In a letter to the culture minister, Canada's most influential producers complain that Telefilm suspended their automatic funding
Members of the film community have said the Canadian film funding system is archaic and unfair, arguing for an overhaul to make room for greater representation among the movie projects that get government financing.
Over the past few months, Telefilm Canada has been responsive to increased calls for more transparency and diversity, while initiating a process to change film funding rules.
But a small group of top producers who benefit the most from the national agency’s funding have written a letter to Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault asking for an intervention. NOW obtained multiple versions of the letter, each with a growing list of producers.
The letter focuses largely on the fate of a Telefilm funding program for top Canadian producers called Fast Track.
“We wrote a letter that we thought was going to a specific person for our specific cause,” says Rhombus Media producer Niv Fichman (Enemy, Possessor), adding that the letter was never meant to be public. “The Fast Track program was suspended unilaterally by Telefilm. And we got pissed about it.”
“We are compelled at this moment to express our serious concerns with the overall erosion of Telefilm’s collaboration with industry leaders over the last 24 months,” the original letter states. “Unilateral decision making disguised by a constant stream of self-congratulatory press releases and an overall lack of accountability have become the new norm.”
Fichman is the only producer and signatory who spoke to NOW for this story. Fellow Fast Track producers Patrick Roy (Bon Cop Bad Cop, Little Italy), Denise Robert (The Barbarian Invasions, Mambo Italiano), Robert Lantos (The Song Of Names, Museum), Pierre Even (Rebelle, Bon Cop Bad Cop 2) and David Gross (Goon, The Broken Hearts Gallery) either declined to comment or did not respond to NOW’s requests for comment.
Guilbeault’s office did not confirm what version of the letter it received nor the final list of signatories. However, Guilbeault’s office did confirm that producers Roy, Robert, Lantos, Even and Gross met with the minister on September 25 (virtually and in-person) to further discuss the funding matters outlined in the letter.
“The federal government is not involved in Telefilm Canada’s internal decisions,” Camille Gagné-Raynauld, press secretary for the Office of the Minister of Canadian Heritage, told NOW.
The letter and the meeting addressed COVID-19 insurance funding and the federal government’s commitment to increase Telefilm funding by $50 million annually.
But the signatories’ primary emphasis in writing directly to Guilbeault was to protest the suspension of Fast Track.
Fast Track automatically pours about $20-$25 million (roughly 30 per cent of the agency’s entire production budget) annually into projects shepherded by the most successful producers in Canada.
“Fast Track is the one lifeline provided to the industry by government,” the letter to Guilbeault reads. “Its suspension will invariably lead to the shuttering of a number of Canada’s foremost production companies, as it will restrict funding for projects already being planned for next year.”
The abrupt moves at Telefilm came after organizations like BIPOC TV & Film, Independent Media Producers Association of Creative Talent (IMPACT) and the Racial Equity Media Collective (REMC) demanded more accountability in funding decisions and more efforts toward dismantling systemic racism. These calls began in July during a racial reckoning sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in the U.S.
In response, Telefilm committed $100,000 a year toward the creation of a Black Screen Office, which, like its Indigenous counterpart, can help pave a path for Black-led projects in a country where such projects are few and far between.
Before that, it had announced a Racialized Persons/Visible Minorities stream for development funding. Telefilm has also held consultations with the filmmaking community, discussing how the funding system can best adapt to nurture new and marginalized voices.
Telefilm also suspended the Success Index, a measurement tool that largely relies on box office, international sales and film festival exposure to determine a film’s success. The Success Index calculates how much development funding production companies will receive over the following years, as well as gauge who qualifies for Fast Track status.
Since COVID-19 has ravaged the box office, the Success Index is null and void. Hence, the suspension of the Fast Track program for 2021-2022.
But the producers fear that the suspension will not be temporary.
