Not Playing: Canadian Films

When the Canadian government introduced Canadian Content rules for radio, listeners from coast to coast to coast were made to endure the strains of Gowan, Glass Tiger and Platinum Blonde. Today, many Canuck acts are critically acclaimed and commercially viable—hitting the Billboard charts on a regular basis. Could screen quotas do the same thing for our homegrown filmmakers?

Photo by Stephen Gregory“Dammit. Everybody should be looking to get in on the action this summer. There will be cheap gear, cheap actors, cheap crew. More access to locations. We should be gearing up for that now, Rob. Come to think of it, why aren’t we?” Jonathan Williams had been slouched in a large brown velvet lounge chair. Now his face is alight, imagining a chance to shoot in Toronto without having to compete with Hollywood studios for requisite resources. Given the attractive combo of a low dollar and tax incentives to film in Canada, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are usually packed with American film shoots come summer. The tell-tale white trailers take up entire city blocks. Not this year. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) contract expires June 30, while contracts for the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are up May 1. Talks between unions and producers have been deadlocked for months. Industry experts anticipate a long strike down south, and a near complete shutdown of the Canadian industry.

For Canadian techies, this summer will probably look like a golf course with no one on it. Flat and empty. Just ask Paul Harding. He has been predicting the strike since last May, and he isn’t looking forward to it; he’s the president of IATSE, (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), which represents film technicians and artists, Toronto local 873.

But for Canadian directors and producers, this summer could be much happier. Robert Arber, 27, and Jonathan Williams, 26, make up Ember Films Inc., an independent Canadian film company based out of a large, dark and rather damp warehouse space in Toronto’s west end. Williams directs; Arber produces. In the three years that they’ve been working together, they’ve had some small success making arty short films. Now they’re trying to break into a broader market.

And it looks like they might get the chance to do it. Ember’s most recent project is The East Trail, a short piece about a man who gets lost in the woods and confronts his own mortality. The company was recently awarded a $5,000 production grant from the Ontario Arts Council. For once, Ember Films won’t have to put the project together while day jobbing on Hollywood shoots. And last October, Ottawa started up yet another megabuck Canadian film boosting initiative, the $100 million Canada Feature Film Fund, which provides assistance for screenwriting, production, marketing and promotion. Williams and Arber hope to tap this cash at a later date. “It’s all part and parcel of fanning the Ember into flames,” Williams quips.

“We’ve even gotten to work with actra members, at a much reduced rate,” he continues, sifting through piles of actors’ headshots that are spread out on the coffee table in front of him. “Usually, American shows are the only ones with the budgets to afford actra people,” says Williams. But now, ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) has started up a new program, the Canadian Low-Budget Incentive for Performers and Producers (CLIPP) that allows Canadian filmmakers to work with actra members on the cheap. The new Feature Film Fund. actra’s reduced rates. Lack of competition from Hollywood movie shoots for moviemaking resources. An open market to promote your film once the thing actually does get made, due to a lack of Hollywood product. Seems like Williams is right. This summer might be a golden opportunity for Canadian filmmakers.

Except for one thing. Canadian films do not have a hope in hell of being shown in their home market.

Now, admittedly, there isn’t exactly going to be huge demand for a short film knocked off for $25 grand by an unknown company from Toronto. But factor in that last year, 98% of the movies shown on Canadian screens were foreign, mostly American-made. That’s the highest level of foreign filmage dominating the screens of any comparable country in the world. In this kind of market, not even international critical successes by established Canadian directors can make the slightest headway.

This February at the Genie Awards ceremony, Quebec director Denis Villeneuve went to the podium five times to accept awards for Maelstrom, his latest release. This acclaimed film ran for precisely two weeks in Toronto. And not at a big multiplex. At a downtown four-screener, and one other venue uptown. And it was barely seen at all outside major centres.

“I had a friend go and see it towards the end of the second week of its run,” says André Bennett, head of the Toronto-based distribution company Cinema Esperanca International. Bennett’s old company, Cinephile, distributed the early films of Atom Egoyan and Bruce McDonald among others. “[He said] there were maybe three people in the entire audience, an 800-seat theatre.”

Perhaps the Canadian film industry needs to take a tip from the music industry, and start putting a bit more thought and effort into getting a domestic audience for its products. How about Cancon rules for movie exhibitors, for example? Sure, Cancon in musicland led to the production of some serious dreck in the early days—and we can point to our fine feathery-haired friends in Honeymoon Suite and Frozen Ghost as examples—but Canada now has a thriving music industry both here at home, and internationally.

