Changes needed to sustain, support Ontario filmmakers: report

"Focus On Features: The Future of Filmmaking in Ontario" dissects challenges like audience behaviour, static funding structures and the need for more career opportunities.

shutterstock_530741707Ontario filmmakers are caught up in the industry’s disruption and need more support to navigate and sustain film careers in the province, according to a new report prepared jointly by the Producers Roundtable of Ontario, the DGC, the WGC and Ryerson University.

Titled “Focus On Features: The Future of Filmmaking in Ontario,” the report examines the challenges writers, producers, directors and industry stakeholders face like new tech, changing audience behaviour and static funding structures, when trying to ensure an English-language Canadian film produced in Ontario is successful.

For example, filmmakers interviewed for the report (36 in total) struggled to determine a concrete definition of what making a feature film means when long-held exhibition and distribution norms are changing. For example: is a theatrical release a necessity in defining the format when many films are being watched at home? In particular, one interviewee also pointed out that while the theatrical experience around feature films has changed, the traditional structure to support them has not. “The strictness of ‘silo-structured’ funding (i.e. separate funds for feature films, television, linear digital programs) and licensing related to those silos, may no longer apply in this fluid and evolving world, both creatively and in the marketplace, with regard to how the feature film form is financed,” said the report.

Traditional definitions surrounding roles have also changed for Ontario filmmakers. Half of survey respondents identified themselves to varying degrees in hybrid positions like a screenwriter-director (5%), screenwriter-producer (11%), producer-director (6%) and screenwriter-director-producer (28%).

Most notably, about 10%, or around 12 participants from “Focus On Features’” 124 survey respondents, said they felt the major issue facing Ontario’s funding system is no turnover on boards and selection committees of funding bodies. To combat this perception, the report suggests that a mandated turnover of decision makers may be a way to diversify the feature films that are funded.

The document also highlighted that respondents held the common belief that a disproportionate amount of experienced filmmakers are always selected to receive funding. However, “Focus On Features” argues that this is a misconception, citing Telefilm’s 2016/17 annual report where 53% of titles funded came from first- or second-time directors and how the funder’s Fast Track Stream, which gives experienced producers an accelerated evaluation process, may have encouraged this perception. Instead, this funding gap, according to the report, may be coming from issues surrounding mid-career filmmakers “who may have the greatest challenge battling risk-averse decision-makers who would rather entrust mid to large-budget films to known filmmakers with a lot of experience…” The report could not verify this premise, referencing that the industry does not keep track of this information.

Overall, Ontario filmmakers stressed the need for more funding for development and production due to issues like the oversubscription of funds from financiers like Telefilm, Ontario Creates and the Harold Greenberg Fund. In response to funding being overly subscribed, “Focus On Features” noted that producers are turning towards funding models like private investment, while some interviewees suggested exploring corporate or slate financing to help sustain feature film companies.

In addition to funding, the need for more career opportunities and to support new voices in the system was emphasized by those interviewed. This is a key sustainability issue for the industry, said some respondents, who said that if funding is only given to producers who have already been through the system, it prevents new producers from joining the industry. When interviewed for the report, TIFF artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey cautioned that funding known producers ensures ROI, but also leads to a specific “safe” type of storytelling.

Moving forward, “Focus On Features” suggested the industry’s next steps include more mentorship opportunities for mid-career and emerging creatives; a push for more on- and off-screen diversity among filmmakers, with funding and training programs having accountability check-ins; more training on new distribution methods; and the need to create ongoing opportunities for creatives to monitor developments in the industry and work together to tackle evolving challenges and changes.

Funding for the study was provided by Ontario Creates (formerly known as the OMDC), Telefilm Canada, the Harold Greenberg Fund, the National and Ontario Directors Guild of Canada and the Producers Roundtable of Ontario.

Three stages of research were conducted including a third party review of feature film support programs in Ontario and other jurisdictions; an anonymous SurveyMonkey link given to various industry organizations and festivals in fall 2016; and 36 interviews conducted with screenwriters, producers, directors and industry stakeholders. The study’s survey received 124 responses with respondents skewing older, Caucasian and male.

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