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NFB to launch the Netflix of the documentary world

Tom Perlmutter, head of the National Film Board

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The National Film Board of Canada is preparing to launch the Netflix of the documentary world.

The NFB announced Tuesday that it is seeking commercial partners to establish a subscription service for Internet television and mobile platforms next year. The service would be available internationally and would feature documentaries from around the world as well as the NFB's own catalogue.

"It struck me there is room for an over-the-top service, a Netflix or a Hulu, for documentaries: The services out there are generalists, like the networks before specialty TV," NFB chair Tom Perlmutter said in an interview. "There is room for a service for core documentary fans and specialized audiences who connect with particular subject areas."

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Perlmutter stressed that while the NFB is initiating the project, it will be a partnership with private investors and will be global in scope. Building on Canada's traditional strengths in documentary film, his hope is to establish an international media company headquartered in Canada rather than the United States The NFB is currently in discussions with various potential partners and should be able to reveal who they are next fall, he said.

The subscription service would provide a new platform at a time when documentarians find it increasingly difficult to secure funding for their work or to get air time on conventional television where reality and lifestyle programming have edged out point-of-view documentaries. Paradoxically, documentaries have never been more popular with niche audiences as Toronto's Hot Docs festival continues to prosper, while non-fiction film naturally taps into public discussions on social media.

"Hot Docs is showing hundreds of films. How many are available after the festival is done?" Perlmutter asked. "The appearance on commercial TV is limited; the big screen, forget it – but the appetite is there. This service will open doors."

Perlmutter cited several recent NFB projects as examples of films that should reach wider audiences, including Sarah Polley's highly personal family history doc Stories We Tell, Karen Cho's doc about the state of feminism Status Quo, Léa Pool's Pink Ribbons, Inc. about cancer fundraising and Hubert Davis' The Portrait, about painting the Queen. The service could also provide access to the NFB's increasing number of interactive, trans-media projects, including Bear 71, a website that delivers an environmental message by allowing users to follow a bear in the wild, or A Journal of Insomnia, a video experience that launches by calling participants in the middle of the night.

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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