Canadian filmmaking industry lacks the lustre of our southern friends. This article examines some of the reasons why Canadian filmmaking is not up to par with our American counterparts [editor’s note].
Filmmaking in Canada
I hustled my way through the virtually empty streets of downtown Toronto at dawn to make it for my 6:30 am call time. Arrive at holding, meet with wardrobe and… wait around for about five hours. This is yours truly spending his summer days as a film extra. What was once an ambition to experience the magic of filmmaking is now filled with 16-hour days and a realization of how painstaking the whole process is. But how rewarding it is at the end right? For someone at the bottom of the totem pole, having the opportunity to work on the set of Suits and Flashpoint is certainly a cool experience and a great conversation starter.
But the true rewards are for the creative team and production crew to reap. These are the folks pouring their body, mind and soul into creating art… or at least entertainment – [and the tax incentives in Canada are definitely an attractive part of it].
As the cameras begin rolling I pass by the film’s protagonist, who happens to be played by Jake Gylanhaal. But it’s when Montreal-born director, Denis Villenue, steps in that I’m taken aback. The name may sound familiar, Villeneu’s film Incendies was a huge success – praised by critics, awards abound and even an Oscar nod. This time Villenue was adapting José Saramago’s novel, The Double, the story of a man who seeks out his exact look-alike after spotting him in a movie. Villenue is one of many talented Canadian directors who have achieved international success and recognition. Knowing that such a well-respected Canadian artist is at the helm of this huge production fills me with a sense of Canadian pride. It reminds me of how Canada has reached such a prominent position for filmmaking in the world [for more than just its tax incentive].
Today, the Canadian film industry is as strong as it has ever been. Originally intended as a cheap alternative for American produced films that were practically indistinguishable from ones made in the USA, Canada now has a thriving multi-billion dollar film industry with professional crews, hi-tech studio space and a well-developed infrastructure. And we can’t forget that Toronto is home to TIFF, the most important film festival in the world outside of Cannes. Creating permanent jobs, enriching Canadian culture, drawing investment in our cities – to say that the industry is important to Canada’s prosperity is an understatement. The production sector generates over $5.5 billion of activity annually and sustains 128,000 high-quality, full-time jobs.[i]
Having said all that, the Canadian film industry still has some problems it cannot seem to shake and recent policy decisions are making it even harder for it to persevere. As with any problem analysis, there are the observable indicators of the problem, the symptoms, and the root cause of the problem, the illness.
Symptoms of the Canadian Filmmaking Industry
Increased difficulty for Canadian producers in making films. Public and private funding is getting harder to come by and selling a Canadian film to a foreign investor is not the easiest thing to do since the Canadian market is too small for lucrative returns.
English Canadian films inability to break through to a wide audience or to find an export market. In spite of Resident Evil: Afterlife becoming the highest grossing Canadian produced film of all time (with almost $300m in box office receipts), films that distinctively reflect English Canadian culture do not perform well at the box-office and rarely recoup their production costs.
English Canadians spending less than 1% of their movie watching money on Canadian films. Hollywood films mostly fill up that remaining 99%. When is the last time you saw a display at your local Cineplex theatre for a Canadian film? Canadians are clearly unable to view homegrown films at their local movie theatre. Exhibitors want to fill their seats to maximize profits and as it stands a Canadian film cannot do this the same way a Hollywood film can.
Root Causes of a declining Canadian film Industry
Mentioned above are only symptoms of deeper-rooted problems that have plagued the Canadian film industry since cameras first rolled in the Prairies in 1897. For as long as there has been a Hollywood, Canada has traditionally been used by American filmmakers as an “economic runaway”[ii] for their films [and its tax incentives]. Taken together with a national identity that is too often overlooked by the rest of the world, it is no mystery that Canada’s film industry still has trouble standing its own ground.
Hollywood is too powerful and influential a competitor.
Canadian film studios simply do not have the size, scope or budget to produce the blockbusters that Hollywood seems to pump out with ease. The average production cost of a major American movie stood at almost $66m in 2006.[iii] On the other hand, Telefilm, the crown corporation that provides much-needed financing for Canadian-made films, had an annual budget of only $120m for 2010. The marketing of a film is vital to building a large audience. Canadian films do not come close to matching the $30m marketing budgets for some American studio releases. With its star-driven system, Hollywood tailors its films for mass appeal and massive ROI. Canadian films, on the other hand, can be more challenging on its audiences. These films are driven greatly by the director’s vision, resulting in an often slower-paced film that demands a greater degree of attention and intellect for its appreciation. Although many Canadian releases receive praise from critics and appeal to art-house audiences, these films do not have the mass appeal that can attract a wide audience and generate any ROI.
Lack of funding in Canadian Filmmaking
The Canadian movie-watching public is already too small a market to attract funding from private investment for Canadian homegrown films. As a result, Canadian producers are subsidized by the government-funded Telefilm. But recent federal budget cuts are only exacerbating the funding issue in Canada and stirring fear among local producers. Telefilm will trim over $10m or 10% from its budget over the next three years.[iv] As part of an almost $7m cut in three years, the National Film Board will eliminate 61 jobs, reduce the scope of its Filmmaker Assistance Program and close theatres in Toronto and Montreal.[v] The result of these cuts will likely be reduced budgets, diminished quality, fewer films and more foreign financing. Also, the CBC will slash $115m off of its books by 2014-15 and cut 650 jobs.[vi] This means the national public broadcaster will have more repeats, less original programming and more Hollywood fare – which is essentially antithetical to the CBC’s mandate[vii].
