Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015
masthead

Smart Producers

Two Toronto Superstars, Christopher Butcher and Alex Jansen
Share |

Looking to build a creative company or festival? Simply put, this 48-Hour Interview is full of some of the best insight and advice you can find. Over a period of 48 hours (spread out over two months—these gentlemen are busy), Christopher Butcher, founder of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, and Alex Jansen, producer and founder of Pop Sandbox (who also founded the Kingston Canadian Film Festival in 2001), discussed festivals, comics, distribution and the challenges of staying true to a vision while enjoying success. The interview was conducted via email.

Alex Jansen:

I'm spending the afternoon doing a bit of work from the Lillian H Smith Library for a change of scenery. I took the last week off on vacation, so I'm playing some catch-up — not that working Saturdays is out of the norm. I'm usually 24/7 as you know, which I'm sure is the same on your side with the Toronto Comic Arts Festival around the corner.

I'm not sure you'll remember, but I was thinking about it, and I'm pretty sure the first time we actually met must be nearly ten years ago across the street and upstairs from The Beguiling, when you were just in the early planning to start the festival. Peter set up a meeting since I was still actively involved in the Kingston Canadian Film Festival at that point, and we spent a couple hours bouncing ideas. It is astounding what you've built since. Congrats again.

How is TCAF coming?

Christopher Butcher:

TCAF's going well, thanks for asking. We're only four weeks away at this point, and there's a lot to stay on top of. I feel like we're way ahead of last year though — doing the show is getting easier, even with all of the growing and changing we're doing.

I actually do remember that meeting we had. It would have been fall 2002. We brought you on really early in our discussion, probably a few weeks after we decided we were going to do an event at all. I know the one piece of advice that we got and followed for that first show was to keep it small. Or maybe "manageable" would be a better description. It's the one piece of advice that I pass along to people looking to start their own comics events where they are — keep it to a manageable size for your first time out of the gate and grow organically over time. We definitely bit off more than we could chew in our second year, but since then I feel like the show hasn't gotten away from us any year, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. :)

It's funny, you moved from an organizational role with Kingston to a similar, though more hands—on role with Mongrel for a while there. Now you're sort of running the show with your own company, Pop Sandbox. It's interesting to see you move from macro to micro like that, from an organizer to a producer, at the same time that we decided to take on larger and larger organizational responsibilities. How've you enjoyed that change? Anything you miss?

AJ:

Oddly enough, in a roundabout way both the Kingston Film Fest and my time at Mongrel Media were actually planned steps towards the production company.

A big part of my strategy in first starting the Kingston Film Festival (in 2001) was to transition from film school into the larger industry, with a goal of feature producing. And then having been completely disappointed with the distribution of the first feature I co-produced (Walk Backwards, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2001, sold to a distributor, then all but disappeared), I set out to learn distribution before returning into producing again.

What I discovered in both starting the Kingston Film Fest and building Mongrel's Home Entertainment division is that I find the greatest reward in creating something entirely new or building organization, systems and structure where they aren't — but once things grow beyond a certain point, as much as I'm proud of the success, I don't find the day-to-day operations as personally stimulating. In some sick way, I must enjoy the initial chaos!

In the case of the Kingston Film Festival, we went from presenting 12 features over three days at the one little theatre I managed while studying at Queen's, all organized with about a dozen dedicated volunteers, to as many as 25 features over five days at four cinemas with workshops, seminars, original productions, year-round programming and more than fifty volunteers, a staff of twelve and four interns when I stepped down as active Director in 2004! Meanwhile, when I joined Mongrel there were seven people in the company, and I was the first person dedicated to Home Entertainment (the first time I interviewed with Hussain, he was actually running the company from his coach house). We were putting out around 20 DVDs a year. By the time I made the decision to move on just over three years later, there were twenty-three people in the company and seven working in Home Entertainment alone; we were releasing more than 80 branded DVDs a year, nearly 120 if you included the various output agreements we'd taken on — you couldn't even watch them all.

