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Passion is needed from Telefilm to build a committed Canadian audience

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Telefilm Canada has just released a short video in which a lot of iconic Canadians get amorous. To the tune of Neil Young's Harvest Moon, Paul Gross gets smooched in Men with Brooms; Gordon Pinsent dances delicately in Away from Her; Megan Follows gazes at love in Anne of Green Gables; and the parka-clad Inuit actors in Atanarjuat leap into each other's arms. The catch line that follows is, "A passion that has been building since 1967."

Well, it's building darn slowly. There are many words I might associate with Telefilm, that earnest and well-intentioned steward of Canada's $95-million annual public investment in the film industry, but passion would not be one of them.

At 50, Telefilm might be just as accurately represented by page 42 of its 2015-16 annual report as by that cute video. That's the page where the agency assesses risk and how to mitigate it, using a colour code that goes from green for low risk up to red for high. The agency can list all the sensible measures it takes to make sure that the filmmakers it funds aren't ripping it off, and thereby reduces the risk of fraud to a nice light green. On the other hand, the risk that "consumers fail to connect with Canadian content" remains bright orange despite everybody's best efforts.

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The domestic film industry has hugely expanded in the five decades since Parliament passed the Canadian Film Development Corporation Act on March 3, 1967; today, the Canadian screen industries are worth more than $6-billion annually; one sliver of that, about $300-million, represents the production of Canadian films intended for theatrical release, while more than $2-billion is generated by the production of foreign films and TV shows in Canada. As politicians have long since figured out, the movies create jobs.

But the original reason successive governments have funded the film industry is cultural rather than economic – the vision is to nurture a Canadian cinema that speaks to both Canadians and foreigners. And there, the picture is much less rosy: The connection between Canadian audiences and Canadian film is still fragile and erratic.

Today, as always, Canadian movies earn less than 2 per cent of the nearly $1-billion Canadians spend every year at the box office. Back in the early naughts, a previous Liberal government set out to fix all that, demanding Telefilm get that rate up to 5 per cent. The plan didn't work and Telefilm now has a more realistic success index that only measures the box office for independent films, leaving Hollywood studio movies out of the equation: On those terms, Canadian films usually earn about 10 per cent of the Canadian box office; that number dipped to 7 per cent in 2015-16, partly because it happened to be a year during which more independent foreign films were released and fewer Canadian ones.

The success index also measures other forms of distribution, such as streaming, recognizing that the theatrical box office is no longer the place where movies earn back investments, and notes critical achievements such as prizes at festivals. But none of these pleasanter numbers change the fact that Canadian films have great difficulty cutting through the Hollywood clutter.

Nobody in the local film industry would thank me if I suggested here that we return to the days of the hated 5-per-cent goal: Filmmakers felt that it completely ignored Canadian films' past successes and future potential as niche cultural offerings, and that it drove Telefilm decisions based on crass considerations of popularity rather than artistic merit. The approach was widely criticized because it positioned Telefilm as an industry investor rather than as a cultural agency. (Every year, Telefilm recovers less than 10 per cent of the money it is "lending" producers, so it's certainly not a very successful investor.) But still, putting audiences at the heart of the proposition does actually take you back to cultural-first principles. Why is the government investing in film? Not to make jobs for key grips but to snare viewers with images and stories.

Canadian film is indie film and, with the blockbuster-ization of everything, things have been looking pretty grim for that sector – until a tiny American movie called Moonlight won the Oscar for best picture last weekend. When the Canadian Screen Awards are presented on March 12, 10 largely unknown titles will vie for best picture. They include Xavier Dolan's searing family tragedy, It's Only the End of the World, Zacharias Kunuk's bold Inuit drama, Maliglutit, Matt Johnston's witty NASA mockumentary, Operation Avalanche, and the highly inventive and provocative Quebec film, Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves. Those are four nominees I have seen and I would heartily recommend them to discerning viewers; the problem, as always, is that most of the nominees have had very limited release.

Finding effective marketing and distribution solutions that will build committed audiences for Canadian film remains the most important thing Telefilm Canada still needs to do and it's not going to do it with coloured charts about risk management. Real passion is called for if Canadians are ever going to bask in their own Moonlight.

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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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