Telefilm’s executive director Christa Dickenson has suggested a complete overhaul of the Success Index. She argues that the box office is holding an overwhelming influence over the Success Index in an era when most audiences are consuming movies on digital platforms. Organizations like IMPACT also argue that the Success Index does not have any consideration for the stories that are relevant, diverse and need to be told.
The letter to Guilbeault criticizes Dickenson’s suggestion that box office holds too much influence, painting her comments as sacrilege to those who hold the theatrical experience dear.
They also criticize Dickenson’s decision to fire executives who facilitated day-to-day relationships with those “industry leaders.” But overall, the letter takes issue with Telefilm asserting any control in how tax dollars are invested.
The Fast Track producers argue that “bureaucrats” are deciding most of what gets made at Telefilm through selective streams. Outside of the Fast Track stream, producers have to present their case for film financing to Telefilm executives, who in recent years started taking film representation into consideration, particularly when it comes to gender.
“The initial goal was to have at least 50 per cent of Telefilm-financed films be chosen by qualifying producers,” says the letter to Guilbeault, which laments that Fast Track producers only get to autonomously decide 10 projects a year.
While “bureaucrats” choose a bulk of the projects, Fast Track producers remain in control of a bulk of Telefilm’s funds. In the 2017-2018 year, nine Fast Track projects divvied up a budget over $21 million, which was 30 per cent of Telefilm’s entire production budget. Another 88 companies split the remaining budget, which was under $50 million. In the 2019-2020 season, 11 companies took 35 per cent ($23.5 million), while 69 companies took the remaining $43.4 million.
Fast Track companies also automatically received $200,000 per year in development funding. Over the past three years, they took 85, 89 and 74 per cent of Telefilm’s entire automatic stream development budget.
According to the letter to Guilbeault, the producers would much rather the public agency operate like a “cultural bank” for proven successes, with an annual withdrawal limit of $4 million per company. The Fast Track producers believe Telefilm’s role should be restricted to “the administration of funds” while they, not the bureaucrats, decide what gets made.
The problem, critics say, is that the industry’s leaders in Canada are mostly white men who history shows are not predisposed to telling stories that speak to Canada’s diverse audiences or work with BIPOC filmmakers. Hence, why Telefilm is shaking things up.
The letter to Guilbeault also takes issue with Telefilm’s consultations with the filmmaking community.
“After suspending Fast Track, Telefilm cynically launched a ‘transparent and inclusive’ industry consultation by indiscriminately emailing survey forms to the greatest number of ‘film people’ across Canada,” the letter states.
“We’re afraid that many who received the survey don’t have any tangible track record in the production of theatrical feature films. They also don’t have a serious or practical understanding of how the Quebec or English Canada film industries were built, how they really work, how they achieved continuous success over the years and what are their most serious challenges for the future.”
According to Telefilm Canada, 206 people completed the surveys. Among them, 68 per cent have 11 years or more experience in the industry.
REMC’s Amar Wala and Sherien Barsoum on the set of CBC’s In The Making
“We’ve been really heartened by the process,” says filmmaker and producer Amar Wala, complimenting Telefilm’s consultations.
The founder of Scarborough Pictures is among the voices that have been calling for more transparency from Telefilm. Wala co-founded the Racial Equity Media Collective with Sherien Barsoum and Tamara Dawit. They work with agencies like Telefilm and Canada Media Fund to collect race-based data and better understand whether funding is coming to BIPOC filmmakers or not. Wala expected an uphill battle for progress. Instead, he’s pleased that these organizations came to the table.
“I’m really hoping that community consultation, keeping an open door, constantly having a back and forth with filmmakers from underrepresented communities is the norm going forward from Telefilm.”
Among the criticisms Telefilm heard in the consultations was that the Success Index and Fast Track are unfair systems that keep new voices out.
Success is measured within a system that favours the same old guard, critics say, and continuously disadvantages BIPOC stories while white privilege continues to be reinforced in theatrical distribution, international sales and festival access. While a few women, like Denise Robert, have cracked the Fast Track circle, no BIPOC producer has ever been awarded that designation.