CB:

It's funny you mention that specifically, that you couldn't even watch all the films you were responsible for, because last year was probably the first year that I felt as though there were creators — artists and authors and cartoonists — at the festival whose work I didn't get a chance to familiarize myself with. We added maybe 50 or 60 cartoonists in 2010, with our expansion into Toronto Reference Library's Bram and Bluma Appel Salon the main thrust of that, and I've subsequently run into people who exhibited at TCAF in 2010, and I just have no recollection of them; it's actually kind of frustrating. I'm proud of the growth, but at the same time, it's a bit bittersweet.

AJ:

Agreed. As proud as I am in the growth of both the film festival and Mongrel, the most rewarding times were actually in the initial chaos where I was hands on at every level, and when I could really immerse myself into every title – before things got too polished; I'm usually instrumental in creating the structure, but then once it is too structured it is less exciting! And the real danger is automation. My preference would have been to keep to fewer titles at Mongrel and spend more time on each. Anyways, it is ridiculous really; I seem to move on just as we get properly staffed, the hours become reasonable and the financial compensation finally catches up!

But I think that is what I'm most excited about with Pop Sandbox now — being able to immerse myself in every aspect of both the production and publishing of each project.

I'm really going to have to shorten down my replies, or I'll take up the full 48-hours just in the time it takes to read them!

How about on your side, are you finding it more or less enjoyable as TCAF has grown?

CB:

Well maybe this is telling, but I've always put my enjoyment of the festival second — or maybe third — to doing the work and promoting a bunch of great comics creators, giving them a place to make a few bucks and expand their audiences. Aspects of TCAF are certainly enjoyable, but the real value to me is more that it's rewarding. That sounds a little martyr-y, I'm sorry, it's not intentional.:)

It's gotten harder and easier as we've gotten bigger, if that makes sense. A lot of the battles that we had to fight every year, such as, "having discussions" (read: arguments) with venues, trying to explain to the public and the media what we were doing and how it was different from a comic convention, I found that stuff draining. Easily the worst part of the show for me. Running up against walls and needing to chisel away at them, over weeks of meetings or emails, that's the worst, and that's all-but disappeared. Going annual certainly helped, but really, eight years of work under our belts and a growing international reputation helped more. So yeah, that part of it is definitely much easier as we've gotten bigger. Of course we don't take for granted the need to educate and inform the public and media, and we still work closely with our venues and our partners, it's all just nicer interactions now.

The harder parts are that with all of the groundwork laid by six or seven successful festivals, we can finally start really living up to our ambitions. I don't know about you, but my ambitions are huge and often unrealistic... heh... and now that these big ideas are moving into the realm of possibility, we've all gotta work harder to make them real. No resting on our laurels, we're always working to improve the experience — for both exhibitors and attendees — and while I described TCAF 2010 as being the festival I always envisioned, 2011 is going to be the one that surpasses that.

AJ:

That's incredibly cool. I think we share a lot of similarity that way; there's an incredible satisfaction to helping a story find its right audience and creating opportunities.

If the Kingston Film Festival were to close tomorrow, I think its lasting legacy would be the relationships and opportunities that came out of it. Especially, the film students who started as volunteers or interns and moved into full staff positions before graduating; we were able to help bridge several of them to positions with the Toronto Film Festival, and they are now working in all corners of the industry. The festival has brought the larger industry to a smaller community, facilitated networking opportunities between filmmakers and gotten films seen that otherwise wouldn't have been seen (I could go into a really big rant about how little screen time is given to Canadian films...). From the beginning, the Kingston Film Festival has run a "local shorts" program, in which every feature is preceded by a locally produced short film – some of these filmmakers are now making big features. There's even an annual field trip for kids to learn animation at the NFB. I wished there were opportunities like that when I was a student, which was a large part in the Festival's creation. I’m very proud to have been involved with this festival.

