A collection of experts weighed in on "What the Canadian Film Industry Needs Most" via Gayle MacDonald in the March 7, 2012 Edition of the Globe and Mail. On the eve of the 32nd Annual Genie Awards, only one of them directly addressed what I suspect is the real problem. Here then are my responses to some of the comments and my own thoughts on the matter.What the Canadian Film Industry Needs Most Is Less Punditry. That Said, Here's More Pundrity. It's the Canadian Way!
By Greg Klymkiw
Cameron is one of Canada's most astute film critics and since he took over as co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), we're alternately all the better for it (as he seeks out great cinema for us to watch) and all the worse for it (since we don't get to read his punchy, musically-styled prose on cinema on a regular basis). Cameron suggests that English Canadian Cinema needs to snuffle back a bit o' that magical Quebec oxygen. He opines:
"Quebec is turning out films of ambition and depth that look outward rather than just in. I think there's talent equal to Quebec in the rest of Canada, but maybe somebody needs to throw open a window and let some of that air in."
I suspect Cameron would, if given a few more column inches, have admitted the whopping number of Quebec films that do NOT look outward. While many of these indigenously delightful Joual-tinged knee-slappers go through the roof in their home province, they certainly do zero business outside of French Canada (and not just in English Canada, but worldwide and EVEN in French-speaking territories outside of Canada).
Frankly, English Canadian Cinema has, especially since the late 80s and early 90s, often looked outward, and in fact, has performed extremely well in foreign markets. The list includes David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, Patricia Rozema, Vincenzo Natali, Brad Peyton and a whole whack of others. On the homefront, though, things are more dire. I shall opine on this later.
Rubba Nadda is the director of Sabah, Cairo Time and the upcoming thriller Inescapable. Here are her thoughts:
"Sometimes I just think it needs more balls, more courage. The Canadian industry is so afraid of taking risks. When I took the script for "Inescapable" to the United States, everyone wanted to do it. I got the first support from the States, not from Canada. It’s the Canadian way to hesitate."
I have no quarrels with this. Canada (particularly on the English side) is a country that is far too mired in the sort of bureaucracy that places emphasis on "fairness", "committee" decision-making, political correctness bordering on fascism and pathetically obvious self-serving nest-feathering which results in a seemingly conservative approach to all matters cultural. It's the Canadian way to smile whilst stabbing in the back instead of looking directly into one's eye as they gut you. This dweeb-ish cowardice is abominable. The worst thing is when purse-string holders - even within private business - are more apt to hide behind the proverbial "we". "The committee" is the oft-used term as opposed to "I". We need more people within the system to take personal responsibility for their often wrong-headed decisions - rooted in the kind of "well-meaning" approaches that are hardly a conducive approach to the "balls" and "courage" Ms. Nadda refers to above.
Kevin Dewalt is one of Canada's most successful producers from Regina. He hits a nail on the head here that's been bugging me since I started in this industry.
"Canadian films need larger budgets to attract bigger international stars to compete in the international market place. There are tax schemes in Britain for private investors to invest in British films. The King’s Speech is a prime example. Without private-equity funding out of the U.K., this movie would never have been made. By creating similar private-investor programs in Canada, we would be able to increase our budgets and compete more effectively in the global marketplace."
Though I'm not sure larger budgets are ALWAYS going to be the answer, this country desperately needs an aggressive and progressive tax shelter. End of story. Everyone focuses upon the negative aspects of the Canadian tax shelter days, but for all the bad movies generated during that period, the number of artistically and/or commercially significant works produced then equals if not betters what's been generated without it. Filmmakers need the freedom to generate truly private investment. My oft-repeated no-brainer formula of aggressive tax shelters, larger tax credits and substantial tax incentives for marketing, exhibition and distribution may seem simplistic, but there's the old screenwriting adage, KISS ("Keep it simple, stupid") which is best applied to most things in life.
Robert Lantos is the closest thing Canada has to a bonafide mogul. He began his illustrious career hawking the New York Erotic Film Festival and steadily built more than enough empires in this business based on his vision and astute dipping into every public trough imaginable. Here is the sum total of his thoughts on this:
"Prime-time access to and meaningful investment from broadcasters, as is the case in France, Germany, Italy, the U.K. and most other countries where films are made."
Thank you, Robert, for your detailed response.