Cancon forced radio stations to give Canadian artists access to an audience—up to 35% of the airtime. This meant that labels had an interest in signing Canadian acts, who, in turn, were creating decent, accessible pop music. It’s not a success story on the level of the Canadian book business (46% of the books bought in this country are by Canadian authors, as compared to approximately 10% of the music bought here). Still, it’s better than the measly two percent of Canadian box office receipts that our flicks command.

“Cancon makes Canadians listen to tunes they otherwise probably wouldn’t get the chance to hear,” says Scot McFadyen, music supervisor for Feldman and Associates, the company that manages Joni Mitchell and Diana Krall, among others. “it’s a bit coercive, but it seems to have worked.” So why can’t we do the same for Canadian film?

Since the beginnings of the Canadian film industry, Hollywood studios have treated Canadian moviegoers as part of the domestic U.S. market. Way back in the early 1900s, Canadian distributor-exhibitors the Allen Bros., founders of Famous Players, built a string of majestic screens across the country. After constructing some of the world’s most ornate cinemas, the Allens sold their screen time directly to Hollywood studios, for a quick return on their investment.

Fast-forward to NAFTA, and large Hollywood studios still have a lock on the $322 million-plus that Canadians spend on moviegoing annually. These not-to-be-sneezed-at profits then go straight back to Hollywood, underwriting the production of more big budget American flicks.

Take Titanic, for example. Its budget has been estimated at a cool $200 million, approximately $25 million of which went to promotion. (Just for perspective, the average Canadian feature budget is in the $3 million range. Budgets for Hollywood flicks are at least 10 times that amount.) Titanic grossed $600 million in the U.S. and upwards of $1.8 billion worldwide.

American flicks don’t all have marketing budgets of such, um, titantic proportions, but a good chunk of every Hollywood film budget is spent on promotion—$37 million on average—to lucrative effect. When you consider that the overall budget for Atom Egoyan’s 1997 feature, The Sweet Hereafter, was $4 million, with a total gross of around $10 million so far, you start to see how uneven the playing field really is.

“You can’t go to see a movie you haven’t heard about, and an exhibitor won’t take a chance on a movie no one knows. A week-long ad in The Globe and Mail isn’t really going to have quite the same impact [as a million-dollar campaign],” sighs Bennett.

Once a movie is distributed to rent-paying, popcorn-underwriting multiplexes, the situation becomes even more economically black-and-white. First off, everybody knows when new American movies come to town, and why it might be worth plunking down $10 to go see them. Canadian director Patricia Rozema’s award-winning 1987 movie, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, wasn’t even shown in her hometown of Sarnia, because the theatre owner had never heard of it.

Canada’s market is also dominated by two powerful exhibitors, who select which films Canadians get to see. Together, Cineplex Odeon and Famous Players control about 75% of the screens nationwide. In the U.S., by contrast, the top two cinema chains control only 20% of the screens. Moreover, theatre exhibitors rely on their major suppliers for product. That relationship is, economically speaking, far more important to the owner of a multiplex than a relationship with an indie Canadian distributor. “Even if a Canadian movie is doing well at the box office,” explains Bennett “an exhibitor will bump it if a major wants that screen for a new Hollywood release.”

How to resolve this situation? Just look at France, Germany, Spain and Britain. All these countries produce movies that are critically and commercially successful both at home and abroad. These success stories were made possible, in part, by screen quotas. Take Spain as an example. Spanish screens must show one domestic film for every three foreign ones. This is enforced through a licensing system. For every 10 million pesetas (about $83,000 cdn) that a Spanish movie makes, that exhibitor can apply for a licence to dub and show a foreign movie at the same venue. Moreover, 15% of the exhibitors’ profits then go back into a production fund for Spanish filmmakers.

Spanish exhibitors thus have a real economic incentive to send money back into the fund, as it is only by showing domestic movies and promoting them effectively, that they will make the quotas to obtain the licences that allow them to show mega-buck-pulling Hollywood blockbusters.

By contrast, Canadian exhibitors tend to show whatever films they think will put the most bums in seats. And, until very recently, Canadian distributors had no financial investment in, and hence no financial incentive to promote or market, the Canadian films they distributed.

The government, through Telefilm, underwrote the distributors’ costs through minimum distribution fees. “The distributor had no real stake in recouping the money,” explains local screenwriter and director Harper Quantrill.

This may change with the new Feature Film Fund, which provides assistance in production, distribution, marketing, screenwriting and promotion. In addition, the financing will be awarded to producers and distributors through matching funds based on box office performance.

