Crisis spurs dramatic change at ACCT

Helga Stephenson

The Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television is cleaning house.

The latest wave of change came Wednesday when the long-time organizers of the Gemini and Genie award shows unveiled a new board of directors to bring the Academy back from the brink.

Prospero Pictures president Martin Katz will lead the new board, which includes Barry Avrich, president of Endeavour Marketing, Robin Mirsky, executive director of the Rogers Group of Funds, Kevin Wright, senior vice president of Astral Television Networks, and John Young, managing director of Temple Street Productions.

Playback Daily met with Charles Ohayon, the Academy’s Quebec chair, and the organization’s interim CEO, Helga Stephenson, for an interview Tuesday at the ACCT’s Toronto headquarters to speak about the recent changes to the organization.

As Ohayon tells it, the old order – including the ACCT’s former board of directors – wasn’t delivering on the membership’s wishes.

“The members felt the Academy was basically useless, and was not doing what it was supposed to do,” he said.

Strong words, but Ohayon stands by them.

“It’s a fact: people were not interested in the Academy anymore,” he added.

The recent appointment of former TIFF exec Stephenson signaled serious changes were afoot at the organization, but Ohayon says troubles at the Academy ran deeper.

On the awards-show level, the Toronto-based film and TV industry was increasingly absent from the Genies and the Geminis, which have been run as coast-to-coast annual affairs. The dwindling attendance of Canadian talent was a serious problem, Ohayon insists.

“You want [talent] there. That’s what makes the show. It’s for them, it’s about them. If they aren’t there, the show suffers. The talent is needed,” he said.

Another possible reform of the Academy will be trimming the Gemini awards nomination list, which now stands at 114 categories.

“Television has evolved. Some categories were meant to be there 20 years, and looking at them today, we realize they aren’t as important,” Stephenson said.

Behind the scenes, Academy members also apparently turned thumbs down to the on-screen quality of the Genies and Geminis in recent years, especially as the award shows popped up on specialty channels on Saturday nights when Canadians were viewing hockey games.

It was all a long way away from the 1990s, when the Academy held black-tie award shows at the Toronto Metro Convention Centre, and industry players felt like they were attending a gala.

So the rules of the game are being changed so the Academy’s membership get their part of the deal.

What will replace the old order?

A former 22-strong Academy boardroom made up of directors from across Canada that met formally only twice a year will be replaced by a new and smaller board of Toronto heavyweights that gathers monthly to help find a way out of the current crisis that besets the organization.

“Most of the decisions for the Academy will be made in Toronto by key people on the board,” Ohayon said.

Retrenchment to Toronto also follows the Academy staring near-bankruptcy in the face before it recently cut jobs and shuttered the Vancouver office to stop the bleeding.

“For the last three years, I was saying we should make changes, very serious changes, to avoid this situation. And it’s almost when we hit the wall that people realized it,” Ohayon recalls.

Drawing back from the regions with a new board to focus on Toronto power-hitters is a gamble for the Academy, as it risks alienating the regions.

“If there’s a new way we can find to have a self-financed branch or activities in British Columbia, or elsewhere, we won’t be closed to that. The idea was to stop the hemorrhaging,” Ohayon said.

At the same time, the Quebec chair insists the English Canadian Academy needs to mirror French-speaking Canada, where a local board of active Montreal players is more responsive to the membership, according to Ohayon.

He envisions a local board in Toronto that is no longer passive in the face of crisis, and instead actively decides how get the Academy out of a deep hole.

The focus on Toronto also reflects a reality for the Academy: out of its 3600 members, 1500 are in Quebec and 1600 members are in Ontario.

Vancouver has its share of members, but the Academy is bowing to the reality that Toronto is the fulcrum of the Canadian film and TV industry, and that’s where its big decision makers play.

Other big changes coming to the Academy include partnering up with the CBC for its awards shows after the public broadcaster managed to draw around 700,000 viewers for the Genies last fall.

“The Academy is extremely happy to be back with the CBC,” which has always had a cultural mandate to promote Canadians and their accomplishments, Ohayon said.

The upcoming Geminis will also follow the Genies’ lead on the CBC by becoming more of an entertainment show, complete with musical talent, to draw more viewers and promote the industry.

The winds of democracy blowing through the Academy will also lead to wholesale changes in the nomination process for the Genies and Geminis.

Academy members appear to want the current voting process to no longer have a 70% jury weighting, with the remaining 30% for the membership .

One option would be to go for a 50-50 weighting, where membership has a bigger say in who is nominated for awards.

To do that, the industry has long called for nominations to come out well ahead of ballots going out to members. That way, indie producers can promote their shows and possibly sway a category’s outcome in their favour.

“We want a more open and membership-participatory Academy, where an actual membership vote can swing something,” Ohayon said.

The Quebec chair insists Wednesday’s unveiling of a new board is only a first step in winning back the loyalty and largesse of the Canadian film and TV industry.

Indeed, much about the Academy these days feels temporary as industry heavyweights step in where others apparently failed.

An interim advisory council recently helped steer the Academy through its current challenges to the point it can unveil a new board.

And former Toronto International Film Festival executive Helga Stephenson stepped in as interim Academy CEO to help reattach links with the industry to promote its best talent.

And the Academy plans to launch a national advisory council to engage industry representatives elsewhere in English-speaking Canada following the retrenchment to Toronto.

But Ohayon insists the recent crisis-management by an awakening industry is a sign they want the Academy to stay around and succeed.

“These are not large changes, but are significant changes that will have significant repercussions and affect the membership directly,” he added.