Playback tribute: a reinvigorated Academy celebrates its legacy

Helga Stephenson

The Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television has much to celebrate this year.  And it can breathe a sigh of relief.

The fêting concerns two milestones: the 65th anniversary of the Canadian Film Awards (CFAs) – forerunner of the Genie Awards, launched before the country even had its own TV stations – and the 35th birthday of the Academy itself. The relief comes as the Academy has seemingly righted a ship headed toward discord and irrelevance.

The non-profit organization’s mission is to honour and promote the work of its nearly 4,500 nationwide members in film, TV and new media and offer them year-round professional development. It made a big move in May 2012 when it announced the merger of the Genies and the TV-and-new-media-focused Gemini Awards into the Canadian Screen Awards (CSAs). Academy CEO Helga Stephenson and chair Martin Katz, talking to Playback in Stephenson’s downtown Toronto office, say the change was long in the works.

“When we came in – Marty with the board and me as director – it was on a mandate of change. Major change,” says Stephenson, the well-respected former TIFF head who took over the Academy’s reins from Sara Morton, initially on an interim basis, in May 2011. “We listened to the industry. They had been asking for the amalgamation of the awards for a few years. And it turned out to be a very wise decision, because the results were beyond our dreams.”

CBC broadcast the inaugural CSA show last March to a live average audience of 756,000. Interest was boosted by the presence of host Martin Short, red-hot after an appearance on Saturday Night Live less than three months earlier. The CSAs drew exactly twice as many viewers as the 2012 Genies hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos on CBC.

“The awards lost visibility with the public and we were losing the support of the industry,” says Katz, who produces under the shingle of Prospero Pictures. “Our task was to try to bring back the luster and we were able to do that.”

The recent ratings still are a far cry from the peak 1.9 million who tuned in to the Genies on CBC in 1985, although the respective media landscapes are substantially different. Back then, network TV was unchallenged by the specialties, and in the digital world there are other measures of awareness.

In addition to being covered on the main networks and in major dailies from coast to coast, the CSAs trended in social media across Canada and in Los Angeles, with the #CdnScreenAwards hash tag recording 11.8 million impressions the day of the awards and the following day, according to TweetReach analytics.

This is a notable improvement from recent periods in which private broadcasters aired the events. CHUM took on the Genies from 2004 to 2007, changing the format from a theatrical awards show to a Golden Globes-style roundtable dinner and then to a one-hour after-party special only. The latter configuration netted a disastrous 34,000 viewers in the combined Ontario, Vancouver and Calgary markets in 2006. CHUM aired the show on its CityTV, Bravo and Star! channels, which did not equal network coverage.

Canwest aired the Geminis in 2005 and 2006, and both the TV and film awards from 2008 to 2010. The shows were either shunted to local stations (E!), specialties (Showcase) or digital channels (IFC), or aired on Global usually on Saturday nights in an unenviable showdown against CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. The 2008 Gemini show on Showcase and E! was watched by a mere 100,000. In 2011, it was back to the public broadcaster.

Asked if the CBC is the natural partner for the awards, Katz responds, “Absolutely.” Stephenson adds, “We’re very happy with the CBC and very grateful to them.”

Looking for profile

The CBC was on board for the first Genie broadcast on March 20, 1980. That was the fruition of a movement begun some 18 months earlier, when a group of Canadian filmmakers spearheaded by Toronto Festival of Festivals co-founder William Marshall pushed for the creation of an Academy of Canadian Cinema and a replacement for the CFAs, which launched back in 1949, when the industry was dominated by the NFB.

Producer Robert Lantos, speaking in a separate interview, was one of those filmmakers. “The Canadian Film Awards were never televised,” he recalls. “It was a clubby, unstructured, strictly industry event that had no profile and public awareness. The idea in creating the Academy and turning the awards into what became the Genies was to create profile – to bring some glamour and public attention to the event, and through it, to Canadian films.” Lantos chaired the Academy in 1985-86 and, after a mutual courtship, rejoined the board last November.

The Academy was incorporated on June 20, 1979. Its board was split between carryovers from the CFA committee and new blood, and was chaired by producer Ron Cohen. Andra Sheffer served as the organization’s executive director for the first 10 years, followed by Maria Topalovich, then the Academy’s director of marketing and communications. She stayed on until 2007, at which point Morton took over.

In 1981, the Academy joined forces with the Canadian Film and Television Association to honour TV work at the one-off Bijou Awards. Three years of discussions ensued among industry stakeholders determined to expand the TV ceremony to a broadcast event. In 1985, Lantos announced the formation of the Academy’s TV division, and the first Gemini show went to air the following year.

This was around the time he co-founded Alliance Films, which led the growth of indie prodcos making series for private broadcasters, such as CTV’s Night Heat. In 1987, Quebec would get the prix Gémeaux for French-language TV, four years after the Academy’s Montreal office opened its doors.

