Canada never looks so big as when you’re flying high above it following the course of the St. Lawrence River. Nearly 700 kilometres northeast of Montreal, the seven islands that give Sept-Îles its name appear out of the cockpit window, and the pilot swings over the 10-km-wide estuary for final approach. It’s been 400 years since Samuel de Champlain sailed down the gaping mouth to found Quebec City.
Montreal-based distributor Christal Films has rented a twin-prop 18-passenger plane to carry a contingent of media to the set of the new film by Louis Bélanger. The location itself is another two hours from the airport — an hour along the empty tarmac, an hour into the rugged bush — across the private rail lines that transport potash, pulp and paper, and copper, emblematic Canadian natural resources.
The film is set in the Northwest Territories in 1964, during Canada’s last great railroading era, the laying of the Great Slave Railway. Based on The Timekeeper by Montreal novelist Trevor Ferguson, itself based on actual events (many of the workers were press-ganged into service), the film outlines the human extremes of life in utter isolation, the best and the worst of our natures. It’s as Canadian as you can get. Surprisingly, Bélanger, one of Quebec’s most respected young filmmakers, chose to shoot the film in English. Sitting in one of the prop canvas tents, listening to Bélanger animatedly discuss his hopes for his film, the sole Toronto-based journalist in attendance can only shake his head. Why, oh why, shoot the film in English? Doesn’t he know?
“When it comes to movies, Canada is a dependency of the United States. We can shout what we like about this new nation we are building; we can be proud as we please about this Canadian ‘thing’; but when it comes to the movies, we have no emotional presentation of our own.”
These words were written in 1944. More than 60 years later the same words can be said, the same questions asked, about Canada’s film industry. The writer was John Grierson, the U.K.-born founder of the National Film Board of Canada.
If the very notion of Canadian movies puts you to sleep, be careful what you dream, because you may wake up to find yourself without a country. As Canadian nationalists bemoan the disappearance of Canadian corporations, the film business may give some examples of the risks of free trade and the merits of foreign-control regulation. The horses bolted long ago, and the barn doors are flapping in the breeze.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Telefilm Canada, the arm’s-length agency of Heritage Canada assigned to commit tax dollars to cultural investment in motion pictures. Over the course of those four decades, Telefilm and its predecessors have pumped more than $900 million into the Canadian film business. More Telefilm dollars were on display at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. In its 32nd year, TIFF had the strongest lineup of homegrown movies in its history, from opening night’s Fugitive Pieces to closing night’s Emotional Arithmetic. Both films were directed by Canadians — Jeremy Podeswa and Paolo Barzman, respectively — and adapted from novels by Canadian authors Anne Michaels and Matt Cohen. In between were David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, François Girard’s Silk, Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, Bruce McDonald’s The Tracy Fragments and Bruce Sweeney’s American Venus.
Against all hope, Canadian films continue to be made. But most Canadians are not going to see them: of the directors above, only Cronenberg could be called a household name. The box-office share of English-language Canadian films rarely rises above 1%.
La Belle Province presents an entirely different picture: French-language films have enjoyed a box-office share as high as 27% (it is currently 14%). The language difference inoculates the Quebec market from the worst effects of Hollywood’s global hegemony. But with less than eight million people, that market is too small to be self-sustaining. Without the subsidy of Telefilm Canada, neither English nor French-language production would survive. At least the Québécois audience is supporting the work, and the local media eagerly fly to Sept-Îles to visit Bélanger on location. But now he is making a film in English.
“I tried,” says Bélanger. “I tried to translate it. But it’s an English story. It’s told from an Anglican perspective, and in French we’re Catholic.”
His rationale is a mirror of Canadian film policy. Stripped to its essential elements, the argument for maintaining these subsidies runs along two parallel tracks. The first track is existential: if you are going to consider yourself a sovereign nation, you have to remind your citizens and people in other countries that you exist. Otherwise they forget about you. The second track is political: the government cannot be seen to be doing nothing. The two-thirds, one-third language division dictates the allocation of the Telefilm-administered $96-million Canada Feature Film Fund — even though Hollywood titles occupy more than 95% of Anglo screens.
“The problem Canadian cinema faces is not a Canadian problem. It’s a worldwide problem,” says Robert Lantos. English Canada’s pre-eminent producer, the owner of Serendipity Point Films had two pictures at TIFF this year, Fugitive Pieces and Eastern Promises. “Every indigenous film culture faces the problem,” explains Lantos. “It’s the drive by the Hollywood studios to attain as close as possible to 100% of the worldwide market share.” Canada’s challenge is universal, he says, but we are unfortunately standing next door to the war machine.
