Mongrel Media CEO turns passion for film into box office successes

The founder of Canada's biggest art-house film distributor has found success by straddling the line between independent films and Hollywood blockbusters.

Hussain Amarshi has almost recovered from the Toronto International Film Festival. "The festival was tiring," says the 48-year-old founder and CEO of Mongrel Media, Canada's biggest art-house film distributor. "Very, very tiring."

No wonder. Amarshi does have staff – 20 employees altogether – but still, he had to hustle through the theatres, clubs and back-rooms at TIFF, striking deals to distribute five new movies, but also overseeing the release of Deepa Mehta's adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Sarah Polley's documentary Stories We Tell, and 18 other films.

"We had some of the more talked-about films. We didn't have the films that won awards, but we did have films people were aware of," he says. Amarshi is an intense-looking man with heavy, dark-rimmed glasses and a shock of black hair shot through with silver streaks. Although he never set out to be in the movie business, he's learned a lot of lessons about entrepreneurship in a tough industry.

Hussain Amarshi studied business at Queen's University but found himself drawn to other things. (Mongrel Media)

Distributors are the middle-men between the movie-makers, and the theatres. They promote the films, pay for the marketing and advertising, get them out to the cinemas, produce the DVDs, and in return take a slice of the overall revenue a film generates. That includes money made at the box office, DVD sales, video-on-demand, Netflix and television sales.

But distributors have to pay up-front for that role, and in some cases there are bidding wars.

"There are mythical tales of (Miramax Films founder) Harvey Weinstein getting into fist fights over films where he wanted the rights and someone else bought them," says Amarshi. "It happens at the Sundance Film Festival that in the middle of the screening, people will start making a bid, because they like what they see and the audience reaction is great. Then there can be negotiations that go all through the night, back and forth."

But Amarshi says he is disciplined about what he buys and how much he pays. He refuses to get into a bidding war. "I was told many years ago you don't make money when you sell, you make money when you buy," he says. "If you buy it at the right price, you're in the position to sell it at a price that may be below what you want, but if you are still making a couple of bucks, you can sell it. If you buy it high, you have to wait for the right deal to come down the line and it may never come."

It strikes me this is true of any business: If you can keep your costs low, you stand to make that much more profit.

Business-minded background

Amarshi comes from a business-oriented family. His Pakistani parents lived for many years in the Congo, operating a trading company. Hussain was born there, the middle son in a family of five children. He came to Canada to study business at Queen's University in Kingston Ontario, but instead found himself drawn to political science and international studies.

This led him to a position with the International Centre at the school, where he worked as a development education co-odinator. "I proposed idea of starting a film festival to bring films from third world, and engage people through film," he says. His brainchild developed into the Kingston Film Festival in 1989, and he began meeting directors and moving in that sphere.

But it wasn't long before he noticed a problem.

"I became aware that if a film was not picked up by a U.S. distributor, then it was rare there was a Canadian distributor of that film. So there were films I wanted to bring to Kingston where I had to get in touch with people in Switzerland or France."

When he finished his master's degree, Amarshi moved to Toronto and began to run the Euclid Theatre. Again, getting films was tricky. "It was costly from a logistical point of view," he says. "You had to get prints shipped, there was no internet then. It was not convenient. So I decided to start my company. I didn't set up a business plan, I didn't do research or due diligence. I was just instinctively aware of the fact that there were films that people would want to see and they were not available in Canada."

Mongrel Media is the distributor for Canadian director Sarah Polley's TIFF-screened movie 'Stories We Tell'. (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

His big break came with a Tunisian film called The Silences of the Palace. "I absolutely loved that film," Amarshi enthuses, even now, 18 years later. "It was made by a first-time filmmaker in her forties. I felt a compulsion to bring that film to a larger audience. I was driven by my own passion. I approached the sales agent, and she said 'Thank you for your comments, but we are talking to Miramax'."

Unbeknownst to Amarshi, the film had been a hit at Cannes. He thought he'd discovered it, but he was very wrong! A major player was way ahead of him. However, months later while attending a film festival in Rotterdam, Amarshi saw the sales agent again. It seems the Miramax deal hadn't come through, and she had different words for him this time. "If you want that film, it's yours".

"I had three weeks to start marketing it," he says. "I busted my ass in those three weeks. I was out at every cultural event, I was targeting university students, professors, the Arabic communities, the Jewish community. I made flyers in Arabic, I made flyers in English, I pushed the soundtrack, I hustled for press."

It obviously worked. Nowadays, Mongrel Media is thriving, opening about 50 films a year. "We have a film opening virtually every week," Amarshi says calmly. The company handles all of Woody Allen's film, due to a partnership with Sony Classics. And this middle son is happy as a middle man, with a money-making niche, not among the biggest of the big.

Looks like the middle can be a very good place.