Should indie films get more TV support?

From Playback magazine: The call for more homegrown feature films on Canadian TV has re-surged after the release of reports this summer from CAFDE and the Senate.

The call for more homegrown feature films on Canadian TV has resurged after the release of reports this summer from the Canadian Association of Film Distributors & Exporters (CAFDE) and the Senate that call for stronger broadcaster support, particularly from the CBC.

TV represents more than just another screen for Canadian content in the digital age. As one of the brightest local stars at TIFF this year attests, a broadcast deal provides not only a critical budget boost to indie features, but also expands the production ecosystem.

Paul Gross, who wrote, directed and stars in the forthcoming Elevation Pictures release Hyena Road – set during Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan and produced by Rhombus Media, Triple 7 and Buffalo Gal Pictures – shot the film without a broadcaster pre-licence. Negotiations were underway this summer for a broadcast deal for the film, which world-premiere at TIFF on Sept. 14.

“For the films I’ve done, [broadcasters] have been critical to box office success,” says Gross, who last helmed Passchendaele. “Every few hundred thousand dollars makes a significant impact. It’s very expensive to properly put out films, and distributors need to mitigate P&A costs. Plus filmmakers want the TV audience – those who didn’t go to the cinema or those who would like to see their movie again.”

Gross, who has bounced between film and TV, sees benefits in a synergistic relationship. A robust feature film industry helps nurture talent and TV shows gain a higher profile from recognizable actors and directors with feature film credentials. “You need both elements to have a strong industry,” he says. His 2002 feature Men With Brooms, backed by CBC, was even adapted into a comedy series for the pubcaster.

In the CAFDE report “Re-visioning Feature Film Distribution: Public Policy for an Era of Digital Upheaval,” author Tom Perlmutter writes “the health of the Canadian film industry depends on the commitment of Canadian broadcasters.” But lately it’s been a tepid commitment, as conventional and specialty broadcasters have largely abandoned Canadian theatrical movies, despite the fact TV is where Canadians watch from 75% to upwards of 90% of the movies they see, according to Perlmutter’s report.

A small, random sample of the primetime and late-night schedules for networks CBC, CTV, Global and City for one week this past July would seem to support Perlmutter’s claim, albeit through a brief window.

With the Pan Am Games underway on CBC – which otherwise would have broadcast a Canadian film, as per its beyond-regulatory commitment to air 10 Canadian films this summer – only one Canadian film was on the conventional schedule: the 2007 Canada/U.K. copro Shattered (aka Butterfly on a Wheel) on CTV.

“It is illogical to pursue a public policy that invests as heavily as Canadian government does in production [$92.2 million through Telefilm Canada in 2013-14] and not ensure Canadians have as wide access as possible to those films,” writes Perlmutter. Television, he writes, “is highly regulated and should be the prime site for the programming of such films.”

His recommendation? “Benchmarks be set for expenditures on and the programming of Canadian films on Canadian conventional and pay television.” Perlmutter sees the public broadcaster having a particular responsibility. “CBC must have a commitment,” he tells Playback. “It should have a strategic policy in terms of Canadian film,” which, he adds, should be arrived at in consultation with distributors, producers and stakeholders.

His report was followed by another in July from the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications titled “Time for Change: The CBC/Radio-Canada in the Twenty-first Century” that recommends “CBC/Radio-Canada’s mandate be amended to include increases in the presentation of Canadian history and Canadian film.”

Little room on CBC sked
CBC’s conditions of licence stipulate that it must broadcast one Canadian feature film per month, and the pubcaster further committed to a weekly timeslot for Canadian movies for 10 weeks in the summer. This summer’s schedule included a dozen Canuck features, including Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (2010) and Michael McGowan’s Still Mine (2012). They aired mostly on Saturday nights with starting times ranging from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Sally Catto, GM programming, CBC Television, says that adding more films to the pubcaster’s schedule isn’t possible. Extending the weekly film presentation throughout the year is prohibited by the network’s Saturday-night NHL doubleheader, key weeknight series airing between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., and The National after that. “It’s certainly not from lack of interest. Philosophically we are really behind it,” she says.

Of course, many question whether CBC should be in the business of professional sports at all. Some of the Senate witnesses believe it should not, since Rogers and Bell Media widely cover pro sports. But while a Leafs game in primetime usually draws over one million viewers for CBC, Canadian movies on the network in recent years have struggled to attract 100,000, says Catto.

She insists CBC’s feature-film strategy is aligned with its overall programming strategy. For example, it licensed the forthcoming animated Ireland-Canada-Luxembourg copro feature The Breadwinner in line with its youth and family obligations and Undone, a drama about race riots at a Nova Scotia high school, for its multi-culturalism.

Operating in a dedicated, feature-film rich market – in which there are fewer pay TV options for feature film – CBC’s Quebec sister Radio-Canada programs on average more than 80 Canadian films per year, about 20 of which air in primetime. These include some English-Canadian titles dubbed in French. They can attract more than 500,000 viewers in primetime and 100,000-200,000 when airing around 11 p.m., keeping in mind the province’s population represents about 23% of all of Canada.

On the English side, CBC supports Canadian movies more through post-release acquisition than costlier pre-licensing. Between 2011 and 2014, the network licensed 33 feature films, including nine pre-licenses, and supported the industry with $6.2 million in cash and CMF dollars. Radio-Canada pre-licenses about 25 features per year, although a channel spokesperson couldn’t provide a total dollar amount. Although Radio-Canada has no CRTC requirements regarding feature films, the spokesperson says, “We consider our involvement in local filmmaking an integral part of our cultural mandate.”

It may be a much different market but Patrick Roy, CAFDE VP and president of distributor Les Films Seville, attributes broadcaster support for the success of Quebec cinema over the past 20 years. “Radio-Canada is playing a crucial role by investing in and buying movies,” Roy says. “At first they did it to support the industry and now they do it because [it's good business.]”

The challenge of private nets and Netflix
On the private broadcaster side, market leader Bell Media had no comment on the CAFDE report, but a spokesperson pointed to the company’s film commitment through its pay services. Last year, The Movie Network (TMN) (1.2 million subscribers in 2013 according to the CRTC) and The Movie Network Encore (1.4 million) aired more than 400 Canadian films, while Quebec’s Super Écran (629,000) and Cinépop (1.1 million) aired approximately 260.
TMN and Super Écran each secure about 60 titles annually through pre-buys and acquisitions. Bell Media also supports feature film via the Harold Greenberg Fund.

Obviously, there are more eyeballs to attract on private conventional and specialty channels. However, the CRTC is no longer regulating what kind of programs specialties must air, acknowledging the new world these channels face in new rivals and the arrival of pick-and-pay.

As such, Perlmutter calls for a task force of public and private stakeholders and foreign partners to explore solutions to the challenge of global digital streamers that buy multi-territory rights to films – bypassing Canadian distributors – yet operate outside regulation.

“You can either remove Cancon requirements from everyone – and we’d likely not have the kinds of Canadian production we have now – or regulate Netflix,” says Richard Rapkowski, CAFDE rep and SVP, business and legal affairs at Entertainment One. Netflix declined to comment for this story.

Perlmutter believes incentives can make films more attractive to broadcasters, especially if they aren’t forced to up their Cancon spending and are given programming flexibility.

“There could be a level of drama funding and a set amount dedicated to feature films, regardless of where they play – on conventional or specialty,” he says. “There are all sorts of ways of thinking about it positively.”

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