Now speaking from the flip side as a participant instead of an organizer, I think that's exactly what makes TCAF so great for an emerging new publisher. It is an incredible opportunity to reach an audience. We specifically timed KENK's release around TCAF and Hot Docs last year, and we're doing the same for The Next Day (the first week of May is also Mental Health Awareness Week). I couldn't hazard a guess at how many people I've met through the festival, and I think we sold around 200 copies of KENK last year (which is huge for a small publisher)!

Further to talking about the importance of reaching an audience, I must say that's why I joined Mongrel, who in my opinion does the best job at reaching audiences for independent or foreign films and social issue documentaries. That first feature I mentioned, Walk Backwards, was a semi-autobiographical film that dealt with sexual abuse, written, directed, starring and produced by a remarkable woman named Laurie Baranyay entirely on credit cards. It tracked well critically and really connected with the small niche female audience that it was intended for (including partnered screenings with the Crisis Centre for Rape Relief in Vancouver). While it covered expenses on the distribution deal, we were shocked that it was just flipped to broadcast with no further plans and given little support.

It was heartbreaking to watch that happen, and while I was very young and green, I felt a sense of failure. I wish Walk Backwards had landed at a company like Mongrel Media, where it would have gotten a proper chance to find its audience. The three biggest hits at Mongrel during my tenure were all Canadian films (on the home entertainment side anyways).

But that's also part of why I mentioned the relentless growth and increased volume leading to things feeling less rewarding, and in part why I eventually left Mongrel — I couldn't put as much of myself into each release. In a way, I think that Pop Sandbox is structured as both a production and publishing company, only so that I have the most control over making sure our productions will reach their audience!

CB:

It's incredibly gratifying for me to hear that you did well at the show — 200 copies of a debut book is fantastic, a huge coup for any publisher regardless of size. Congratulations, and I'm glad we could be a part of that.

Your experience with film distribution is eerily similar to some of my experiences with book distribution. My real job is managing The Beguiling, which is an amazing experience. Honestly, I love being a bookseller. TCAF was actually an outgrowth of the sorts of book events and launches we did at The Beguiling, and when Peter and I co-founded the festival, I ended up working at and running a lot of day-to-day at the store over time. Getting to work with artists, with publishers, and then seeing the way the books are sold to the public, it gives you a pretty amazing perspective on the industry. And yeah, we see projects that get mishandled all the time. A solid or even excellent work that never manages to keep its head above the tidal wave of new releases every year — it's unfortunately very common. It's a rare publisher that gives every project the attention and hand-holding it "deserves" (I realize that's a loaded word, but appropriate I think), and from our vantage we see it all — good, bad and ugly.

Actually this is the Open Book: Toronto site, so we should dig into this a little. We get upwards of 40 new graphic novels at the store every week, and I would say at least half of those are works from a cartoonist for whom this release is important and personal – the author(s) sitting at home fretting about its success in the marketplace. At TCAF alone this year we'll have roughly 20 graphic novel debuts from authors who are in attendance at the festival itself and another 100 will have work that's debuted in the last four months. Even in a retail space or a retail-oriented space, that's a lot of competition. How do you deal with that as a publisher? Or really as someone who is actively creating and developing projects?

AJ:

It is actually eerie how similar film and book distribution is, right down to the move to digital delivery (which we can hopefully touch on later too!).

First off, we're just incredibly lucky to have Raincoast as a distributor so that we get the store presence and support that we do (we're by far the smallest publisher they represent). Then I think a possible unique advantage we have is the structure of the company &mdsh; as both producer and publisher — and not being tied to only one medium because of our whole multimedia approach.

As both producer and publisher, we're dealing with a very small number of projects (one to three a year), so we're able to really immerse ourselves in each project and for good time; the projects seem to gestate two to three years, from concept to completion. They of course always start with a compelling idea that we're really excited to explore, but, because I have a fairly heavy distribution background, I usually bring the marketing to mind pretty early on thereafter. In the case of The Next Day, we've been working with about a half dozen of our key marketing partners upwards of a year now.