Great stuff: but it still doesn’t address the exhibition problem. If exhibitors are still choosing between screening a Hollywood bonanza-pic, or banking on word-of-mouth buzz to pitch a movie about school buses going off roads and turning Sarah Polley into a paraplegic, they will probably continue to plump for the Hollywood cash cow.

This problem isn’t new. In fact, every culture minister since Louis St. Laurent has been trying to roll back American movies from Canadian screens. Flora MacDonald, communications minister under Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives, was the last to take a crack at this. MacDonald’s 1987 Federal Distribution Bill (FDB) aimed to increase the number of domestic films on Canadian screens by 15%.

Reaction down south? The Hollywood majors freaked. The Motion Picture Association of America hauled out its heavy artillery, in the form of industry heavyweight and association head Jack Valenti, who successfully lobbied former President Reagan against the bill. Reagan told Mulroney to kill the bill, or risk jeopardizing the then-upcoming Free Trade Agreement. The FDB eventually disappeared in parliamentary committee.

So what did we end up with? Instead of increased screen time for Canadian films in our cinemas, NAFTA negotiators cobbled together the now-infamous cultural exemption clause. This clause, negotiated by the Chrétien government, allows Canadian taxpayers the privilege of subsidizing Hollywood’s labour costs up north, to the tune of 11% of a movie’s Canadian labour costs.

Each province also has considerable Canadian content incentive programs that have in the past also gone to fund American pap: for some unfathomable reason, the made-for-tv (and aptly titled) Dennis Rodman biopic, Bad As I Wanna Be, qualified for Cancon funding, as well as labour credits. Combine that with a lower dollar, and you have a homegrown Canadian film industry that actively encourages branch plant moviemaking. We now churn out non-creative staff—technicians, gaffers, grips and location scouts—by the thousands. Meanwhile, the influx of well-financed American shows ends up discouraging local production companies from working on Canadian flicks.

Heritage Minister Sheila Copps did try to roll back the 11% labour credit in 1998, proposing instead a plan for a box office tax on foreign movies. The proceeds from this tax would then be plowed into a homegrown production and distribution fund. Techie unions like IATSE, who feared for their jobs, fiercely opposed Copps’s initiative.

Too bad no one considered what might happen if head office shut down. With the SAG and WGA strikes looming, an awful lot of IATSE technicians are going to be looking for other work this summer, or signing up for EI.

Oddly enough, Toronto union local prez Paul Harding now seems to think that having local homegrown studios as fallback employment sources for his technicians is the answer to the current crisis. Yet when asked about his union’s anti-Copps tactics in 1998—opposing a policy which presumably was attempting to create the financial wherewithal to ‘grow’ those studios—he goes on the defensive. “That’s old news. Entirely academic. Has no bearing whatsoever on the current situation,” he snaps.

On the other side of the equation, McFadyen, who spends much of his professional life hustling for cash to put together authentically Canuck productions, isn’t sure Cancon will be able to address the industry’s hypersensitivity to fluctuations in the American market. “Because that would take a total industry reconfiguration,” he said over the phone from his office, where he is currently putting together the soundtrack for Bruce McDonald’s latest flick.

McFadyen is right on one level. Right now, the industry is massively oriented towards servicing Hollywood. And the set up is nothing if not profitable for below-the-line workers (Hollywood’s term for “non-creative” film staff). U.S. production companies spent $890 million (Canadian) last year in Toronto alone. That’s not small change, and under normal circumstances, almost impossible to pass up.

Still, given the prognosis for this summer, it might not be a bad idea to start discussing other ways of developing our talent. As Quantrill points out, growing an industry comprised largely of Canadian film technicians is not really a viable proposition. “You need money and equipment to keep those people employed. Take away the outside financing, take away the equipment, and you don’t really have an industry.” Figuring ou
t a way to increase market share for Canadian productions through some sort of screen quota system, and plowing the resulting funds back into homegrown studios, might just be the answer.

After 25 years of Cancon for music, Canadian music artists are now taking off, with strong support from a domestic population. We probably would not have international phenoms like Sarah McLachlan or Barenaked Ladies without the early years of licensing airtime for Glass Tiger and Corey Hart.

The Canadian film industry continues to produce movies that are chronically underfunded, perversely regulated and denied access to their own market. In the long term, the industry is neither healthy, nor sustainable. Perhaps now, Canadian film workers and culturecrats will have the time and energy to think hard about the relative merits of this unique situation. Who knows? Rethinking Canada’s film industry over a summer slowdown might be the best thing that ever happened to it.