The Plot Thickens

How Front Street Pictures founder Harvey Kahn went from journalist to Disney PR man to film producer by finding good stories

Harvey Kahn first fell in love with film while attending the University of Wisconsin, setting the stage for his future career.
Harvey Kahn first fell in love with film while attending the University of Wisconsin, setting the stage for his future career.

The phone rang, and when Harvey Kahn picked up, he heard his friend, a National Public Radio reporter, on the other end saying, “I’m going to play you an interview.”

This was in the 1980s. At the time, Kahn was working for Disney in Los Angeles, heading up public relations for the nascent cable television station that would become the Disney Channel. Although he wasn’t a journalist anymore—he had spent time in Washington, DC, writing and working on issues-driven political campaigns—he still had one ear on the news, and he had become fascinated by reports of zealous survivalist groups encamped in America’s farm belt, convinced of an elaborate federal conspiracy. So it was on Kahn’s advice that his friend had gone to dig up a story.

“Listen to this,” the reporter said on the phone, and he hit play. The voice recorded on the interview belonged to a farmhand named Lester, who described the last day he had seen his wife and children before they dramatically disappeared. Turns out they were living with one of the groups. And the kicker? They were going to be rescued in a police raid the following day.

“So my friend said, ‘You ought to get on a plane,’” Kahn says with a laugh. “I took a day off work and flew out there, obviously on my own nickel, and I watched this whole event unfold.”

Kahn had never developed a film before. He fell in love with the magic of the medium while attending the University of Wisconsin, where the work of Fellini, Godard, Gavros, and Malle was shown by campus film societies. But actually making one? That seemed impossible. But the story of the farmhand was too perfect to pass up, so Kahn went back to LA after interviewing Lester and the other characters involved, came up with a treatment, and at first “wasn’t sure what to do with it, exactly,” he says. In a stroke of luck, however, executives at CBS contacted his friend at NPR. They sold the story to CBS on the spot.

Through the Years

We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004)
Filmed in Vancouver but set in a New England college town, this John Curran–directed film was the competition selection at the Sundance Film Festival and stars a quartet of familiar faces: Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, and Peter Krause.

The Deal (2005)
The slogan of this political thriller, which features Christian Slater and Selma Blair, goes, “The world is at war. To the victor goes the oil.” Harvey Kahn directed.

Nobody’s Baby (2001)
A mutton-chop-sporting Gary Oldman stars alongside Skeet Ulrich in this comedy about two criminals and a baby.

R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour (2010–Present)
This cable TV series, based on the young-adult supernatural fiction of R.L. Stine, sends chills up kids’ spines during each half-hour episode. It’s currently at more than 100 suspenseful episodes and counting.

Abducted: The Carlina White Story (2012)
This made-for-TV Lifetime original tells the story of a baby kidnapped at birth who then grows up and discovers her true identity.

And that, as they say, is how it all began. The movie didn’t end up being made (at least not immediately; it was picked up a decade later and released on TV as Divided By Hate), but it was still a transitional moment for Kahn. From that moment on, he was in the filmmaking business.

Today, Kahn is the president of Front Street Pictures, which he founded in 2003. His road to Vancouver from Los Angeles was paved with locational benefits because, since the early 1990s, the British Columbia metropolis—and, really, Canada as a whole—has become a destination for all types of filmmaking. Part of Vancouver’s appeal is the increasingly skilled crews available there, particularly in the realm of visual effects (The X-Files, X-Men, and Stargate were all filmed there). There is also the variety of locations you can approximate, thanks to the nearby coast, mountains, farmland, and small towns. Finally, filming in Canada makes financial sense: the federal Canadian government, individual provinces, and cities all provide strong tax incentives for projects on their soil that use local labour, with extra breaks for films that qualify as Canadian content.

Although Kahn was born and raised in the United States, his mother was from Nova Scotia, which lent him an easy path to citizenship after he started crossing the border to produce films in the late 1990s. “I saw an opportunity to take the sensibilities I had cultivated during my years in Los Angeles”—sensibilities that lean toward provocative or touching real-life stories—“and create a company that would utilize those sensibilities while also taking advantage of all the things Vancouver has to offer,” Kahn says.

There are now two essential parts to Front Street Pictures’ business. On the one hand, it provides production services to studios, producers, and film and TV distributors, mainly LA-based, who have a project in mind, want to shoot in Vancouver, and need work space, experienced crews, and someone with an easy familiarity with the area’s financial regulations. On the other hand, the company seeks out ideas to cultivate and produce from the earliest stages on its own.

“I started this company because I knew some of the difficulties and appreciated the challenges people go through to get their movies made,” Kahn says. “I’m not just some guy sitting in the office, ramming projects through a production mill.”

That’s not what show business is about, after all; whether it’s a documentary, a kid’s show, or a drama, Front Street Pictures is still concerned with creating that magic Kahn first experienced in film societies at the University of Wisconsin. “We try to sustain that the best we can,” he says.