According to Telefilm’s survey respondents, 53 per cent believe Fast Track should be dismantled altogether and projects should be decided by an external jury. Of the 27 per cent in favour of keeping Fast Track (most from Quebec), 70 per cent want to update the scoring requirements to achieve and keep that lofty status.
The Directors Guild Of Canada (DGC) joined the chorus calling for an overhaul of the system. They published a Directors Manifesto today, criticizing both the Success Index and Fast Track.
“What was meant to be an objective algorithm has led to persistent and permanent exclusion,” says the manifesto. “The Success Index should be replaced by a project selection process with rotating juries, or similar mechanisms, made up of members of the filmmaking community.”
The producers’ letter to the culture minister does mention helping LGBTQ and BIPOC stories get made. While they believe their Fast Track stream should remain untouched, they recommend “additional targeted” funding for mid-level productions that would “serve the specific needs of Canada’s diverse film community.”
Rhombus Media’s Niv Fichman says he feels caught in the middle on this debate. On the one hand, he’s among the Fast Track producers who benefit from the current system.
“I’m a product of Fast Track,” says Fichman. “And I’m proud of that.”
On the other hand, he also has commitments to nurturing new talent.
From left to right: Ho Che Anderson, Mohamed Hassan, Niv Fichman, Faran Moradi, Judah Hernandez at the Canadian Talent Celebration at Pinewood Toronto Studios
Fichman says he uses Fast Track money to boost up-and-coming directors like Jason Eisener (Hobo With A Shotgun), Brandon Cronenberg (Antiviral, Possessor), Stephen Dunn (Closet Monster) and Albert Shin (Disappearance At Clifton Hill).
He says he doesn’t use Fast Track funding when producing a movie like Enemy with a hot commodity director like Denis Villeneuve. “I didn’t think I needed Fast track,” says Fichman, explaining that he was confident a Villeneuve project can secure funding from the selective streams at Telefilm.
Fichman also backed Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller’s revamp of Telefilm’s microbudget program for first-time filmmakers into the Talent To Watch program. Lately, he’s been sitting in on consultations to figure out how to improve that program. Talent To Watch recipients are having difficulty managing the financial and legal landscape. They say the program largely left them without mentorship or guidance.
Fichman is in talks to remedy that, but notes Talent To Watch didn’t go over well with his peers.
“I could tell you that when I first was involved with creating Talent To Watch, all my Fast Track friends and other friends were just saying, ‘Why the fuck are you doing this? It’s just so stupid to just give all this money to these people who don’t know what they’re doing. They have no right to make a film. You’re just taking all this money away from us.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s just completely wrong. That’s not what’s happening.’”
On the subject of the Guilbeault letter, Fichman says it was a reaction from the producers who had the rug pulled out from under them while planning how to use their Fast Track funding.
Productions that are meant to shoot until next summer already have their funding secured from Telefilm. For now, the Success Index suspension only affects productions slated to start up in late 2021 to 2022. By this point in the year, Fichman and his fellow producers would be scoping projects and securing deals for the movies they intend to make at that time.
Fichman describes Fast Track like a security blanket that lets producers continue to make those deals, confident that they will have Telefilm’s financial contribution, which is typically 35 per cent of a project’s budget but can go up to 49 per cent.
“You have producers who know they are going to get Fast Track,” says Fichman. “They employ people. They have more development. They produce films. And those films get distributed by distributors.”
Fichman adds that the letter to Guilbeault isn’t meant to pit white producers against BIPOC talent. He says the argument is about “filmmakers vs. bureaucrats.” And his main argument for keeping Fast Track going is that programs like Fast Track keep the business going with a steady flow of big pictures (by Canadian standards).
Others argue that fewer “big pictures” would mean there’s money available for smaller movies, which would also keep the industry going.
