Evolving, adapting, inventing: The CFC at 30

The storied Canadian institution works to balance Norman Jewison's original vision with a mandate to equip alumni for a globalized, digital media economy.

norman jewison cfc archive - v3By Linda Barnard

Thirty years ago, cellular phones were dubbed “bricks” for a reason. Chunky and ungainly, they did only one thing – often unreliably. In the three decades since director Norman Jewison opened The Canadian Film Centre in 1988, the once-awkward cellphone is now a filmmaker’s nimble pocket-sized tool. The smartphone has become an industry-disrupting viewing device, streaming movies and television while allowing users to tumble into immersive worlds of VR.

The charitable organization has also grown in unforeseen ways, well beyond Jewison’s initial vision of establishing a Canadian centre to give filmmakers hands-on, advanced training. “It’s really grown beyond my dreams, from just an idea into a super organization and I really am very proud of it,” says Jewison, who is now 92.

CEO Slawko Klymkiw, who joined the CFC in 2005 after a long career with the CBC, calls what’s happened within the $12 million organization in recent years a “seismic shift.”

While film is still central to the CFC’s mission, it’s now focusing on new partnerships and expanded programs to ensure measurable alumni employment results, says Klymkiw. He says the centre is actively building out its existing partnerships with ABC Signature Studios, Netflix, AMC, A&E, NBCUniversal and Lionsgate.

He points out that 92% of CFC residents and alumni are working in screen-based and digital industries today. That figure stirs great pride in Jewison, who says he’s particularly proud of the wide range of sectors in which CFC grads have found work. More than 1,800 people can list CFC training on their resumés and among them are many of Canada’s most prolific and successful creators and entrepreneurs, along with dynamic emerging talent.

In the last year alone, CFC alumni Anita Doron, Anthony Leo and Andrew Rosen all headed to the Oscars with their 2017 nominated film The Breadwinner. Doron and Leo, plus fellow alum Ann Marie Fleming (Window Horses), were made voting members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year.

Getting what became the CFC off the ground wasn’t unlike beginning production on a film. There was location scouting, a push to find funding and a need to assemble a talented cast and crew. Of course, there was a talented director at the helm.

Jewison, who by 1986 had already been nominated for five Academy Awards, was inspired to create the film centre by the success of the American Film Institute. He wanted to bring that model of a government-supported, charitable organization to Canada to create a place for advanced film studies, where filmmakers would learn and excel at their craft. He reasoned that training was their best chance to find work in a challenging industry.

“I wanted desperately to create a national film centre in Canada,” Jewison says. He believed Canadian filmmakers deserved the same kind of career incubator and self-contained campus as the AFI offered, along with a chance to learn and capture “the screens of the world with their brilliance.”

He succeeded, finding the Windfields Estate in Toronto – the CFC’s current home – and asking filmmaker-producer Peter O’Brian (The Grey Fox, Outrageous!, My American Cousin) to lead it. He held the position for three years, before Wayne Clarkson took over in 1991. Clarkson led the centre until 2004, when he took the top job at Telefilm.

The Clarkson period was one of profound growth for the CFC, says chief programs officer Kathryn Emslie, who joined the centre in 1992. “I came in on a wave of change,” she says. Emslie’s been the force behind ongoing program evolution at the centre since her early days, ensuring expansion happens across platforms and disciplines. In 1992, under Clarkson and Emslie, the centre launched its CFC Features program, designed to develop and produce films with budgets in the $1 million range.

martin scorsese with the first year residents at the cfc

Martin Scorsese with the first year residents at the CFC

A few years later, in 1999 – well before showrunners attained the rock-star status they have now – the CFC launched what is now the Bell Prime Time TV Program, which gives emerging showrunners and writers the chance to develop a real project for a broadcaster. Since its launch, 55 series have been developed through the program, including critical and audience favourites like Orphan Black, Travelers and Mary Kills People. Alexandra Zarowny (Private Eyes) will lead this year’s program.

But it was Klymkiw, says Jewison, who “really built the Canadian Film Centre,” when he took the helm in 2005. Klymkiw has helped the CFC partner with international-facing organizations such as Bell Media, Tribeca Film Institute and NBCUniveral, among others.

