Q&A: The Exit Interview with Tom Perlmutter

From our print issue: Playback catches up with the now-former NFB head to discuss his concerns about Canada's screen industries.
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In December, NFB chair and Government Film Commissioner Tom Perlmutter announced his decision to step down to pursue analysis on issues affecting Canada’s arts and cultural organizations. Perlmutter joined the NFB in 2001, became head of the organization in 2007 and has been credited with leading its digital renaissance, which has earned it trailblazing status and international acclaim. Here, Playback catches up with the veteran executive on one of his last days in office in December.

How does it feel to be winding down your time at the NFB?

I feel proud of the accomplishments. I feel it’s in good shape. It’s a little sad, there’s a kind of bittersweetness about it. But I believe there are larger issues that affect the NFB and other institutions and I feel that I need to start turning my attention to that.

What are some of those issues?

The Film Board has done remarkably well over the last number of years. Everybody has acknowledged [our] rebirth but we’re still in decline. And we’re in decline because there’s ongoing financial pressure, and I’m going to be really, really clear on this: this is not a question of the Conservative government. The worst cuts that the Film Board got were with the Liberals under [Jean] Chretien. It’s a long-term process and it has to do with how the country views and thinks about its public institutions.

What are the most pressing issues for Canada’s screen industries?

It’s clearly the ongoing digital disruption. I remember when I first started as the head of the NFB and I was invited to a small group meeting that the CRTC had to talk about new media. Everyone was talking about the [TV] business model, and I said your business model in terms of traditional broadcasting is greatly at risk. Because all of these things in which you base the economic model, all of that can be bypassed. And everyone said, ‘Oh Tom, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Forget it. There, there. Go away.’ Well, that’s what’s happened [laughs].

These services [Hulu, Netflix, etc.] are going to eat away at our traditional ways of producing. They will impact how Canadians are watching and how production then gets financed if the squeeze is put on traditional sources. In Canada, our industries have been slow to respond. They’ve had opportunities to put in play these kinds of services, but because there was no immediate or self-evident business model, why do it if we can protect our traditional revenue sources? Let’s not bother. And now everyone’s trying to play catch-up.

Under your tenure, the NFB has become a world leader in transmedia storytelling. Do you feel that it is as viable for private enterprise as it is for an arts-focused institution like the NFB?

I think it will become so. The various ways in which the business models and the production models [are changing] will find its feet as consumption patterns change. Listen, we literally just started all of this – so you get things like the Oculus Rift, Google Glass – but where will all these technologies take us? The moment they go places that become interesting creatively then audiences are [going to] develop ways to come along.

What do you feel have been your greatest achievements at the NFB?

The supreme one, I think, is connecting the NFB back to our audiences. I’ve always been driven by the fact that the Film Board is there to serve Canadians and connect with Canadians. And to be able to say, here it is: this is your Film Board. Take it. Use it. Play with all of this amazing work that the Film Board has produced over the past 75 years.

We did this with no new money. We did this at the time of financial constraint and put in place a kind of a whole new thinking about how you restructure an organization, how you can embed new thinking about financial administration, economy, different thinking about the workflows and how you make things different. It’s such an integral part of this story, but it’s the hidden story as it were, and I think we could not have done all this without that profound organizational transformation.

Any regrets?

There are always regrets, yes. One enormous regret I have, frankly, is that I don’t think we opened enough to all the really diverse cultural voices in this country. As cultural agencies we have a lot more work to make sure that … there’s a much broader palate of people who come in. Not simply being patriarchal and saying, ‘We need to hear your voice. There you are.’ It’s about ensuring that the decision makers are the ones who are coming out of that incredibly vital dynamic creative community.