“In order to have an industry, you need to have films that are at a certain level like, for example, Possessor,” says Fichman, referencing his recent sci-fi puzzler, a film that he says would have had a decent theatrical run were it not for COVID-19.
“It competes in the international marketplace and it gets picked up by distributors like Neon all over the world,” he explains. “It’s important for an industry to have numerous kicks at the can.”
The Song Of Names received $7.5 million from Telefilm Canada.
To quantify the argument for new voices and smaller pictures, consider two recent Canadian Screen Award nominees: The Song Of Names, a Holocaust tale produced through Fast Track, and The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, a story about Indigenous women that won its allotment through the regional funding program.
The Song Of Names, produced by Lantos’s company Serendipity Point, is a period piece starring Tim Roth and Clive Owen that reportedly cost $22 million to make. It’s directed by François Girard, whose 1998 film The Red Violin was produced by Fichman. The Red Violin just broke even recently, according to Fichman. “And that’s considered a real success.”
Telefilm contributed $7.5 million to The Song Of Names budget. That’s a slightly smaller figure than their original $9 million commitment, which was based on a larger budget. An exception was made to Telefilm’s general $4 million cap for Fast Track productions, because of the project’s scope and earning potential.
The film was not a critical success, although it did score Canadian Screen Award nominations in technical categories. It took in $1.14 million at the box office – considered a success for a Canadian film – and could have earned more in Europe if the pandemic hadn’t interrupted the release schedule.
That box office would earn more Success Index points, maintaining Fast Track status for Serendipity Point, and the company’s ability to draw millions more for the next film along with hundreds of thousands in development funding.
The funds Telefilm poured into The Song Of Names is 15 times what the agency invested into The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open. The latter film, directed by Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, cost $1.275 million, including $500,000 from Telefilm.
The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival before playing TIFF in 2019, where The Song Of Names also premiered. While Body Remembers only made $26,000 in Canadian theatres, it was critically embraced (a New York Times Critic’s Pick) and acquired by Ava DuVernay’s distribution company Array, which put the film on Netflix outside Canada.
The film also won the Best Canadian Film prize at the Toronto and Vancouver Film Critics Association awards, and won three Canadian Screen Awards for directing, screenplay and cinematography.
These accomplishments don’t register so well on Telefilm’s Success Index. The production team behind Body Remembers doesn’t qualify for Fast Track. They also don’t qualify for automatic development funding this year.
“Fast Track has led to established filmmakers taking too much out of the funders’ budgets, and not enough is left for underrepresented voices or for new filmmakers,” says John Bain, head of distribution at LevelFilm. “It’s the automatic part that bothers me, because then it’s just whoever has the advantage keeps the advantage forever. My issue is it’s really part of the rich get richer.”
To qualify for Fast Track, a production company needs to rank among the top four or five in its language market for a given year based on the Success Index, which measures the performance of films from the previous five years without factoring budgets.
As mentioned previously, the Success Index is heavily weighted in favour of box office (40 per cent) but also includes international sales and film festival play.
A runaway success (by Canadian standards) like Bon Cop, Bad Cop or Goon can go a significant distance to keep a producer in Fast Track for several years. Each year that producer qualifies for the $200,000 per year in development funding plus up to $4 million per year toward other projects, provided they use the production financing within two years.
“If you have the money, it’s far easier to create a good film,” says Bain, explaining how fast trackers keep on the fast track.
“A money-losing film can easily out gross smaller films even when the latter productions earn many multiples of their original budgets,” says DGC’s Directors Manifesto. “Only in a broken system could such a film be declared a commercial ‘success.’”
The ability to access millions from Telefilm makes it easier to secure star power, which in turn helps secure the remaining private funding needed to put together a $5-$22 million production budget. Budget and star power also lures advances from theatrical distributors and international sales. The path to box office is practically built in.
