Hooray for Hollywood and other bad Telefilm ideas by Kate Taylor

Sep 24, 2005

Source : Globe & Mail

It's official: The federal film policy isn't working.

In 2000, the Department of Canadian Heritage drafted From Script to Screen, a new feature-film policy that argued Canada had successfully built a film industry but now needed to build audiences, setting the infamous 5-per-cent target. The goal was for Canadian films, never popular with Canadian audiences, to earn a meagre 5 per cent of the domestic box office so utterly dominated by Hollywood. Many in the industry said it couldn't be done and have been proved more or less right.

Five years later, the department has commissioned its own review of the policy from a private consultant, and the Canadian Press has smoked it out with an access-to information request: Behind its bland and rather technical language, and its mealy-mouthed recommendations, the report acknowledges the reality of recent gains at the box office. The 5-per-cent target has been reached -- Canadian box office hit 4.9 per cent this summer -- but that gain is almost entirely due to the popularity of Quebec films, which now account for about a quarter of the French-language box office. English-language box office stood at whopping 1.6 per cent in 2004! That is actually a significant gain -- it was down well under 1 per cent five years ago -- but it is mainly accounted for by a few international co-productions such as Being Julia, the Annette Bening film that few would identify as Canadian.

The report reserves its harshest judgment for the Genies, Canada's English-language film awards, which it says are ineffective in promoting film and don't attract television audiences. And why would they? Most of the nominated films are Quebec titles that the rest of Canada doesn't recognize. The report also notes that while the new policy's attempts to foster screenwriting generated a lot of scripts, there isn't much evidence that producers are filming them.

Well, this lopsided picture only represents what the industry has known for at least a year if not two. The only way actually to achieve the goal in English Canada would be to legislate some kind of Canadian quota in cinemas, a development that is never going to happen. Filmmakers say they aren't interested in being ghettoized; federal politicians, even if they had the political will to tackle Hollywood's ferocious trade lobby on the issue, have argued they don't have the constitutional authority to regulate an area of business that falls under provincial jurisdiction.

No, what the report should really be telling the government is that it's time to move beyond the box office as the way of both measuring and building success. In its desire to build audiences for Canadian film -- and who can argue with that? -- the policy focused too heavily on those magical numbers. The federal agency Telefilm Canada has yet to find that break-through Canadian popular hit, but it has increasingly funded a few much bigger-budget movies in the hopes of striking pay dirt. As the report points out, such boffo movies have proved so elusive that, in English Canada, there has been no way for Telefilm to follow through on the policy's notion of rewarding success with funding for future projects.

The policy also led to criticisms that Telefilm had abandoned art film in favour of schlock, moving away from the independent aesthetic that is where Canadian filmmakers have made their mark. Supporters defend the idea, arguing that comedy and romance are culture too, but the whole issue may be something of a red herring. Look at the three inarguably arty Canadian films to emerge from the recent Toronto international film festival. Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies, David Cronenberg's A History of Violence and Deepa Mehta's Water are all significant cultural achievements and as such nurture the Canadian film industry and those directors' careers. However, since not one of them is set in Canada nor stars any Canadians in the leading roles, they do nothing to build an audience's immediate interest in Canadian film. The Canadian novel is such a well-established form it can happily embrace all the foreign locales that Austin Clarke or M. G. Vassanji have to offer; the Canadian film can only wish for such recognition.

Five years and many dollars later, the film policy hasn't changed that. The consultant's report has no complaints about how efficiently the dollars were spent, but both the practice of throwing money at a wall to see if any of it sticks and the obsession with box office are borrowed from Hollywood, where the first weekend's take is read as the alpha and omega of a movie's success. In truth, the receipts from theatrical release now barely cover the whopping marketing budgets required to get people out on that first weekend.

"Is it realistic to be trying to reach Canadians through a cinematic infrastructure built by Hollywood for Hollywood films," asks the parliamentary standing committee that is also reviewing the 2000 policy. And, one might add, an infrastructure that is not serving Hollywood particularly well as it struggles to recover from its worst summer since 1997.

The standing committee came out with its interim report back in June, and that document makes much more useful reading, since it is asking all the right questions. Canadian Heritage and Telefilm need to be looking beyond commercial theatrical release to examine how they can get more help from the power of DVDs, television, film festivals (which the consultant's report identifies as much more useful than the Genies in making Canadian film sexy) and film circuits, such as the one sponsored by the Toronto International Film Festival that circulates Canadian films to smaller centres where they would otherwise not be seen. If the CBC ever manages to crawl out from underneath the train wreck of its current labour dispute, it needs to be doing a lot more to make a place on television for Canadian film.

Meanwhile, as the standing committee points out, the definition of marketable films needs to be broadened to include documentaries, a traditional Canadian strength and an increasingly popular alternative to fiction. You could add shorts to that category too.

The committee is now doing a second round of hearings, asking questions such as how Canadian content should be defined and whether the Hollywood model should be abandoned, and is expected to report back later this fall. Let's hope it actually comes up with some tougher recommendations.

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