Norm Bolen to head up proposed all-Canadian film channel


Numerous Canadian screen-entertainment heavyweights are behind an ambitious application to the CRTC that, if successful, could help get more Canadian films viewed by Canadian audiences.

Among a package of applications filed to the CRTC Monday was one requesting national mandatory carriage for a service called Starlight: The Canadian Movie Channel.

The proposed channel aims to address the long-standing industry issue of getting Canadian audiences to see Canadian-made feature films and building awareness of homegrown films.

“Canadian films are orphans in their own country, and we intend to provide a home for those orphans,” says former CMPA president Norm Bolen, who is installed as president and CEO of the proposed channel.

According to the application filed to the CRTC, Serendipity Point Films’ Robert Lantos, former Alliance chairman and CEO Victor Loewy and Canaccord Financial chairman David Kassie are providing equal parts in the initial $15 million startup financing.

The channel will be owned and controlled by a roster of industry veterans, including Mongrel Media president Hussain Amarshi and filmmakers Denys Arcand, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Niv Fichman, Paul Gross, Kassie, Lyse Lafontaine, Guy Maddin, Deepa Mehta, Mark Musselman, Denise Robert, Patricia Rozema and Denis Villeneuve.

If approved by the CRTC, Starlight: The Canadian Movie Channel, at a monthly fee of 45 cents per wholesale subscription, would air only Canadian programming, primarily feature films intended for theatrical release, which would be broadcast without commercial interruption. The channel will additionally air long-form documentaries, made-for-TV movies and programs about Canadian filmmakers.

According to its application, it will reinvest 70% of its gross revenues on Canadian programming.

The service will spend the majority of its programming budget on financing eight to 12 new Canadian feature films through a $22 million Starlight Feature Film Fund.

Bolen says one of the biggest problems in recent years is that broadcasters have significantly decreased air time devoted to films, particularly Canadian films on television, adding that broadcaster licence fees “used to be an important part of the funding formula” for Canadian features.

Starlight’s application argues that broadcasters and pay services in recent years have focused their PNI requirements on “signature series” to promote repeat viewing, which makes commercial sense, since it can be more difficult to promote a one-off production on their schedules.

Bridging the gap

So Starlight is filling a gap, Bolen tells Playback, by addressing Canadian audiences who are disenfranchised from Canadian film, and bridging the financing hole from fewer broadcast licence fees.

“We’re providing a platform where Canadians can see those Canadian films that they want to watch, [and] can see them on TV, which is where they prefer to watch them, based on research we’ve done. Canadian tax payers are helping to finance those movies and yet they get very little exposure for Canadians to see them,” he insists.

A central part of the service will be focused on fully financing new Canadian features the Starlight Feature Film Fund, which Bolen says will grow from its initially proposed $22 million.

The model is essentially that of a mini-studio, where the fund will organize financing, marketing and distribution of the film in various windows. In exchange for financing, the fund will take a majority equity position in the film. Tax credits will be treated as the filmmaker’s equity in the project.

Feature films financed through the fund will have their first broadcast window on the Canadian Movie Channel.

Targeting early- to mid-stage Canadian filmmakers, at least 50% of the funding will go to projects in Western Canada, Atlantic Canada or the Northern territories, according to the filing.

“The purpose of the fund is to address the underfunding of Canadian film, particularly for young filmmakers who are starting out with smaller budget films – there just isn’t enough money in the system to finance their films properly,” says Bolen.

The company will hold exclusive Canadian broadcast rights to those features commissioned by the service, while all other Canadian films broadcast on the channel will be licensed non-exclusively.

And to address and reach audiences in their preferred viewing windows, Bolen says the service will be multi-platform.

Starlight’s application proposes to pair the linear channel with an SVOD version, with online and mobile access to the channel’s library of Canadian films. The service also plans standalone web content and a mobile app through which filmmakers can connect with audiences and other industry professionals.

From a consumer standpoint, Bolen says the service is high value for low cost.

“I think it’s a good equation. Not only to individual citizens, but also to the industry which is an important part of the economy. People always say, ‘Why do our most talented people have to leave the country? Why do all our great writers leave?’

“They need to have opportunity in Canada. And to have opportunity, there have to be audiences. Mass audiences are on television. So this is our way to engage those audiences and get them behind the films. And I think over time, this channel will have a multiplying effect on the success of Canadian film because it creates awareness. We have a very low awareness of the quality of our film,” he says.

The CRTC is accepting comments and interventions until Feb. 20, 2013. The regulator will hold a hearing starting April 23 to consider applications for mandatory carriage.