Poor distribution and exhibition of Canadian films in Canadian movie theatres due to the influence of the Hollywood studio system
Canadians are not being given the opportunity to see Canadian films because they simply are not playing anywhere. Cineplex, Empire Theatres and AMC all choose to fill their screens with Hollywood films because they sell tickets. So why don’t Canadian distributors just show more Canadian films you ask? The Hollywood studio system has historically had control of the films that were displayed by exhibitors in Canada. Although Cineplex Entertainment in its current form is Canada’s largest film exhibitor, it has a history of American control as ownership has passed hands between Sony, Viacom and Loews. As a result, foreign cultural products accounted for 85% of Canadian film distribution revenue and up to 97% of Canadian theatre screen time.[viii]
Attitude: the average Canadian doesn’t care for Canadian films
Not only do Canadian audiences not have access to homegrown films, we do not seem to notice or care. Some chalk this up to an inferiority complex to Hollywood films known as “cultural cringe.”[ix] Canadians, like much of the rest of the world are caught up in movies that feature Hollywood stars. Mark Slone, a senior VP at Alliance films summarizes the situation perfectly: “Nobody will pay 10 bucks to see two people they don’t know kiss.” If Canadians do not care enough about their own films, how can anyone else?
Canada doesn’t have a strong and recognizable identity outside of North America
A major impediment to a sustained film industry in Canada is how our country is perceived around the world. It’s the second largest country in the world, but most people outside North America can’t point to it on a map. The problem is that in the eyes of foreigners Canadian culture isn’t that much different from American culture. Both countries are largely multicultural, have a shared border and common English ancestry and language. It seems as if being North American is synonymous with being “American” to the rest of the world. American culture is just too big and grandiose. It’s only natural that our humble nation is overshadowed. Does Canadian filmmaking lack the pizazz to capture a mass audience or are we just not getting the attention and recognition we deserve?
Now that we have identified several root causes of the problems the industry faces, we’re halfway through developing solutions. Below are some of the possible solutions that have been proposed that may or may not work.
Diversify the product offering
Let me start off by saying that Canadian filmmakers do not have to aspire to produce Hollywood-like blockbusters. That could risky right off the bat. Canadian films and documentaries are truly great. That is not to say, however, that making more films with universal themes couldn’t connect with audiences around the globe, find an export market and incentivize film exhibitors to carry more Canadian films.[x] This is a sentiment shared by David Gross, producer of the moderately successful Goon, who says that Telefilm should target more commercial pictures. On an individual level, making a movie that appeals to a wide audience and that actually makes a profit does not have to put a dent on a filmmaker’s artistic integrity or sully Canada’s reputation as a leader in the independent film. So what if the Canadian film industry encouraged more filmmakers and producers to try their hand at more populist features. If only some of these films achieve box-office success, could the whole thing be worthwhile? The film is art, but it’s also a business. Depending on whom you ask, a film might be characterized as a commodity that should have to compete in a Darwinian economic structure. One wonders whether this can be the basis of a workable business model that creates a self-sustaining Canadian film industry.
Canadian content quotas for theatrical distribution
Canadian radio stations devote 40% of its airtime to broadly defined “Canadian music” while Canadian television programming requires more than 50% Canadian content.[xi] If it works wonders for the Canadian music scene, why is CANCON not imposed for Canadian movie theatres? Doing so would make Canadian films more accessible to Canadian audiences. Could this be an important first step in levelling the playing field with Hollywood films? Putting Canadian cultural products in front of audiences will allow the consumer to decide whether the product is good enough for further investment. If homegrown Canadian films can sell-out at festivals, perhaps they have a chance of longevity at multiplexes.
Educate and inform Canadians about Canadian cinema
It was previously mentioned that Canadian moviegoers may suffer from “cultural cringe” – an inferiority complex of one’s own culture in the face of others. There is no amount of marketing or advertising that can change a consumer’s attitude if this is the case. However, marketing efforts can be aimed at promoting the Canadian film industry as a whole by encouraging Canadians to check out homegrown films. This is where the Canadian Media Production Association (CMPA) comes in. As Canada’s leading trade association for independent producers of English-language media, it is the CMPA’s responsibility to promote and stimulate the Canadian production industry through advocacy and education.[xii] This organization can focus its efforts on educating the Canadian public through traditional advertising and digital and mobile marketing. The goal should to “get asses in the seats” and give Canadians a chance to reshape their negative attitude towards Canadian cultural products. Once Canadians demand to see homegrown films, there will be little reason for exhibitors not to display them.
Partnerships between Canadian films and television broadcasters
Television exposure through syndication provides an opportunity for Canadian films to gain a new audience and extend a film’s lifecycle. A “meeting of the minds” between film producers and Bell Media could result in Canadian films being broadcasted on networks like CBC, TMN, CTV and Global. A mutually beneficial agreement would involve some trade-offs. For instance, the Canadian networks would be taking on added risking by investing in Canadian product, but would probably seek out audience-pleasing commercial flicks.
AND THAT’S A WRAP…
In culmination, the Canadian film industry, as strong as it has become in the last 50 years, is only operating at a fraction of its true potential. Canadian filmmakers and producers possess the vision and determination to make Canadian film attractive to investors, distributors, exhibitors and audiences across the globe. Changes in public policy that protect Canadian cultural products will give Canadians greater access to domestic films. This can facilitate a positive shift in attitude that stimulates even more demand for these films. All of this cannot be achieved without effective communication to consumers about the importance of our film industry to overall cultural and economic prosperity. [Until then – our attractive tax incentives to Americans for production services will be our saving grace].