In Intent For A Nation: What is Canada For?, author Michael Byers, a professor of political science and international law at the University of British Columbia, makes a case for renewed vigour in Canadian affairs, domestic and foreign. Byers returned to this country in 2004 after a 12-year absence and was struck by the enervation of public intellectuals, their “glass half-empty” view of Canada’s place in the world. Wrote Byers: “Successive Canadian governments have failed to exercise leadership internationally. They have failed to push for real and positive change. They have underplayed Canada’s potential, content to stand in the shadows or — worse yet — to meekly follow the lead of a powerful but uneasy neighbour.”
Byers advocates a case for Canada to reassert itself in the Pearsonian context of a middle power. As he points out, Canada has the world’s eighth-largest economy; membership in the OECD, NATO, the Commonwealth, the Francophonie and the Arctic Council; and an international reputation for our contributions to multilateral diplomacy, international law and United Nations peacekeeping.
Perhaps it is time for Canada to assert itself through its film industry, to aspire to be a “middle power” in movies. We could reject the notions that filmmaking is an expensive game best left to Hollywood, or that Canada is powerless to keep its artists home, or that the United States has an inherent right to dump its films into our market. The argument for setting a different course from our powerful neighbour has never been stronger. As more than one commentator has noted, the United States is moving away from Canada faster than Canada is moving away from the United States. Its foreign policy is a shambles, its economy is in a perilous state and its reputation is in tatters.
Hollywood’s situation is not much different. A diminishing number of increasingly broader releases defines the U.S. film export market; it’s now commonplace for a major studio picture such as a Harry Potter or Shrek to be released on 7,000 screens worldwide. These franchise operations and their carpet-bombing marketing campaigns give the impression that America rules absolutely. They obscure a parallel international market from middle-power production territories such as the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Denmark and Mexico.
“We don’t make popcorn movies,” says Lantos, “and the only ones who do are the [Hollywood] studios. They own the cinemas from May until September. Autumn is the time of the upscale movies, the beginning of the awards season. English-Canadian films are all made for the upscale market.” Surveying the TIFF titles, he predicts a bumper crop that will lift that English-Canadian percentage dramatically.
Lantos says there needs to be more investment, but he isn’t looking to the government. He would like to see a system whereby private dollars are matched by public funding, and more decision-making is triggered by the marketplace. “I have great respect for people who work at Telefilm,” he says. “[Telefilm Canada executive director] Wayne Clarkson has done an exemplary job given his circumstances. But they are not in a position and should not be put in the position of picking which films get made, because they are not in a position to test them, market them or sell them internationally. They are not in that business.” Where government can help, he says, is in discovering new talent and lowering the barrier to entry for first-time filmmakers.
Last month, at the opening night of the Montreal World Film Festival, vice-president Danièle Cauchard read a welcoming address from Prime Minister Stephen Harper from the stage of the Place des Arts. She then called on Harper to give Telefilm’s Clarkson a “kick in the ass.” Cauchard claimed Telefilm is biased toward the rival Toronto festival. The notion of giving senior bureaucrats a kick in the ass — or in the head, for that matter — may have found its moment, although Clarkson would be the last person to deserve the boot.
The problem is more systemic, and higher up the chain of command. The interchangeability of heritage ministers — there have been five in the past five years — and the low profile of the portfolio says volumes. The most recent appointee, Josée Verner, who replaced the ineffectual Bev Oda, is francophone. But few in the film business see this as a positive sign. “She’ll just say no in French,” said one producer.
“The new minister won’t be able to do anything,” says Roger Frappier of Montreal’s Max Films, one of the top producers in Quebec. “A lot of people complained about Bev Oda, but I think it was Stephen Harper himself. The government has to invest in culture at large and cinema in particular. It’s sad to have a government that doesn‘t consider culture an essential part of a nation.”
The motion picture is the most influential art form of our time. As a nation, we have as much a responsibility of accepting and embracing that fact as we do in projecting our sovereignty in the Northwest Passage. By doubling or trebling efforts in the film industry, by exploring new options and ideas, Candians will see dividends. There is no short-term solution. This will take investment, as does everything worth doing. We plan on spending $17 billion on national defence in 2007–08, and we still cannot claim to control our Arctic coast. But most of all it will take vision.
Wrote Michael Byers in Intent For A Nation: “An important part of rebuilding this country’s independence and influence involves revitalizing Canada’s civil service by encouraging those bureaucrats who still believe that we have a distinct and important role to play and providing them with the resources and political support they need. It is time to rebuild that sense of self-worth and identity. It is time to stop acting like a vassal state, and to start acting like a grown-up country.”
