B.C. business leaders put spotlight on movie finance

Execs at Seaspan, Victory Square Technologies among those making film forays producing

Filmmaker Ian Ian McAllister captures nature in the Imax documentary Great Bear Rainforest, produced by Seaspan ULC executive chairman Kyle Washington | Submitted

Kyle Washington has no illusions over the title of “executive producer” now attached to his name.

“The word ‘producer’ really translates into ‘funder,’” the executive chairman of Seaspan ULC said, chuckling.

“So I think producers get a little bit more recognition than they should. But it’s just like any business: there’s a good team behind every aspect.”

Washington’s first foray into film, the Imax documentary Great Bear Rainforest, debuts in theatres this month across North America and begins its global expansion in March.

While the executive’s day job is entrenched in marine services, he began dipping his toes into the film industry three years ago after a lunch with photographer Ian McAllister, co-founder of the Pacific Wild non-profit conservation organization.

“As the lunch went on, we started talking about his bigger vision to really capture the Great Bear Rainforest in an Imax-type feature,” Washington said.

He went on to finance the documentary and had a say in everything from the script to post-production.

The film also landed actor Ryan Reynolds as narrator and Oscar winner Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, The Dark Knight) as composer.

“Both of those were lucky strikes,” Washington said.

“With Ryan we went through different contacts. He’s a good Vancouver boy, so he took our calls and liked our project.”

Washington is among a growing number of Vancouver business people stepping in to finance film projects.

When Victory Square Technologies Inc. (CSE:VST) CEO Shafin Diamond Tejani first began examining investments in film, he was initially told to temper his expectations.

“There are all these horror stories that we heard from investors,” he said.

But Tejani realized the investment would be sound if he found the right partners in everything from lawyers specializing in entertainment law to accountants who knew how to navigate B.C.’s tax credit system.

For the company’s first investment, Tejani turned to a known quantity: Los Angeles-based Unified Pictures CEO Keith Kjarval, with whom he did debt financing work for one of Unified’s earlier Vancouver-made movies.

In 2017, Victory Square, best known for investing in and incubating tech startups, paid $4.25 million to take a 40% stake in Unified Film Fund II LLC.

The company eventually produced two slates of three films, including the Mel Gibson starrer Dragged Across Concrete.

Victory Square also produced an additional one-off film sold directly to Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq:NFLX) and is working on another film it hopes to sell.

“What we would have imagined investing in film, let’s say 10 years ago, five years ago, has changed because there’s so many new medias that are attracting content,” Tejani said.

But the CEO added there are still risks.

The company initially expected a return on investment in 12 months’ time but found that the initial film fund took more than 18 months for an ROI.

“The results were still there and we still did do well on this project; however, things took a lot longer for a variety of different reasons,” he said.

“Now that we’ve been savvy to it, we’ve seen other types of opportunities in this space that tie closer to what our strengths are.”

Victory Square is currently in the midst of developing an augmented reality game to tie in with the release this summer of Men in Black: International.

“So we’ve leveraged the relationships we’ve made on the film side,” Tejani said.