Looking ahead to tomorrow’s Telefilm

Industry stakeholders weigh in on areas for the national funder to focus on as it faces a leadership change and the continued shakeup of the film and media business.

iStock-Canada-Film_purchasedBy: Regan Reid and Jordan Pinto

Under the eight-year tenure of Telefilm executive director Carolle Brabant, the national film funder has become more efficient and more inclusive, say industry stakeholders.

But as Brabant’s term comes to an end, the change in leadership coincides with an overall sea change in culture and business. Awareness of diversity, parity, respect and inclusion are at a cultural high and traditional business models have been fundamentally altered by technology, a disruption that continues unabated.

So whoever takes the reins at Telefilm, the nexus of independent Canadian film, faces challenges on many fronts. But two areas of focus stand out for the funder’s next era: talent development and marketing.

On the talent front, many of the industry execs and filmmakers Playback spoke with stressed the need for increased support of emerging and diverse filmmakers.

It’s a shift already underway, sparked in part by discussions held by Brabant with Zapruder Films’ Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller and Rhombus Media’s Niv Fichman in 2017. In the wake of those talks, Telefilm recently announced its Talent to Watch program (formerly the micro-budget production program) will more than double the number of films it supports to 50 projects a year, up to $127,500 each.

In addition to providing more support to emerging directors, Johnson and Miller told Playback Daily they see the new program as a way to change film culture in this country and even build up “brand Canada.”

“We’re trying to reverse that stigma by creating a really strong brand awareness of Canadian films – that Canadian films are young, risky, there are new voices making bold decisions,” said Miller. “In five to 10 years, imagine what difference that could make if Canada is being seen like some of these European countries in terms of the voices that are coming out.”

While most agree Talent to Watch is a good start, others argue that Telefilm’s overall approach to funding needs to be restructured to better support emerging talent. The majority of Talent to Watch’s budget comes from the Talent Fund, which is supported by private donations and corporate sponsors. In 2016/17, the Fund received $2.57 million in funding, according to Telefilm’s Annual Report, so additional sources of funding will be needed to support the planned 50 films at any meaningful level.

Telefilm’s other funding streams, including its production, development and theatrical documentary programs, are funded through Telefilm’s nearly $100-million program funding budget, the majority of which comes from its parliamentary appropriation.

With its limited resources, John Barrack said that Telefilm’s primary mandate should be the development of new talent. The current envelope system, which rewards proven track records of success, hasn’t improved the industry as a whole, he argued.

“We are trying to get new blood, new storytellers into the system. That means we have to say to those storytellers who have been around for a while, ‘If you’ve made it, congratulations. You’ve had the benefit of that support. Go find the financing through the traditional models. You still have tax credits, you still have all the other support mechanisms,’” said Barrack. “If you haven’t been successful, yet you’ve received all that funding – and I can think of a myriad of Canadian folks who have subsisted through that system, but not really broken out – well, maybe it’s time to give others a chance.”

Beth Janson, CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, argues that Telefilm’s mandate needs to be larger than how and to whom funding is awarded. Providing emerging filmmakers with more on-set opportunities and supporting mentorship programs similar to the Sundance Lab are two ways Telefilm could better support its young talent, she said.

“In this country, we really suffer from a lack of experiential training,” she told Playback Daily. “We have the production services industry and we have the homegrown feature film industry and they do not cross over. To my mind, that’s a massively wasted opportunity to have our younger filmmakers get experience and to see how different people create stories at all different budget levels.”

Everyone interviewed for this piece also stressed that diversity must be at the core of Telefilm’s mandate going forward.

“The idea is to completely diversify the base,” said Fichman of the new Talent to Watch program. “Even now, from our perch, we’re looking for new talent all the time [and] it’s pretty hard to veer away from white guys. So if two or three or four new filmmakers are successful [in the new program] then that’s a great ratio. And those are the films that get supported into second films, and then by that time, that talent is on the radar of every producer in the country and it’s off to the races.”