Niv Fichman is not only a mensch and a half, he's produced one great Canadian film after another. Beginning his career overseeing some of the most world-class arts and culture productions ever made and then delivering gems like Last Night, The Saddest Music in the World and Hobo With a Shotgun, he can certainly be forgiven for his part in the recent career of Paul Gross (most notably Passchendaele and GOD HELP US ALL - Gunless).
"What Canadian film most needs right now is a new voice. The voice of a young generation that grew up with the Internet and YouTube and digital cameras and [video editing software] Final Cut Pro. A generation that has been making films since they were children and self-distributing their work on YouTube."
In theory, I agree. In practise, I think it's unhealthy to encourage the "anyone can make a film" tradition that's sprouted from the digital revolution. I do agree that genuinely talented young voices need to be supported. Interestingly, I think there already exists a new hope in English Canadian Cinema. They call themselves "Astron-6", a filmmaking collective from Winnipeg that's been generating a series of mind-blowing short films and two features for absolutely no money. Their influences have been 80s direct-to-video genre pictures as well as the post-modern flights of fancy already pioneered by their 'Peg confreres John Paizs and Guy Maddin. In 2011 these psycho kids - who are REAL filmmakers with a distinctive voice - delivered one of the most insane sci-fi love letters to the 80s I've ever seen. Imaginative, naughty and knee-splappingly hilarious, MANBORG, replete with tres-cool visuals, was made for just over $1000. Their other triumph is FATHER'S DAY, a truly brilliant splatter-fest that was made for a mere $10,000 (courtesy of Troma's Lloyd Kaufman) and has played theatrically all over the United States. This particular item focuses upon a serial killer from hell who specializes in raping and butchering fathers and is hunted down by a rag-tag group of brave avengers (led by a one-eyed Jason Statham-lookalike). This a truly warped, sick, funny, disgusting and deliciously bum-blasting masterpiece. Niv! These guys need someone just like YOU! Ditch this Paul Gross fellow and embrace the utter madness that is Astron-6.
Ingrid Veninger might well be cinema’s only living equivalent to a whirling dervish. Like a dervish, she honours her Creator (cinema), her prophets (Cassavetes, Leigh and others), then whips her creative concoction into a frenzy – literally living and breathing cinema – producing film from within herself, her devotion and life itself. Ingrid has produced a whack of features including the mega-Genie-nominated Nurse Fighter Boy and has directed three terrific features including i am a good person/i am a bad person. Here's what she had to offer:
"Exhibition quotas. Our cinemas should be mandated to screen a percentage of Canadian content, just like our television broadcasters and radio. People say, “Theatrical quotas will never happen. It's impossible,” but I say, “People make the impossible happen every day.” Claude Jutra (Mon oncle Antoine) once said, “Not making the films you want to make is awful, but making them and not having them seen is worse.”
At the risk of sounding like a broken record (as I've said this many times before and will keep saying it), English Canada needs an exhibition quota.
In English Canada, there is one primary target: Cineplex Entertainment. The "Canadian" exhibition chain owns and/or controls more screens than anyone in the country. They'll always argue that their only concern is their stockholders and that they'll play any Canadian movie as long as it makes money. That's all well and good when it comes to no-brainer programming choices like the start-studded Cronenberg spanking-fest A Dangerous Method or Michael Dowse's brilliant hockey splatter fest GOON, but what about the rest of the product?
A secondary target for scrutinous ire-infused debate on the state of Canada's domestic motion picture product is the gaggle of domestic film distributors that adhere to the status quo, but in all fairness to them, they're only going to spend money on the marketing necessary to keep the product on screens if they actually GET screens. Cineplex Entertainment is stingy with those. They have far too many Hollywood movies to play (often to empty or near-empty houses given the ridiculous number of screens said product hogs).
There's no two ways about it. English Canadian cinema lags far behind other indigenous industries outside of North America in terms of audience support for its own work. Canadian audiences are not quick to embrace their own cinema, but in order to embrace it at all, the work needs venues. This, of course, is not (and has never been) a problem in Quebec as the province has had very stringent guidelines regarding Quebec-based distributors and a more-than-level playing field for the exhibition of French-language product - thus allowing for the development of audiences ravenous for homegrown movies.
I'd also argue it's not necessarily always the fault of the product, either. Many decent, perfectly entertaining and/or artistically challenging movies get little chance to be seen.