“If I look at five or six years ago, if you look at the broadcast and production landscape, many of those players aren’t around anymore,” Klymkiw says. Producing in Canada now includes Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and NBCUniversal. “It’s a different world altogether. Our job is to anticipate that and react to it.”

While the CFC continues to build new partnerships, and add new programs like the CFC Media Lab (see sidebar), film will always have a special pride of place at the organization.

As head of CFC Features, Justine Whyte is a nurturing champion of young filmmakers, guiding them from shorts to their first feature. Part den mother, part boot camp instructor, she describes arriving at the film centre as a time that was both exciting and overwhelming.

Her enthusiasm is obvious when she talks about the people she’s worked with. She once knew the face and name of every alumni, back when there were about 125 of them, she says. Now that there are 1,800, it’s impossible.

She proudly lists films made on her watch including 2018′s 22 Chaser, penned by alumni Jeremy Boxen and produced by CFC grad Daniel Bekerman.

Josh Epstein’s and Kyle Rideout’s script for 2017′s Adventures in Public School landed on her desk in 2010. While she says she “loved that script and I loved that team,” Whyte pushed the duo to make another short to prove they were ready to take on a feature. The CFC gave them a place to expand their skills, and the project was ultimately selected for the Telefilm Canada Feature Comedy Exchange (which, since its inception in 2012, has resulted in 10 features, including Pat Mills’ Don’t Talk to Irene).

“Between Telefilm and the CFC (their careers) snowballed and these guys are now doing so well,” Whyte says. Public School was picked up for U.S. theatrical distribution, and the filmmakers also have another feature in the works as well as two TV series.

It is one anecdote of many like it.

Whyte also points to Damon D’Oliveira and Clement Virgo of Conquering Lion Pictures, who met at the CFC in 1991. Their first short Save My Lost Nigga Soul led to feature film Rude, which was produced with CFC Features, followed by Lie With Me and Poor Boy’s Game.

They’ve since successfully expanded into television with the six-part 2015 miniseries The Book of Negroes, with Virgo exec producing and directing such series as OWN’s ongoing Greenleaf.
“That was how Clement and I first connected, in 1991 in the inaugural summer lab,” D’Oliveira recalls. It was an impressive group, including filmmaker Mina Shum (Meditation Park) and Stephen Williams (TV series Lost). “The CFC was very instrumental in my career,” says Virgo, who came to the film centre as a 24-year-old who wanted a career in film, but was unsure how to make it happen. D’Oliveira was a former math major who had done some small films and had his first formal training in filmmaking at the CFC.

“It was a formalization of knowledge for me,” says D’Oliveira. “I think I owe it to the CFC for launching my career because of the opportunity we had with Rude.”

Their relationship with the centre is ongoing. Both teach there. And they’re grateful to Jewison, and not just for the lengthy sweetheart deal he gave them on the rent for Conquering Lion’s production office in his Yorkville building. “Norman has a history,” Virgo says. “If you look at his films [they] speak to his progressive views about modern cinema.”

As the CFC looks ahead to its future, aiding the growth of creatives like Virgo and D’Oliveira will remain its priority as well as fostering creative activities in areas such as VR, which can be harder to get off the ground in a purely private structure.

And Emslie says the CFC is focused on helping bring Canadian storytelling to the world. “We’re at a point where I think the opportunities that exist for us are developing talent within a global context,” she says.

To continue bringing stories to life, on whatever platform might exist 10 or 20 years from now, the CFC will need to win more charitable dollars and government funding in an increasingly competitive environment, while staying quick and adaptable to change, says Klymkiw. Part of that is reinforcing the idea that the CFC contributes indirectly to economic growth through skill-building, and the other part is being creative with its resources, including renting out its campus for shoots. Moreover, initiatives like the CFC/eOne TV adaptation lab, NBCU Canada Exchange and the Media Lab are keeping the centre relevant, he says.

Regardless of the challenges and changes ahead, the focus of the organization will be producing the best stories possible. After all, Jewison points out, it’s always been about the story.
“Storytelling has been going on for thousands of years and everybody likes a good story,” he says. “A good story will always grab you by the heart and stimulate you and inspire you, and so I have hopes that the film centre will continue to produce some great storytellers. And what else can I hope for?”

L to R: Charles Taylor and Norman Jewison talking about the opening of the CFC. Images courtesy of the CFC.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Playback