Telefilm: The lifeblood of Canadian cinema

As the movie funder reflects on 50 years, stakeholders weigh in on where the organization needs to go in an industry that's increasingly global, digital and diverse.

On March 3, 1967 the Canadian Film Development Corporation Act was passed, establishing what is now known as Telefilm Canada. In its 50-year history, Telefilm has funded nearly 6,200 productions (2,247 features; 3,611 TV series and shows; and 315 digital projects) and invested $3.3 billion in Canadian film, TV and digital media. Telefilm’s anniversary also coincides with Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations. As part of its Canada 150 initiatives, Telefilm launched five new discoverability initiatives to help promote Canadian films in 2017, including a partnership with iTunes, and is participating in Movie Nights Across Canada. To commemorate its 50th anniversary, Telefilm has also unveiled a new branding initiative “Play it Forward,” which focuses on the agency’s next 50 years. In its Spring 2017 issue, Playback took a look back at the funding agency’s history and asked where it should go now. 

Ever since its inception half a century ago – and even before – the purpose of Telefilm Canada has been widely debated. Over the course of five decades the public funder has taken on and let go of various portfolios, seen its budget slashed and come close to being shut down altogether. But one thing is as true today as it was when Telefilm was born as the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) in 1967: It is the lifeblood of Canadian movies.

Prior to the CFDC, the local movie industry was marginal. In the 1940s, Canada’s two major theatre chains were foreign-owned: Famous Players by Hollywood’s Paramount Pictures and Odeon Theatres by the U.K.’s Rank Organisation. Both parent companies were also active in production, and English-Canadian screens were dominated by U.S. and British titles. At the time, the only major force in Canadian production was the National Film Board, the government agency that garnered international acclaim for shorts, docs and animated films.

The early 1960s saw a rise in Canadian production enabled by economical 16mm cameras, more feature commissions by the NFB and growing creative activism in Quebec. This momentum convinced the federal government to invest in Canadian films.

The CFDC opened offices in Montreal and Toronto in 1968 with former Quebec Liberal Party leader Georges-Émile Lapalme as chair. British-born NFB executive Michael Spencer, a key advisor for the fund, was tapped as executive director, armed with a $10 million budget (equal to $70 million today) and a slew of eager filmmakers knocking on his door. A committee on the film fund stated, “The industry should be primarily an economic operation with ancillary cultural effects,” highlighting an issue Telefilm continues to wrestle with to this day: Should it support alternative Canadiana or compete with Hollywood at its own game?

The reigning Liberals believed this one-time investment would generate enough successful movies to kick-start a self-sufficient Canadian industry. The money assisted the production of 64 films, including director Don Shebib’s Cancon classic Goin’ Down the Road (1970), made with a $19,000 CFDC grant (about $120,000 today).

But with no restrictions on the amount of foreign content on local screens, Canadian films still failed to find a significant audience.

Enemy

Enemy director Denis Villeneuve (left) cut his teeth on Canadian productions.
He was recently nominated for an Oscar for his Hollywood hit Arrival.

By the end of 1971, the Crown corporation exhausted its resources and talked the feds into a further $10 million. The outcome was not markedly better – with the notable exception of the Oscar-nominated Mordecai Richler adaptation The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which earned more than $2 million ($9.4 million today) at the Canadian box office. Other productions were hampered by low production values and green filmmakers, and efforts toward exhibitor support gained little traction.By 1975, the Treasury Board contemplated stopping the program altogether.

Despite the struggles, in October 1976 Spencer realized a long-held goal when the government agreed to an annual appropriation for the CFDC amounting to $3.3 million ($12.2 million today) for fiscal 1977-78, validated by hits including Allan King’s Who Has Seen the Wind and David Cronenberg’s Rabid. The yearly commitment continues to this day with Parliament contributing around $97.5 million for 2016-2017. The original concept of a self-sustaining industry proved unfeasible.

“That probably would have been possible if the industry had been more balanced,” says current Montreal-based Telefilm executive director Carolle Brabant. “But dealing with this huge monopoly from the United States is hard for any country. Most countries need to give some support to their local audiovisual industry to counterbalance the U.S. impact.”

Back in 1976, the government wanted box-office hits to show for its stable funding, referring to more money being available for movies “capable of realizing substantial profits.”