Ira Levy, partner at Breakthrough Entertainment, was a Bijou winner for the documentary The Breakthrough, and scored a 1987 Gemini nom for kids TV special The Conserving Kingdom. His prodco adapted the latter’s central character for the series The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon and won the trophy 10 years later. He regards the nominations and awards as highly beneficial.

“It’s fundamental in terms of self-worth and recognition in the industry and outside,” Levy says. “That recognition was crucial in helping us move along that project with the character of Dudley from a one-off to a TV series that was on TVO, YTV and PBS. It’s not just a nice award you can put on your mantle. It’s something that actually carries a lot of weight in the industry.”

The private casters vs. CBC

Inevitably, the Geminis became a battlefield in the eternal rivalry between the private broadcasters and CBC. Many at the privates complained the CBC was winning an inordinate number of awards because so many of its employees were Academy voters and jurists. A boiling point was reached in 2006 when CTV News withdrew from applying for Geminis – ostensibly because the show did not adequately represent local news.

“We took a vote to see who wanted to continue supporting our news involvement in the Geminis,” CTV News president Robert Hurst told Playback at the time. “Of 15 people around the table, one person put up their hand. The rest of the people said, ‘They’re not legitimate. Let’s pull out.’”

Addressing such concerns, in 2012 the Academy announced changes to the Gemini voting system that granted more weight to member ballots and less to juries. Yet juries remain fundamental to the process.

Generally speaking, a film, TV or new media work is submitted for CSA consideration at a cost to the applicant from $100 to $4,000 for movies with budgets over $5 million. In each category, a peer jury of five watches all submissions and then meets to arrive at a shortlist of nominees.

Academy members then decide the winner – film members vote in film categories and TV and new media members vote in those categories. And in one of the Academy’s online upgrades, the voting now occurs online and offers streaming of nominated works.

“We have one of the most advanced and high-tech voting systems in any comparable industry and we’re really proud of that,” Katz says. “We’ve used that to ramp up the accuracy of the voting – in the sense that voters are getting a chance to see the [nominated work]. And we know whether voters watch them or not, how much they watch, and if they fast-forward.”

CTV News ended its boycott with the introduction of the CSAs. Yet if some Academy members – producers and Bell Media employees among them – continue to grumble about the use of juries, Stephenson insists they make their voices heard. “There’s a very open-door policy here, so if you have a gripe, you know you’re encouraged to bring it in. We’ve always said, ‘Don’t whisper in a corner – come on in,’” she says.

Financial crisis

This is part of the culture she and Katz have sought to instill. When they arrived, another area of turmoil surrounded budget.

“We had a much larger staff in the past, and it became clear it was not possible to maintain that size of staff in the economic environment,” Katz says. The Toronto office cut its number of employees to 11 from 24, while the Vancouver office was ultimately closed. The Quebec office was untouched.

This meant more responsibility fell to the board. But as the new regime eyed a sea change, it needed fresh people and ideas, and so the entire board stepped down. Jay Switzer – former CHUM Limited president and CEO, current executive chair of digital broadcaster Hollywood Suite and a founding member of the Academy’s TV division – was part of an advisory committee called upon during the transition.

“It was a crisis of confidence and a short-term financial crisis,” he recalls. “Telefilm Canada and others came to the rescue, and the [incoming and outgoing] boards were hugely positive. Everybody was of the agreement that things had to change for the better in terms of structure and organization. Over a few months we contributed ideas and helped, then stepped back – and what a great new story.”

The new 15-member board is Toronto-based and receives input from a National Advisory Council speaking for the rest of the country. “It’s a board focused on governance, fundraising and participating in the day-to-day activities of the Academy, so it made much more sense to have an active board that was Toronto-centric than a representative board,” Katz explains. The Academy in Quebec has a 14-member board chaired by Richard Speer that offers guidance to the Montreal office on les prix Gémeaux and other Quebec events.

It was a tense period in which the Academy and its board had to roll up their sleeves and get to work, but the changes have been positively received in the industry and beyond. Event-planning magazine BizBash named the CSAs the second-best entertainment industry event in Canada in 2013, behind only TIFF.

This year’s show airs on CBC Sunday, March 9 at 8 p.m. ET, with Short returning. As with last year, Canadian Screen Week will build momentum ahead of the event with Montreal and Toronto nominee receptions, two nights of non-televised awards galas, the Banff Industry Day of panels and networking, the In Studio onstage talent interviews, and a bigger Fanzone, where the Academy acts as selfie facilitators, allowing the public to get photos with homegrown film and TV stars at Toronto’s Eaton Centre.

A legacy of industry boosting and the launch of the CSAs are certainly causes for celebration, but they’re also stops on a path of growth.

“We want even more recognition for the Canadian Screen Awards,” Katz insists.

“We want to grow our membership and we’re on the road to doing that. We have relatively modest goals in the context of the massive change that we’ve worked already, which is to get Canadians focused on our star system and the great programming that comes from here.”