An A-list of Canadian film directors has come out in vociferous support of the funding agency Telefilm Canada because they believe the federal government is targeting it for what they consider a hostile takeover.
In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly, the film directors say it has come to their attention that the government proposes to merge Telefilm with the Canada Media Fund (which funds television and digital.) They then oppose the idea at length.
The letter is signed by 51 film professionals including such artists as Denys Arcand, David Cronenberg, Xavier Dolan, Atom Egoyan, Deepa Mehta, Sarah Polley and Denis Villeneuve.
The Liberal government is currently undertaking a review of its cultural policy led by Joly and intended to modernize regulations and supports to help Canadian cultural industries adapt to the digital era and make them more internationally competitive. Public consultations for the review have tossed around many ideas, but there has been no sustained debate about the idea of merging Telefilm, which lends government money to feature filmmakers, and the much larger Canada Media Fund (CMF), which supports television and digital productions with a mix of federal money and levies placed on the cable and satellite companies.
A spokesperson for Joly would not confirm that such a merger is in the cards, saying, "It is too early to speculate on policy outcomes," for a review that is expected to release its results by the end of 2017. Nonetheless, the filmmakers are determined to stop the idea in its tracks, defending Telefilm as central to their artistic success and well-managed by knowledgeable professionals.
"We are deeply concerned that if feature film investments are subsumed within a larger agency with a competing and unsympathetic mandate, its independence and efficacy will quickly erode," the letter says. "Merging filmmaker-driven Telefilm with broadcaster-driven CMF would deal a devastating blow to Canadian cinema."
It is the role of private industry in the CMF, where cable and satellite representatives sit on the board and help pick which projects get funded, that particularly alarms the filmmakers, who believe Telefilm is uniquely sensitive to the challenges of Canadian filmmaking where the initial public commitment is used to trigger other private and public investments in a film. They point out that, while television programs are supported by Canadian content regulation, Canadian film competes in an unregulated movie market dominated by Hollywood. Nonetheless, it is the sense that Telefilm supports an auteur-driven Canadian cinema, rather than a money-driven business, that emerges from the letter, which points to the acclaimed careers, international exposure and festival prizes that Telefilm has helped trigger.
The letter also points out that the CMF has an investment budget almost four times the size of the approximately $100-million that Telefilm lends out ever year. (Most films never make enough money to pay the investment back.) Yet, the filmmakers' colleagues in television production are simultaneously concerned that the broadcasting industry's contributions to and role in the CMF will gradually wither as TV moves to the Internet where there are no comparable levies on content distributors or Internet service providers. A merger might also make logical sense to the Liberals because Telefilm is paid to administer the CMF, although it does not decide how CMF investments and grants are made.
The filmmakers' letter also raises the possibility that the government wants to create a single content "super agency" by merging Telefilm, the CMF and "other crown corporations," raising the spectre of a merger with either the CBC or the NFB. A merger with the CBC seems unlikely, since few governments would wish to give the public broadcaster any kind of monopoly over content; the NFB is not actually a crown corporation but an agency reporting to Joly's ministry, yet it seems a more likely target.
There was discussion of such a merger prior to the 2000s when the NFB, which saw significant budget cuts in the 1990s, fended off criticism that it was obsolete by launching a successful digital archive in 2008 and getting into interactive content.
The filmmakers also take the opportunity to thank the federal government for its ongoing support for Canadian feature film. The Liberals increased Telefilm funding by $22-million over five years in the 2016 federal budget. At about a tenth of the size of the CBC, Telefilm received $95-million from Parliament in 2015-16; it spent about the same amount investing in films and another $25-million on both its own administration and that of the CMF, while it recovered about $12-million from films that did make money.