Meanwhile, releasing our projects cross-platform simultaneously also really increases our potential audience and general awareness across groups. While we weren't able to have the KENK film ready to release at the same time as the book, having it well into the works certainly helped the book (and vice versa). Meanwhile, The Next Day graphic novel and interactive animated documentary online (with the NFB & TVO) will launch within a short span of each other as both, so there's a lot of cross-up. I should stress that in both cases, neither is an adaptation of the other; the graphic novel and film or interactive were developed concurrently — like two trees grown independently from the same seed or soil. And, because we're producing and releasing projects cross-platform, we're not tied to drawing all our funding or revenue from the publishing piece only (which also allows us to not lose focus over too many titles). We find a lot of economies that way. One hand often helps wash the other.

Otherwise we're in the same boat as everybody else. We work really hard at the marketing and promotion and give the releases the most support we can. There's three of us on the publicity for The Next Day (including a hand from Dan Wagstaff at Raincoast and the incredibly talented Ed Kanerva); we're doing a sampler for Free Comic Book Day again this year; we're working on store windows and retail partnerships (like with KENK); we're doing a launch and exhibition with TINARS, the NFB, TVO; doing an on-line campaign; cross-promotions; bringing John (Porcellino) up from the US for events in Toronto and Montreal.... Actually, to that end, I think timing is really important in order to piggy-back on existing opportunities; our first-week-of-May release lines up perfectly with Hot Docs, Canadian Mental Health Week, Free-Comic Book Day and TCAF, of course!

In time, I think (hope!) that retailers will come to recognize that a publisher supports its releases and produces a certain quality of book, and that they'll factor that into their buying decisions. Back when I used to manage a little rep cinema, I would often book a Mongrel film without even knowing the title because I knew it would be of a certain caliber and come with support (that's actually what first made me want to work with them ten years back).

Anyways, I'm doing it again with the long answers!

I'd be really curious as to what factors most into the decision of which books to take on at The Beguiling. How big a role does personal taste play? And what makes you get behind a book people might not know in a big way? I love that even if I come to The Beguiling with something in mind, I'll usually leave with an additional hidden gem in hand (which also speaks to the knowledge of the sellers).

CB:

Well, quite frankly we take on more-or-less every graphic novel at The Beguiling. Sometimes work falls through the cracks, but between our various distribution partners we try to bring in one of every new graphic novel, at least one. There are some exceptions, we won't bother with pubs with a track-record of substandard releases, we won't bother with works where we can't conceive of a demand in any way, but that's less than five percent of what's released in a given month.

As for how we decide what to get behind, there are so many metrics involved. The cartoonist's track record, the publisher's track-record, whether we've gotten an advance copy, whether we can determine a pre-existing audience for a work, sales-history on similar projects, whether or not we personally like the work and can handsell it. Heh, unfortunately "how likely is it that we'll be able to reorder this" also plays a factor, as pubs go to more and more conservative print runs. Honestly, a lot of it is gut-feeling too. Comics are so idiosyncratic and still so much smaller than prose publishing, that there are only ten to fifteen graphic novels a year where we don't have SOME metric to measure to figure out how to order. Those are pretty good odds!

Personally, a lot of my good or bad feelings about a book that I need to order, that I haven't read, are based on the simple idea of support. Do I feel that the author/cartoonist is supporting this project? Is the publisher? Does anyone involved in this thing feel any passion for the work, or is it just another project being unceremoniously dumped onto the market as proof of concept for a Hollywood pitch? Or to fill a gap in a publishing schedule?

That's one thing I can say about your two projects to date — you really are incredibly invested in them. I think that's to your credit and speaks very highly of your market successes. Congrats on that.