If screens cannot be secured and held onto, there is no real way to adequately develop an interest in domestic product. Until Cineplex Entertainment does the right thing and gets off its lazy corporate duff and waggles its piggy tail in the direction of Canadian cinema and - even at a loss - does its corporate duty with respect to AGGRESSIVELY making DECENT screens available to said product, thus fulfilling their responsibility in supporting cultural initiatives in this country, then things are going to continue their snail-paced incremental changes.
Here are some thoughts I shared at a previous juncture on this site:
I saw Don Shebib's classic Canadian feature Goin' Down the Road when I was a kid at a huge first-run theatre in Winnipeg. I loved it then and loved it more every time I saw it. When I heard Shebib had crafted a sequel, Down the Road Again, I was imbued with a bit of healthy skepticism. That said, I was still excited to see it.
I was out of town for the first two weeks of the film's theatrical run at Cineplex's flagship Toronto venue, the Varsity Cinema. When I returned during the film's third week of release, I hightailed it down to the Varsity (not bothering to check the showtimes as is my wont) and was shocked (genuinely) that it wasn't playing. I quickly accessed my iPhone movie listings and was even more distressed that the movie, at least for that evening, was playing absolutely nowhere in Toronto.
There was, however, one lone screening the following evening at the Royal cinema, everyone's favourite indie venue in Little Italy. What shocked me even more was that Barbara Willis Sweete's film adaptation of Billy Bishop Goes To War was the other film playing at the Royal the same evening - first run and ENDING!!! Okay, my fault for being out of town, I guess. Excuse me all to hell for expecting movies with a reasonable pedigree by Canadian standards were (a) not available on any Cineplex screen in the country's largest city and that (b) they were both ending.
No matter, I sashayed on down the next night to The Royal. I really enjoyed Billy Bishop. I first experienced it as a kid in Winnipeg when John Gray and Eric Peterson presented the play at the Manitoba Theatre Centre's Warehouse venue. I loved it then and was delighted to see a film that preserved its theatrical roots. (I won't rant about one of my many pet-peeves involving the idiotic, myopic assumption on the part of critics and film types who should know better that anything and everything based upon a theatrical piece MUST be opened up for the cinema. Just don't get me started and I promise to stop now.)
My first thought was, "Hmmm, there are wads upon wads of people my age and older who love this play ALL ACROSS THE COUNTRY. This would have been a perfect film to platform wide in the Front Row Centre-styled exhibition format that Cineplex has been exploiting in big cities and beyond." I played out a release pattern for the film in my mind whilst waiting for the Shebib to begin: Coast-to-coast, hugely hyped one-shot screenings of the film at the premium Front Row Centre prices. You'd have to blow a decent whack o' dough on advertising, BUT, with the same kind of thought and elbow grease that USED to go into marketing ANY movies (never mind Canadian films), there would be all sorts of alternate advertising venues with far more reasonable ad rates than traditional outlets anyway. As well, there would be an inordinate number of cross-promotions and tie-ins with theatre companies and arts groups across the country. Hell, target theatre schools also - not just including private companies, or even secondary schools, but given that virtually every post-secondary institution has a theatre program, promote the picture there. In any event, my fantasy release of Billy Bishop then included regular screenings one week later in many of the same venues it played at in the Front Row Centre release. Those post-Front-Row screenings may or may not have had numbers to sustain the secondary runs that long, BUT, the important thing is that Canadians would have been able to see the movie on a BIG SCREEN in a COMMUNAL ENVIRONMENT. This, in turn, would have created a far more advantageous bed of hype and anticipation for any number of home entertainment venues.
Alas, the way the movie was released feels like home penetration was the only real goal.
Whose fault was it?
Well, I can't be sure if the film's distributor considered my aforementioned form of theatrical penetration, nor do I know if the movie was even offered Cineplex. What I can say is this. SOMEONE should have thought about it and SOMEONE should have committed to playing it in this fashion. In fact, give the success of these types of special event showings in the Cineplex chain, you'd think someone THERE might have thought about approaching the film's distributor about mounting the film in this fashion.
Here's the thing. The business has changed for the worst, but it's not impossible to reapply good old fashioned showmanship on both sides of the distribution and exhibition fence. I started my life in this business as both a writer ABOUT movies and then as a film buyer on behalf of independent exhibitors in the late 70s and early 80s. I lived through the "old ways", lamented the shift in delivery and accessibility of product and now I get absolutely livid when I see how complacent and lazy both sides have become.