As Verner prepares for the quadricentennial celebrations of Samuel de Champlain, she might spare a thought for Canada’s next 400 years, or even Telefilm’s next 40.
2INCREASE BILINGUALISM It may be putting the cart before the horse, but in the long term a fully bilingual nation would have the option of enjoying itself at the cinema in both official languages. Considering the number of excellent films made in Quebec — Oscar-winner Denys Arcand’s L’Âge des Ténèbres (Days of Darkness) played at TIFF — Canada’s several thousand French-immersion schools should have easy access to French titles. After all, most of them are financed by public money.
ANOTHER MINORITY GOVERNMENT The film industry platform of the Bloc Québécois, the likely kingmaker in the next federal election, is unequivocal. It would immediately increase Telefilm Canada’s budget by $50 million, including $20 million to be directed to the French market and a further $10-million fund for the production of feature documentaries. Together, this is effectively a 50% increase. The easiest way to finance this would be to impose a nationwide levy on cinema tickets and DVD sales.
TAX YANKEE MOVIES In October 2005, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions was ratified by a vote of 148 to 2. Canada and France were the two principal nations driving the convention. The two objecting countries were the U.S. and Israel, the latter presumably as a gesture of solidarity. The U.S. called the convention “deeply flawed,” protectionist and a threat to freedom of expression, presumably because cultural material such as movies and television represents US$80 billion in revenue. Given that Hollywood films account for 85% of the world’s box office, then French culture minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres asserted a state’s right to set artistic quotas.
Joost Pauwelyn, a professor of international law at Switzerland’s Graduate Institute of International Studies, is an expert on trade and treaties, including the WTO and NAFTA. In an e-mail exchange, he wrote, “Canada could also impose other tariffs or taxes on U.S films.…Canada could then try to excuse such violation, however, with reference to certain WTO exceptions. There is no general cultural exception in the GATT, but there is Art. XX(f) which allows members to violate other rules as long as such ‘relates to the protection of national treasures of artistic, historic or archaeological value.’ This was written in 1947 to allow export restrictions on national treasures, but like other provisions, 50 years later, it could, in 2007, be interpreted more broadly and in an evolutionary way to cover import restrictions or tariffs to protect Canada’s film industry as a ‘national treasure.’”
COME HOME, KEANU If one were to gauge Canada’s talent pool based solely on place of upbringing, the list would include the likes of Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Keanu Reeves, not to mention filmmaker Paul Haggis who won an Academy Award for Crash in 2006. Why not create a tax-free haven for filmmakers and actors with a requirement that they reside in the country for six months a year and make their films here? Ireland created a tax exemption scheme for its artists in 1969 and it continues to this day, covering the likes of pop stars such as U2 and Elvis Costello, and novelists such as transplanted authors Frederick Forsyth (England) and Irvine Welsh (Scotland). While Ireland excludes films, there is no reason why the scheme could not be expanded in Canada to include performers and filmmakers. Imagine lining up behind Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams at Tim Hortons rather than at TIFF.3
Three new or revamped Canadian distribution entities are coming online almost simultaneously in the wake of the sale and breakup of Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. All three spring from the same root: Alliance Communications, the precursor to Alliance Atlantis.
Motion Picture Distribution LP, the releasing arm of Alliance Atlantis via an income trust, has been sold to a partnership formed by U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs & Co. and Toronto-based private equity firm EdgeStone Capital Partners. Industry veteran Victor Loewy will be executive chairman of the new-look MPD, which will be rebranded as Alliance Films. By far the largest Canadian distribution company, MPD also has distribution business in the U.K. and Spain, through Momentum Pictures and Aurum, respectively.
Robert Lantos, Canada’s de facto film mogul and co-founder with Loewy of Alliance Communications, is returning to distribution with Maximum Film Distribution and Maximum International. (Lantos parted ways with ThinkFilm but has since invested in L.A.-based production companies Blueprint Entertainment and Oasis Entertainment.) Two executives from his Alliance days — Charlotte Mickie, a specialist in foreign sales, and Tony Cianciotta, a veteran of Canadian distribution and exhibition — will head up the respective divisions.
Entertainment One Ltd., Canada’s largest wholesale distributor of home entertainment and video games, has also stepped into the fray. Its new Filmed Entertainment division is headed by Patrice Theroux, Loewy’s protege at Alliance Atlantis, who left the company over allegations that he and Loewy were engineering a management buyout of MPD. EOne just acquired Montreal-based distributor Seville Entertainment Inc. and its 500-title library. And like MPD, EOne, too, has embraced an international strategy: it owns U.K.-based distributor Contender Entertainment Group as well as a U.S. record label through which it intends to release home entertainment.