AJ:

Thank you! That's definitely a big part of our philosophy, to-live-eat-sleep-breathe each project and make sure no stone's unturned in the actual release. Our exciting latest news is the release of both titles into the US book trade this fall. Fingers crossed as to how things go there....

We could easily continue this dialogue indefinitely (and I suspect we probably will over pints now that it is patio season!). But I guess I should point out to the Open Book readers that our 48-hour interview has ended up spanning two months, having started in April before we both got incredibly busy with TCAF and The Next Day's launch respectively! That said, I should mention that The Next Day book launch went really well — in large part due to TCAF again (thank you!). And the interactive documentary launches shortly at nfb.ca/thenextday and tvo.org/thenextday.

It's been a fun talk, and hopefully some light's been shed! Thanks so much. Maybe you could just wrap it up with an update on how TCAF went this year?

CB:

Looking back at the Festival, it was easily our most successful to date, and definitely our most ambitious. Our attendance matched our estimates, roughly 15,000 people over two days came through the turnstiles just for TCAF, and that's excellent and heartening. We also ended up with a LOT of different comics and indy-culture events going on in the city on TCAF weekend, with the Mini-Maker Faire, Free Comic Book Day and a couple of other events going on, and we had a record attendance! It seems that the city is really embracing cool comics and arts events. That's awesome.

All in all, I feel really good about what TCAF is able to accomplish every year, and I hope that continues — that we can continue to be a great showcase for the comics medium.

And we've already got some great ideas for next year....

Chris Butcher

Christopher Butcher is a 15+ year veteran of the comics industry, who has worked on many aspects of comics production, promotion and sales. Currently he is the Manager of venerable Toronto comics shop The Beguiling, a writer and blogger running Comics212.net, and the Co-Founder and Director of The Toronto Comic Arts Festival.



Alex Jansen is founder of Pop Sandbox, an award-winning multimedia production and publishing company with a focus on graphic novel based storytelling across platforms.

Pop Sandbox' inaugural release was the ground-breaking 300-page journalistic comic book, KENK, which had its highly publicized premiere during Hot Docs and the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in May 2010. It was the first graphic novel ever excerpted nationally by the Globe & Mail and the first graphic novel to be featured on the cover of Now Magazine, Canada's biggest weekly newspaper. KENK was recently named a Best Book of 2010 by Quill & Quire, Canada's top literary magazine, and was a special presentation at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam. It is currently being developed into a fully animated film.

Pop Sandbox' second release, The Next Day, is both a groundbreaking print graphic novella and separate interactive animated documentary online, each constructed from intimate interviews with survivors of near-fatal suicide attempts. In this poetic and profound philosophical exploration, four seemingly ordinary people each offer haunting personal insight into life, the decision to end it, and what comes after.... The interactive experience is a co-production with the National Film Board of Canada and inaugural winner of the NFB TVO Digital Calling Card.

Prior to launching Pop Sandbox, Jansen spent four years managing home entertainment with Mongrel Media, Canada's premiere independent and foreign film distribution company. In addition to his extensive distribution background, Jansen was Co-Producer of the feature film Walk Backwards, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2001. Jansen is also Founder of the Kingston Canadian Film Festival, which recently celebrated its 11th anniversary.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Openbook: Past Issues
Go To Issue 14 - Summer 2011

Go To Issue 13 - Winter 2011
Go To Issue 12 - Fall 2010
Go To Issue 11 - Summer 2010
Go To Issue 10 - Spring 2010
Go To Issue 09 - Winter 2009
Go To Issue 08 - Fall 2009
Go To Issue 07 - Summer 2009, including the Special Scream Edition!
Go To Issue 06 - Spring 2009
Go To Issue 05 - Winter 2008
Go To Issue 04 - Fall 2008
Go To Issue 03 - Summer 2008
Go To Issue 02 - Spring 2008
Go To Issue 01 - Fall 2007