Under Michael McCabe, who replaced Spencer in 1978, the CFDC backed some of these, such as the Sherlock Holmes thriller Murder by Decree (1979), a U.K./Canada copro that took advantage of the Capital Cost Allowance (CCA), which refunded private investors through a 100% tax deduction. “Tax shelter” critics argued such films were often of dubious quality and not recognizably Canadian, populated as they were with foreign stories and talent.

The controversial incentive was lowered to 30% in 1987 and cancelled in 1995, leaving Telefilm the chief arbiter of what Canadian movies get made. But in its 1979-80 annual report, the CFDC credited the CCA with nearly doubling movie production in the space of a year, providing a huge economic boost and growing industry organizations such as the Directors Guild of Canada. Cries to reinstate the tax shelter have never gone away.

In 1983, the CFDC experienced its own growth when it was handed the Canadian Broadcast Program Development Fund, aimed at boosting TV drama, kids and variety programming, and the “Telefilm” handle was adopted to reflect this new balance. The corporation became a better-oiled machine with new offices, more staff, an upgraded computer system and reduced application processing times.

In 1996, governance of TV funding was split with the Canadian Television Fund (now the Canada Media Fund), but 10 years later, after producers complained of the inefficiency of having to apply to both organizations, the CTF assumed all decision-making and let Telefilm administer and deliver the programs.

Telefilm’s movie business got a huge boost in 2001 when Liberal Heritage minister Sheila Copps tasked it with managing the new Canada Feature Film Fund. A healthy $100 million annual budget (equal to $132 million today) was set aside for film production and marketing. Copps identified priorities as box office, Canadian content and critical acclaim.

In late 2001, she tapped Richard Stursberg, former CTF chair and head of the Canadian Cable Television Association, as Telefilm’s new executive director, provided he pursue a goal of Canadian films achieving a 5% share of the domestic box office.

“Sheila asked me, ‘Are you okay with that?’ and I said, ‘I’m more than okay – I think that’s right,’” Stursberg recalls. “I don’t see the point of making movies people are not interested in watching or that don’t have any resonance to the people ultimately paying for them.”

Under Stursberg, Telefilm obligated distributors to give its titles a significant theatrical rollout in addition to merely selling TV rights. “We made distributors more at risk,” he says. “Doing that would increase the amount of publicity for Canadian pictures and force proper releases, and meant distributors would have to think hard about which films they supported.”

In 2001, Canadian films held 1.6% of the domestic box office, a share that grew annually until finally reaching 5.2% in 2005. But that threshold was reached thanks to Quebec films, which had a 25.6% share of their market, while English-language product generated a national market share of only 1.1%. Also under Stursberg’s watch, Denys Arcand’s Telefilm-supported The Barbarian Invasions (2003) became the first Canadian film to win the best foreign-language Oscar.

Today, Stursberg wants Telefilm, the CMF and CAVCO folded into a superfund that would minimize administration and give equal access to movies, TV programs, newspapers, magazines, online content and OTT operators, as outlined in his report Cultural Policy for the Digital Age, commissioned by Rogers Communications. This suggestion comes as the Trudeau Liberals bumped Telefilm’s budget by $2 million for the current fiscal and $5 million in each of the four subsequent years, making up for some of the cuts instituted under the Stephen Harper regime.

That extra funding is a spot of sunshine amidst gloomier box-office tallies. According to Telefilm, in 2015 Canadian films earned $19 million at domestic cinemas, representing a five-year low and less than 2% of the $988 million total box office reported by the Movie Theatre Association of Canada. The box office for all independent (non-Hollywood studio) films in 2015 was $254 million, with Canadian films accounting for 7%, also a five-year low. These numbers don’t paint a rosy picture, nor a comprehensive one, as Brabant insists.

In 2011, a year after she was appointed permanent executive director, the corporation redefined its approach to funding (and success) again, ditching the 5% goal in favor of a Success Index taking into account the global scope of a movie industry gone digital.

“We felt this is a different market from [2001] and our films were successful in manners we weren’t measuring,” Brabant says. She cites the example of the 2008 Rhombus Media Canada/Brazil/Japan copro Blindness, which fell short of $1 million at the Canadian box office but generated $25 million in international presales and was able to pay back Telefilm’s $2.5 million investment.