Like Janson, Mark Slone thinks there is opportunity for the funder to formally contribute to building the careers of underrepresented creators. Recent initiatives to achieve gender parity across its portfolio and provide more funding support for Indigenous creators have to be considered as the starting point, not a job done, he argued. He offered the funder’s gender parity efforts as an example.

“I applaud the number of [Telefilm] projects that women are involved in, but Telefilm should be looking at the production dollar-value of those films,” he said. “Women are not doing this just to say, ‘I made a movie.’ They’re doing it to make a living and grow their careers.”

An area that still cultivates diverse opinions is Telefilm’s role in film marketing. Zapruder’s Johnson said he and Miller don’t believe the industry needs more marketing dollars, but rather, it needs content that compels audiences. “We need content that has a voice, that’s undeniable, that people want to see and are actively climbing over themselves in other countries to get at,” he said.

Others think marketing should remain a priority in order to get Canadian films in front of domestic and international audiences. Slone argued that one of Brabant’s key legacies will be the recognition that production support without marketing “makes no sense.” With $10 million in marketing invested by Telefilm in 2016/2017 (across 87 features), Slone said there are “good funds available” for marketing support. But when creating, selling and promoting individual films, Slone stressed that audiences can no longer be seen as a homogenous entity. For Slone, this means moving away from classifying Canadian films as either art or commercial properties, and instead making and marketing films for specific audiences – animation films for families or zombie flicks for genre lovers, as an example.

For TIFF’s Cameron Bailey, the challenge ahead is to find new ways to bring Canadian movies to audiences. He gave the example of TIFF’s Film Circuit, which tours the country, as one way that films have found success reaching audiences. He also pointed to the proliferation of international streaming services as another. “What’s clear is that there’s an interest in Canadian film, there’s a curiosity about it, there’s an appetite, but there’s not a lot of knowledge, because people just don’t get to see Canadian films that often. So I think you’ve got to get into the conduits that are available.”

Slone added that another way that Telefilm could champion its filmmakers is by connecting talent to global players, especially as the market moves toward selling films to single global players, as opposed to selling territory-by-territory. “Individual filmmakers, emerging filmmakers can not make a global impression without help,” he said. “Telefilm’s role in market understanding and education cannot be understated. In a global economy we risk only looking inwards if we don’t provide the tools that young filmmakers need to have global perspective.”

For her part, Brabant said she thinks the funder must continue to focus on ensuring Canadian productions can compete globally.

“The Canadian industry must leverage new distribution and promotion channels so that our content reaches as many audiences as possible. Telefilm will continue with its efforts to support the next generation of Canadian talent and to export Canadian content around the globe, ensuring that the industry remains viable,” she said. She added that Telefilm must work to find ways to complement the work of other organizations to better meet the industry’s needs in a fast-changing entertainment landscape.

It’s certainly a broad mandate, and the posting for Brabant’s replacement reflects the challenge. Using the traditional job-posting language for a culture-industry executive, the perfect candidate should have a Swiss Army knife of skills spanning P&L, political and social sensitivity, and industry savvy. Those in the industry also have ideas of their own.

 “Facebook and Google are not going away… We have to figure out how to preserve our voice on new platforms, and that’s a very complicated [challenge],” said Janson. “Having someone at the helm who understands the distribution and discoverability piece is extremely important.”

“I think what’s required is someone whose got a big national vision, who can drive it forward, and who understands that Canada is a changed country and that there’s an urgency in telling stories that reflect what Canada is now,” said Bailey.

English? French? Policy wonk? Filmmaker? Maybe, in the end, there isn’t a list of criteria long enough that can really ensure someone is up for such a massive job.

“When Carolle was chosen, no one was really looking for her to be the one [to succeed Wayne Clarkson], necessarily, because she came from the inside, from the finance/accounting side. And, to be honest, when I first heard about it I thought it was terrible,” said Fichman. “But in the end, I’m totally wrong. So you never know. You can pull all the criteria in the world, and the person can be exactly right or just totally wrong. It depends who it is.”