Having a starry cast also has advantages when it comes to film festivals, Bain says.
“With $5 million, a recognizable cast and a well-known director, it’s more likely that you’ll have a film that will get into a festival than if it’s a $600,000 film with a first-time director and no [marquee] cast.”
Bain argues that even the most successful producers should compete and present a case for a project to receive tax dollars.
He also points out the fault lines in the system. If a Fast Track producer doesn’t have a worthwhile project to put forward, they may feel compelled to use a Fast Track allotment within the two-year time limit. They could pass that allotment to another producer’s project, take a producer credit and pull a fee, “basically sucking money out of the budget of any particular film” while keeping the status.
“The system is being gamed a little bit,” says Bain.
Floyd Kane and Vinessa Antoine on the set of Diggstown.
“It’s not surprising that these guys want the system to remain the way it is,” says Diggstown producer Floyd Kane.
Kane and his producing partner Amos Adetuyi have produced Black-led films like Director X’s Across The Line, Stella Meghie’s Jean Of The Joneses and Sharon Lewis’s Brown Girl Begins. Like most in the industry, Kane thinks a program like Fast Track that invests in success is a good thing. But he questions a program that has never had a racialized producer among its ranks.
“Frankly, I doubt that many racialized producers even know that this goes on, because we’re busy just trying to get our regional [less than $1.25 million] Telefilm money.”
Fichman argues that a merit-based Fast Track system is favourable to every one, since it can be accessed and give full autonomy to BIPOC producers as well. There is something valuable in a program where the government or “bureaucratic” censorship can’t restrain the voices that need to be heard. But how do those voices get to Fast Track?
Kane points out that film financing is weighted against BIPOC filmmakers and their stories before they even get a chance to succeed.
To access Telefilm funding at the national level (budgets above $2.5 million), producers need to secure private funding (more than 50 per cent of the budget) and a hard commitment from a Canadian theatrical distributor to release the film within a year of completion.
But when most of the decision-makers, financiers and gatekeepers are white and don’t see the value in BIPOC stories and stars, securing private funding by the millions is nearly impossible, says Kane.
“We’ve had situations where you have to have that cast, and if you don’t have the cast then, you’re not going to get the distribution advance at the level that you need it to be, or the international financial market interest. So therefore you’re not going to get to make your movie.”
Attracting international sales is another matter, particularly when dealing with Europe.
“We have had several conversations with our [Diggstown] distributor who has told us point-blank certain territories will not take the show because we have a Black female lead.”
IMPACT, the group behind the Producers Pledge to dismantle systemic racism, sent a letter signed by 54 producers to Telefilm’s executive director Dickensen earlier this year.
“We need Telefilm, our national public funder, to recognize that we operate within a global film industry that is based on white supremacy and racist principles, with a racist star and film-financing system,” the letter reads.
The IMPACT letter is a six-page document digging deep into the problems with film financing in the Talent To Watch and Development programs, which are paralyzed by a lack of funds in general. And they get into how the Success Index heavily disadvantages the new voices toiling in those programs.
“It’s true that the success meter that was created needs to be revamped,” says Fichman.
While he believes the Fast Track program shouldn’t be dismantled altogether, he welcomes reform. Fichman suggests creating stricter rules to eliminate potential abuse as well as overlaying “a system that would financially reward projects that feature participation at the highest creative levels by previously disadvantaged filmmakers.”
He also admits that he’s been paying more attention recently to how diverse his own film roster is.
“One of the great things about what’s happening right now is that it’s making me aware of myself and aware of my lacking. I like to think of myself as extremely liberal and wanting to help everybody and there’s absolutely no gender, sexuality or skin colour barriers in the way I make any decisions,” he continues. “Yet somehow, it’s still very white. So now I’m paying super attention to that. I’m learning. I don’t feel I need to apologize for my past because I didn’t do anything actively wrong. But I didn’t do enough, for sure. And I’m correcting that.”