-endedness about it that will intrigue potential buyers,” Amarshi says.

For Amarshi, satisfaction comes from audience appreciation—when he knows he has chosen wisely. Although it’s difficult to know how a film will fare at the box office, it’s a gamble Amarshi is willing to take to continue intriguing Canadian audiences. “From my point of view, I am constantly looking for greater ideas,” he says. “There are not that many great films and that continues to be a challenge.”