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Talking trade with Melanie Friesen the Producer of VIFF's Film and Television Forum
by Greg Ursic

Since earning her BA, UBC Alumni Melanie Friesen has forged an impressive CV, living abroad and working as a literary agent, heading the Creative Affairs divisions for both MGM/UA and Cineplex Odeon, and serving as the Vice President of Scorsese Productions. So what does one do with a pedigree that would virtually guarantee you a high paying job in Tinseltown? Why you return to Vancouver of course, to produce the VIFF Film and Television Trade Forum, which Friesen has helmed for the past 12 years.

I asked Friesen whether there have been any significant changes to the Forum’s mandate during her tenure. While the mission “ to educate, inspire, and encourage local filmmakers and tv writers and director to produce the best material possible for domestic and international markets” has remained the same, what she has witnessed is a growing sophistication of the audience. “Many of the filmmakers in Vancouver have pretty much graduated out of the trade forum, Raymond Massey, Steve Hedges, etc. The Masters classes are very, focused. Many of those intending the master classes have already done co-productions and know that they have to look at the world market as opposed to just Canada. Interest in the international situation, whether it’s raising money internationally or what’s being bought and sold in Europe and elsewhere. This year for the first time we’re looking at the Asian market…and how we can best get in there.’
To keep pace with the needs of the attendees, the level of speakers changes every year and more Master Classes have been added. One of this year’s coups is Michael Oates Palmer, who will be conducting the Master Class in Narrative Television. “He writes for The West Wing…one of the best series of episodic television ever. He has gone to the greatest lengths to send us wonderful information on what he’s going to address, I mean the homework he’s done just amazes me, and is done specifically for coming to Vancouver.” James L. White, who penned the award-winning script for Ray has been brought in to address the growing trend of “ Canadians [who] are writing biographical screenplays about famous Canadians, etc. …” White will “…speak specifically on researching and honing down that research to get it into 90 minutes [and make it marketable]. As the name implies however, Master Classes are intended for people that already “…have several years in the industry and will have something that’s been recognized such as a film in a film festival, [or] something on TV” and you have to apply. That’s where New Filmmakers’ Day comes in.

Tailored to the needs of those individuals, who are currently enrolled in film programs or simply curious about the business, New Filmmakers Day is an all day event that covers a wide range of topics. Starting off the day is playwright, screenwriter and director Neil Labute (In the Company of Men, Friends and Neighbours) who will be giving a special Master Class on Screenwriting, that everyone can attend. The second panel, The Business of the Low-Budget Feature, addresses how to get funding for your “sure thing”. As Friesen notes, we have a leg up on the competition here as “It’s very easy in Canada relatively speaking to get the ball rolling, because we have funding agencies…Telefilm, BC Film, which other countries don’t have.” This includes sources, such as the Harold Greenburg Fund which gives millions each year to screenwriters and for which Friesen serves as the Western rep. Ask her nicely and maybe she can help you out…

Once you’ve completed your opus, you need to get it out there, which is where Peter Broderick comes in – he will address how to “…maximize distribution;[on] the web, DVD, theatrically, overseas and with no budget subjects” and hopefully make you rich, or at least help pay off the credit cards you racked up to make your masterpiece. Rounding out the panels is Success Stories, which as Friesen explains “…it’s a motivator for new filmmakers to hear how people who started with very little have become successful. In this case I have Canadian Elizabeth Yake who produced It’s All Gone Pete Tong…a very unique Canadian film that has the performance of performances by Paul Yates, and Director Catherine Hardwicke who directed Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen, who started doing production design for Vanilla Sky . She has exceptional get up and go, especially for a woman in that field. She will be talking about her success, and how she managed to buck the system and make the films that she did.” The day ends with a reception, which is actually one of the most important functions of the day as it provides an opportunity to experience “ …the schmoozing that goes on, people meeting each other and so on”, an essential skill that is best learned sooner rather than later.

