Robert Lantos: It’s do or die for Canadian films

If Canadian films don’t start to pick up their share of the Canadian box office within the next few years, Robert Lantos, for one, says it’s time to throw in the towel on public funding.

Canada’s biggest and inarguably most successful film producer says he has no reason to believe Canadian films can’t break or at least take 5% of the market share, as set out in the $100-million Canada Feature Film Fund. But, he adds, if they don’t achieve this ‘modest’ goal within the next five years or so, there’s little reason for the Canadian government to continue creating this artificial economy that has, over the past decade, contributed to the decline of quality Canadian moviemaking.

‘It’s a do-or-die time for those involved in making Canadian films,’ he says, pointing to the need for distributors and producers to take on a significantly bigger risk-taking role in the filmmaking, financing and marketing process. ‘I can’t think of any national cinema that doesn’t have at least a 5% share of its domestic box office.’

One of the biggest problems in attracting audiences to Canadian films, he says, is that for the most part distributors get subsidies to market and acquire films they don’t have the slightest intention of releasing theatrically.

‘Thanks to these subsidies and the licence fees paid for Canadian content by broadcasters, [the distributors] give the film a cosmetic pseudo-release and make no effort to legitimately compete for audiences. They get an excellent return on their nominal investment by flipping the films to TV.’

But producers are just as much to blame, says Lantos, who sits, jetlagged, in his posh rooftop office in midtown Toronto. He has just returned from scouting locations in Europe for his next two films, to be directed by Istvan Szabo (Sunshine) and Norman Jewison (Hurricane), respectively.

While he admits the subsidy system is well-intentioned, he says Canadian producers, for their part and with few exceptions, lack entrepreneurial skill, spirit and experience.

‘They can finance a feature film by filling out a bunch of applications, by making sure the film is politically correct – in terms of its subject matter, in terms of the region of the country where it’s set and where it’s shot, in terms of coproducing between provinces, using a variety of public funds, tax credits and so on – but in the end they are limited to a budget of $3-$4 million, which in turn limits them to certain kinds of films that in most cases are not competitive with independent films that come from other parts of the world.’

Because Canadian producers content themselves with the money they can raise in Canada, he adds, ‘they put a cap on their own movies.’

‘But this was not the case, say, 20 years ago, when Telefilm’s predecessor – the CFDC – had an annual budget of $4 million to cover English and French film and TV. We now have a whole generation of producers who have grown up making movies entirely, or almost entirely, funded within Canada, and that in turn means a film’s potential to appeal to a paying audience has not been a foremost criterion.’

Tangential to all this is the director’s role. Because of producers’ and distributors’ reliance on public funding, says Lantos, Canadian directors who have not proven themselves have an extraordinary level of control over a project. ‘In films which are fully funded through subsidies, producers have a questionable level of credibility, since the director can say, ‘It’s not your money anyway.”

But despite the dismal picture Lantos paints, he believes Canadian film success is within grasp, especially given that $1 million in Canadian box office is considered a financial victory even for an American indie.

‘I can think of at least 40 Canadian films that have crossed that threshold, so it can be done,’ he says.

Most recently, Men With Brooms, produced by Lantos’ Serendipity Point Films, grossed upwards of $4 million in Canadian B.O. and is currently being set for an international release.

Taking a look further back, Lantos quickly reels off dozens of titles that garnered at least $1 million in Canadian B.O., including The Changeling, The Silent Partner, Lies My Father Told Me, Murder by Decree, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Meatballs…, all of which did so when theatre admission was significantly less than the current $10 to $13 rate.

One of Lantos’ earliest films, In Praise of Older Women, for example, grossed $2.1 million in 1978 when theatre admission was only about $2.50. That would equate to roughly $6.8 million today.

Unfortunately, there have been few such successes over the last 10 years. But with the new mandate of the CFFF being to put bums in seats, all that could soon change. ‘It’s the first time ever that the criterion that drives [a public fund] is success,’ he says. ‘Hopefully, with this more realistic way of investing public funds in film – if producers, distributors and directors play their role – there should be reasonable success. If not, give the money to the poor and the sick and stop [publicly] funding the movies.’

But reasonable success, in Lantos’ estimation, should come to 12 to 15 films a year and it will likely take a few years longer than the five-year mandate of the CFFF to achieve. ‘English Canada has no business making 30 films a year, given the scarce resources available.’ The entire CFFF purse, he points out, is equivalent to the budget of one substantial American film.

As for the role of the festivals, and in particular the Toronto International Film Festival, Lantos says it is simply a launching pad that works for some films better than others.

TIFF, for example, was a great marketing tool for his In Praise of Older Women, Joshua Then and Now (1985), Black Robe (1992) and Sunshine (2000), but it didn’t do much for Stardom (2000) and Picture Claire (2001), which although debuting as a special presentation, not a gala screening, a year later is still struggling to find a release date.

And while the best exposure is obviously reserved for gala screenings in the festival’s main program, every year at least one or two films from the Perspective Canada lineup are picked up.

‘The problem is with the mindset that believes it is a reasonable fate for a movie to be selected in Perspective Canada, screened once or twice, move on to the Vancouver and Atlantic festivals, then maybe play at a handful of art houses in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, make a couple of television sales, then disappear….For a movie that costs several millions to make, that is in fact a catastrophic result, yet in some circles deemed desirable.’

Lantos currently has 11 features in development, including a sequel to Men with Brooms with Paul Gross, Fugitive Pieces with Jeremy Podeswa, Barney’s Version, adapted by Mordecai Richler before his death last year, In the Skin of a Lion with various writers, and two projects with David Cronenberg, including the controversial Painkillers.

He is looking to start shooting Jewison’s The Statement, starring Michael Caine, in France by January, and Szabo’s Being Julia, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, in London by next summer.

He has not yet announced where he will be investing Serendipity’s 2002/03 performance-based envelope – awarded by the CFFF – which amounts to $2,103,785.

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