Down the Road Again was an entirely different story. I loved the picture, but also conceded its theatrical appeal would be limited. Limited, yes - but there IS an audience out there that would have loved to see the movie on a big screen. Part of this IS a distribution issue. However, I also think Canada's major exhibitor is shirking its place in creating a proper venue for Canadian cinema. Responsibility to shareholders be damned. Besides, even leaving Canadian Cinema out of the equation, those shareholders are going to have very little to count on if things don't change in the exhibition industry.
And yes, it IS the fault of exhibition - especially within major chains like Cineplex. They offer no real choice. Pure and simple. They rest on the laurels of whatever crap they're handed. I live for much of the year in a remote rural area. Cineplex has a seven-screen multiplex. All the same movies are locked in there for ages. I can assure you that in the late 70s and early 80s, the small market audiences had FAR more CHOICE in what was available than they do now. And idiotically, it's not that the product is NOT there. There's tons of product. Much of it good and much of it never getting screen time. Yes, having to program and promote such product takes time and effort. Yeah? So? Do it. They call it elbow grease.
As for Canadian product, I will ultimately and vigorously ALWAYS point an accusatory finger at Cineplex. Every major country outside of North America had or continues to have strict indigenous content quotas. Many of these countries have leaps and bounds on Canada by decades in this respect. Many of these same countries are making indigenous product that appeals to their national audiences and, in many cases, to international audiences. Much of this product isn't of the blockbuster variety, either. It often provides entertainment to niche audiences - theatrically. These audiences exist because efforts had been made in the past to ensure cultural sovereignty. These movies mostly do NOT compete with Hollywood, anyway. In fact, they enhance the viability and attraction to theatrical exhibition period.
I do not propose legislating exhibition quotas anyway.
I frankly think it would be good for business if Cineplex undertook a major corporate responsibility in exhibiting Canadian films - EVEN IF THEY LOSE MONEY! Oh horrors! Isn't that horrible?
Down the Road Again needed far more marketing and promotion than it got. This, to be sure, a distribution issue. That said, movies like this will NEVER find a theatrical audience if they are not out there. I personally think a movie like Shebib's sequel DEMANDED being placed in more cinemas across the country and held longer - even at a loss. Take one screen in every bloody multiplex and screen Canadian product exclusively. Take another screen in every bloody multiplex and program product of an indie nature exclusively - booking it, if necessary in a repertory style.
Cineplex is a Canadian company.
Forgive me for thinking Canada is different than our neighbours to the south. We are. We have higher literacy rates, more progressive values AND most of all, we ARE innovators. Cineplex should FORCE themselves to exhibit Canadian films at a loss. (I'm sure there are potential tax incentives that can be whipped up for this anyway.)
Why, you say, at a loss? Because there could well be a pot at the end of the rainbow. If the product - good, bad, middle of the road - is made available on a consistent basis, audiences might eventually develop a thirst for a certain type of product that speaks to THEM.
It's worked everywhere else in the world - out there, beyond the confines of North America.
It was, however, legislated. I say again, though, legislation is no longer the answer. Besides, such quotas would fall under provincial jurisdiction, so getting all the provinces on board would be ridiculous. Cineplex as the most powerful exhibitor in the country should legislate it THEMSELVES as corporate cultural policy within their business mandate. They could actually become world leaders in this extraordinary move to actively build an audience. More importantly, they could take a leadership role even beyond Canadian product and offer theatrical accessibility to a far wider range of product.
This, frankly, is good for Canada, good for foreign product, good for Hollywood, good for AMERICAN independents, good for cinema as the greatest artistic medium of all time and MOST IMPORTANTLY, good for the end-users, the customers, the myriad of movie lovers who have been lured away from the communal experience for many different reasons, but most of all, because of a lack of diversity in programming.
In the meantime, though, the true heroes of Canadian theatrical exhibition are Alliance Cinemas, AMC Theatres, Independent Canadian Exhibitors (The Royal, Revue, Winnipeg Film Group Cinematheque, Canadian Film Institute, Pacific Cinematheque, etc.). They all regularly screen Canadian films - both first-run and second. TIFF Bell Lightbox in just over a year has displayed incredible courage and commitment to screening Canadian product theatrically.
They, however, are just a small part of the equation.
It's up to a major corporation like Cineplex to do their duty.