I ask Friesen to enlighten me about one of the new events this year the Trade Forum One Minute Motion Picture Contest and she practically jumps out of her seat. “ Bravo to us. Kodak is a big fan of the trade forum and they like to give us things… and they said “This year why don’t we give $2500 of Kodak product to someone who can do some thing in one minute” So because we’re celebrating our new building, and at the time the contest was announced no one was allowed in the building including us, we had to restrict them to exteriors. And I must say our entries are so imaginative, I mean what people did using the outside of the building –some are using little sex scenes to demonstrate the frustration of not being able to get into the buildings… This is the most fun I’ve since doing this, I mean we should have been doing this every year. I would encourage people to come and see the results of that, if for nothing else to see the imaginative work. Showing on Friday [September 30th and the at the Trade Forum) Roughly 30 entries.

After a decade of hosting the forum and hosting a parade of luminaries I was curious what Friesen’s proudest moment has been. “Let’s start with my worst moment,” she cringed. “Robert Towne who wrote Chinatown, came to speak. He asked for a sandwich. For some reason it took 45 minutes for [no name] hotel to bring him a sandwich. Sitting with him for 44 minutes preceding the sandwich was the worst time ever for the forum and me. It was profoundly hideous and continues to give me nightmares.” “That said, I don’t know if there’s been a single great moment…it would have to be the great guests who’ve come and shone so brightly
Among them Peter Farrelly who did Something about Mary – he was funny, articulate and spoke to the audience in such a one on one way and not down to them , Doug Liman, who did Go and Swingers, he was also terrific, Alexander Payne, Stan Lee, Roger Corman, and Michael Chatman, the DP who shot Raging Bull. Bryan Singer, particularly on new filmmaker’s day 2 years ago who stayed long after his panel to make sure that everyone had their questions answered and felt good about everything.”

It’s interesting to note that almost all of the speakers are Americans, which raises the question “Why?”. “Many people have criticized us for not having many Canadian speakers…because they are very generous speaking at Women in Film events, Cineworks, NFB events, etc and I have the budget I bring out of town people for an added perspective. The locals are already speaking and sharing to such a degree.” Case in point: “This didn’t involve stars, but it certainly involved the great city of Vancouver. In 2001, the Trade Forum was two weeks after 9/11 and many of our guests wouldn’t fly. No one came from Europe, certainly no one came from New York…All these Vancouverites came out of the woodwork and said “Well I’m not so and so but I can certainly address this subject. Can I help?” They all worked like beavers and it was a fabulous success…with a ‘United We Stand Atmosphere” and I just felt like flying that maple leaf.”

But her biggest thrill? Joe Clark in 1997. Yes, that Joe Clark, our dour emotionless ex-PM, the bland bombshell. Clark agreed to moderate a panel on satire on tv, and Michael Moore was on the panel, as were Linda Cullen and Bob Roberts who did Double Exposure. Linda and Bob suggested I invite Clark to moderate, but I thought it was a joke so I didn’t even do it for a month . They rang up and said has Clarke agreed to do it yet. He was the model of moderators he was self deprecating, sharp lots of insight Michael Moore was brilliant…many members of the public came to that panel, even my doctor, just to see Clark. It was really fabulous.”

So what does the future hold for the Trade Forum? “Another year I could have answered that question, but this year I can’t as I don’t know what the Vancouver Film Centre will be doing next year. Because for the first time in years we’re in a position to do things year round, I think we’ll be holding different events all year round thing and that will effect the Trade Forum. So I don’t have the answer to that question.”

The VIFF Film and Television Trade Forum runs from Wednesday September 28th to Friday September 30th and costs $25 per event, or you can purchase a pass. New Filmmakers’ Day is Saturday October 1st and costs $60 for a day pass. Both events will be held at the Vancouver International Film Centre and Vancouver Theater. For more information, check out

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originally posted: 09/27/05 16:40:56
last updated: 09/27/05 16:41:48
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