The Toronto International Film Festival does great things for Canadian film. If only we paid this much attention to our own flicks the other 355 days of the year. Sure, Men With Brooms and The Corporation have made some bucks, and now it looks like Deepa Mehta's Water and Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies are poised to go huge. But hidden under the few hits, a whole world of cinema struggles to get noticed. The question is how.
Turns out our true patriot love does not a bag of popcorn sell. Without costly ad campaigns, selling a Canadian film is like setting up a lemonade stand behind the Pepsi Challenge.
Consider the competition. On our highest tier, Telefilm Canada, working under the Department of Canadian Heritage, pours millions into the industry every year. The largest flicks have marketing budgets of around $150,000. But Hollywood films have promo budgets equivalent to the cost of production, so a $60 million movie gets another $60 million for bumph.
But who wants to front the millions to make noise when English Canadian films still can't get a 5 per cent share of the box office?
Give us a star system like Quebec's, the UK's and, of course, Hollywood's, say a number of industry insiders, so we can sell our films on the basis of personalities instead of auteur directors.
Give us CanCon-type rules or "shelf space" in the theatres, say others, quotas guaranteeing screen time for our movies. For American distributor-marketers who often hold North American rights to films, Canada barely exists.
The last attempt to build a wall came in 1987, when a proposed a quota system was sacrificed to appease the gods of NAFTA. Maybe now that the Americans are effectively reneging on the deal over softwood lumber, we could use film quotas as leverage.
Sarah Polley and Don McKellar have jumped into the picture, spearheading a move to introduce quotas at the hearings of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in early June. The committee seemed to buy it, citing the Investment Canada Act of 1988 as a possible loophole to slip in some cultural protection.
But American pressure has been steadily eroding quotas in other countries. The UK dropped its film quota system in 1985 after 58 years. Sarah, Don, don't hold your breath.
Jean-Pierre Gauthier, director of film policy for the Department of Canadian Heritage in Ottawa, says we're unlikely to see quotas for Canadian films in theatres any time soon.
He tells me over the phone in his wise and gravelly franco-bureaucratic accent, that there's no guarantee that the Investment Canada Act would help.
"Under the act," he says, "transactions must have a net benefit to Canadians, but these are mostly economic." Cultural commitments like installing quotas could be negotiated, but using the act that way would be a stretch.
Gauthier readily admits that no one's stopping anybody from dreaming up some creative legislation to establish quotas, but at the moment "there's nothing presently at our disposal to do anything like this." Besides, cinemas, like content ratings, generally fall under provincial jurisdiction, and there's no talk at Queen's Park about rattling the Yanks.
Surprisingly, Ted East, president of the Canadian Association of Film Distributors and Exporters, thinks a quota system is a bad idea. Looking to Quebec, where local films take more than 20 per cent of the box office, he tells me, "Good [English] Canadian films will have no problem getting screen time."
He wants to see a greater variety of film genres tackled by Canadian filmmakers, and claims Telefilm's reputation for making artsy auteur films hurts the business. "People are making the kinds of films they think Telefilm will like, instead of focusing on what people are interested in seeing.'
After an armchair classification of Telefilm's batch from 2004, East's rhetoric doesn't add up. Canadian taxpayers made love stories, historical dramas, a few road movies, three films based on the adventures of dogs and monkeys and one foot-fetish flick. (True, there were at least 10 predictably uplifting "Canadian people-overcoming-hardship" movies.)
Currently, Telefilm loans distributors who market the films, negotiate deals with theatres and pay for the prints up to 75 per cent of their distribution budget, a third of which they get to keep as a grant. East's pissed off that Telefilm is slowly phasing out the grant, although the level of the loans will stay the same.
Telefilm's boisterous new executive director, Wayne Clarkson, having headed up TIFF, the Ontario Film Development Corporation and the Canadian Film Centre, has got his own opinions. "Grants," he says on the phone, "should be given to charitable non-profit ventures, not to the private sector."
Sounds reasonable, but it raises the spectre of Telefilm's ongoing identity crisis. Does the program exist to invest in our cultural heritage or to build a viable industry? "Good question." He believes we need both. While East accuses Telefilm of making the wrong films, Clarkson throws the blame back in his face, faulting distributors for picking up too many films. "To be profitable," he says, "distributors have to be more disciplined."
They will likely be forced to when he cuts off their grants.
Clarkson, too, has remained "unconvinced by the principle of quotas," claiming that we're better off boosting the marketing presence of our films than fighting for quotas.
TIFF's non-profit Film Circuit program, in its 13th year, is a good example of what can be done. Film Circuit successfully puts Canadian and other independent films in theatres in 180 smaller communities around the country and presents more that 200 screenings to 350,000 people every year. Clarkson intends to invest in Film Circuit in order to form partnerships with both independent and chain theatres in big cities as well.
That's great news for Telefilm's roster of favourite directors, but where does all this leave our undiscovered Egoyans, Mehtas and Cronenbergs? They're lucky these days to get even a weekend to prove themselves in a theatre like the Carlton, and even luckier if their film's spot gets confirmed a week in advance. Good luck marketing in conditions like that.
Indie filmmakers are often heard complaining about distributors who seem to take the Telefilm cash and never follow up with their plans. Small budgets simply fall through the cracks at Telefilm. Even the House of Commons Committee report blasted the distributors for their complacency and lack of accountability. They act as "gatekeepers, deciding both which films get funding and which are seen."
Clarkson argues that films don't always live up to the promises of the producers, leaving both Telefilm and distributors with "difficult financial decisions" about whether to continue promoting them. Yes, it's difficult. But let's err on the side of letting audiences decide.