Rather than comparing Canadian cinema to foreign competition on local screens, the Success Index tracks Telefilm’s portfolio year-over-year. While 60% of its score is based on movies’ commercial success (including non-theatrical and international sales), 30% takes into account awards and showings at international festivals and 10% is weighted on movies’ private-versus-public funding ratio.

“We shouldn’t compare ourselves to Hollywood because a large part of what we’re financing is not in the same range. It’s not even the same kind of content,” Brabant says. “I would like to compare us to the independent content produced around the world, and based on our size and population, I think we’re doing pretty well.”

Barbarians(1)

Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions became the first Telefilm-backed dramatic feature to win an Oscar.

Under this model, Telefilm’s Success Index was on the rise in 2015, scoring 93 points after bottoming out at 83 in 2013.

Last fiscal was also stronger for recoupment, as Telefilm received a $12.1 million return (a 15% year-over-year increase) from its investment in performers including Atom Egoyan’s The Captive and Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and this year looks promising with proceeds from copros Room (Canada/Ireland) and Brooklyn (U.K./Canada/Ireland) to roll in. Telefilm says it provided $4.6 million to the former title for production and marketing and $4.2 million to the latter.

Neither movie is recognizably Canadian, yet Noah Segal, co-president of Elevation Pictures –Room‘s Canadian distributor – thinks Telefilm should go even bigger on such projects.

“The customer has become more globalized with platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video and Telefilm has to prepare,” Segal says. “The way to do that is more international productions. You can finance only 100% Canadian pictures, but I guarantee that’s not what the Canadian public wants. It’s valid to make room for arts that aren’t populist, but television and film product is very expensive and you need commercial success to keep driving that force forward.”

But to others, Telefilm should double down on Cancon in the face of this globalization. One such believer is Eagle Vision, producers of rom-com Lovesick, one of 98 films Telefilm funded in 2015-16 – in this case to the tune of $300,000. The Winnipeg-set film is written and directed by local newbie Tyson Caron and stars Canadian thesps Jacob Tierney, Jessica Paré and Jay Baruchel.

“We need to make movies that are unabashedly Canadian and people will respond accordingly,” says Eagle Vision partner and producer Kyle Irving. “If Telefilm is in the recoupment business, then it’s a failed business that should be shut down. It should focus on supporting the ongoing development of Canadian talent so we can have more of it on an international level we can all be proud of.” He points to Denis Villeneuve and Jean-Marc Vallée, who are now directing big Hollywood pictures but are recognized for cutting their teeth on distinctly Québécois films.

But just as the corporation once boasted about ’79′s Murder by Decree, Brooklyn‘s three Academy Award nominations and Brie Larson’s best-actress Oscar for Room are front and centre in its recent annual report. Brabant sees copros as a natural part of industry growth.

“When you’re producing English-language films, at some point you’ll be looking to do a coproduction and you’ll need talent,” she says

Meanwhile, Brabant is prioritizing Telefilm’s goal of supporting projects with as many female writers, directors and producers as men by 2020. It’s also encouraging producers to submit projects that reflect Canada’s diverse population.

“Diversity is the most important aspect of Canada. My team might say I’m too optimistic, but on March 15, 2018 [when her mandate expires] it would be nice to say we’ve accomplished gender equity,” she says.
And she has strong industry support.

“Our stories are important and we need more women to tell them,” says Kim McCraw of Montreal’s micro_scope, producers of the Oscar-nominated, Telefilm-backed Incendies (2010) and Monsieur Lazhar (2011). “Certainly it will bring a new audience. For years the stories have been told by men with their preoccupations and something has to change.”

Brabant refutes the perception that Telefilm previously held a bias against female filmmakers, explaining the corporation simply has not received a large number of female-driven applications. This policy shift will no doubt change that.

“An announcement like that sends a message throughout the industry and invites more women to go for it,” says doc producer-director Ann Shin, who received $66,000 from the Theatrical Documentary Program – supported by Telefilm and the Rogers Group of Funds – to expand her Oscar-shortlisted film My Enemy, My Brother (2015) to feature-length.

But while Telefilm tries to adapt to the times and the industry argues over what path it should pursue, the 50th anniversary is an occasion to reflect on the corporation’s integral role in the very existence of Canadian cinema.
“We should be grateful for Telefilm,” says Eagle Vision’s Irving. “We are the envy of the world having that organization and I believe we need only make it work better for all of us. But we’re very lucky to have it.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Playback.