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Doc films turn to celeb producers like Chopra Jonas and Page for star power, guidance

When Priyanka Chopra Jonas announced she was joining the production team of Barry Avrich’s new documentary “Born Hungry” in early April, it instantly boosted the Canadian film’s international profile.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas arrives at a Los Angeles fan screening of "Citadel," Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at The Culver Theater in Culver City, Calif. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

When Priyanka Chopra Jonas announced she was joining the production team of Barry Avrich’s new documentary “Born Hungry” in early April, it instantly boosted the Canadian film’s international profile.

“The news out of India blew up immediately when she was attached to it,” says Avrich, whose film follows Sash Simpson’s journey from a street kid in India to one of Canada’s top chefs. 

The Toronto director says that while Chopra Jonas played a more active role in the film’s creative process than “just sticking her name on it,” he hopes her involvement helps the project resonate globally, which is vital in today’s competitive documentary landscape.

"As a documentary filmmaker in Canada, you have to think about your projects in terms of having a global reach. Created by Canadians, yes, but you have to think about documentaries that will resonate in Canada and outside of Canada if you're going to stand a chance.”

Chopra Jonas is among several celebrities listed as producers on films screening at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival this week, including Elliot Page, who’s an executive producer on “Any Other Way: The Jackie Shane Story,” and Jennifer Lawrence, who’s an executive producer on AppleTV Plus's “Bread & Roses,” about Afghan women. They join an ever-growing list of celebs attaching themselves to documentaries and indie films to catapult a project to a larger audience. 

What the credit means can vary widely — while some actors offer guidance during the production process, others may use their star power to help a film get financing and exposure.

Whatever the case, attaching a celebrity producer to a project has become the new normal in the economy of smaller budget films, says Charles Tepperman, a media and film professor at the University of Calgary. 

“The (celeb producer) credit allows an indie film to get made with an A-list star without that A-list star price. And that's really important for indie films because it's harder and harder to get movies financed in the small- to mid-range indie film budget these days,” he says.

“It's not a kind of film production that Hollywood is really interested in making. They’re much more interested in making franchise films, so the executive producer credit becomes a way that passion projects and important projects get made and that stars can use their name to lend some credibility to them.”

The co-directors of “Any Other Way: The Jackie Shane Story” say Page joined their doc as they were looking for help pitching it to distributors and making an early sale.

“We talk about things like influencer marketing, but really it's been around forever. It's been celebrity endorsement,” says Lucah Rosenberg-Lee.

“I think that the fact that celebs are understanding their personal brand as a way to get stories out there is really powerful, because we do listen to people and we do follow their leadership.” 

The executive producer credit is a chance for A-listers to support projects they believe in. Michael Mabbott says the film, about one of music’s first Black transgender performers, had personal significance to Page.

“As filmmakers, we can only do so much, and I think part of why Elliot was attracted to this is because he knows that he can amplify this even further,” he says. 

Avrich says he’s seen celebrities join films as producers long after a film was made, but Chopra Jonas and her production company Purple Pebble Pictures were hands-on with “Born Hungry,” offering input on editing and storytelling. 

“I don't think I would ever get involved now or in future documentaries with somebody that just wants to be attached to the film in what we would call a vanity credit,” he says, adding that the actress — who also joined Oscar-nominated Canadian doc "To Kill a Tiger" this year — said the film's message resonated with her.

“Yes, it can be positive for distribution and sales, but I'd rather get their perspective on how I'm telling the story.

Come awards season, latching big names to projects can become its own kind of arms race. Montreal director Vincent René-Lortie, whose debut film “Invincible” was up for best live-action short at the Oscars, says he felt pressure to secure celebrity endorsement as other films in the category recruited famous executive producers.

“Eventually, we felt like, ‘OK, if we want to be able to keep up with the other films, we might have to find someone,’" he says.

René-Lortie turned to “Riverdale” actress Lili Reinhart "because she speaks a lot about mental health and our film deals with that." 

He says Reinhart posted about the film on social media and co-hosted a Q-and-A with him at an L.A. screening.

Meanwhile, Neve Campbell played an especially active role as executive producer of “Swan Song,” a profile of National Ballet of Canada artistic director Karen Kain, says the doc's B.C. director.

Chelsea McMullan says the actress — who has a ballet background — attended shoots, provided detailed notes and made media appearances on behalf of the film, which premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival.

McMullan says Campbell’s involvement gave the film an invaluable edge.

“It's a competitive market, so you do anything you can do to help your film get seen. Attaching a celebrity is one of those ways, especially if they really care about the subject matter and can speak to it,” McMullan said earlier this year at the Toronto Film Critics Association Awards, where "Swan Song" won the $50,000 documentary prize. 

“How lucky to have someone to advocate for you and make your film stand out in a sea of content.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2024.

Alex Nino Gheciu, The Canadian Press

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