The History of the Canadian Film Industry
From its earliest days, filmmaking has been a powerful form of cultural and artistic expression, and a highly profitable commercial enterprise. From a practical standpoint, filmmaking is a business involving large sums of money and a complex division of labour engaged, roughly speaking, in three sectors: production, distribution and exhibition.
From its earliest days, filmmaking has been a powerful form of cultural and artistic expression, and a highly profitable commercial enterprise. From a practical standpoint, filmmaking is a business involving large sums of money and a complex division of labour engaged, roughly speaking, in three sectors: production, distribution and exhibition.
The history of the Canadian film industry has been one of sporadic achievement accomplished in isolation against great odds. Canadian cinema has existed within an environment where access to capital for production, to the marketplace for distribution and to theatres for exhibition has been extremely difficult. It has experienced a concurrent history of struggle against an entertainment monopoly (Hollywood) and a search for an audience that remains largely unaware of a domestic industry. The lack of domestic production throughout much of the industry’s history can only be understood against this economic backdrop, where the major distribution and exhibition outlets have been owned and controlled by foreign interests.
See also: The Cinema of Québec; Documentary Film; Canadian Film Animation; Experimental Film; Film Distribution; Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time; English Canadian Films: Why No One Sees Them; National Film Board of Canada; Telefilm Canada; Canadian Feature Films; Film Education; Film Festivals; Film Censorship; Film Cooperatives; Cinémathèque Québécoise; The Craft of Motion Picture Making.
Pioneering Years, 1896–1914
Although it is appropriate to speak of an American film industry dating back to 1903, with the introduction of narrative filmmaking (The Great Train Robbery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and the world’s first movie studio to rely entirely on artificial light (in New York City), it is almost impossible to speak of a Canadian film industry at the birth of cinema. The first public screening of a film in Canada took place on 28 June 1896, in Montréal. In July, Andrew and George Holland of Ottawa, who two years earlier had opened the world's first Kinetoscope parlour in New York City featuring Thomas Edison's latest invention, introduced Edison's Vitascope to the Canadian public in Ottawa's West End Park. Among the scenes shown was The Kiss, starring May Irwin, a Broadway actress from Whitby, ON. On 31 August the first screening in Toronto took place at Robinson's Musée on Yonge Street. The first screening in Vancouver was in December 1898.
The first Canadian films were produced in the fall of 1897, a year after the Montréal debut. They were made by James Freer, a Manitoba farmer, and depicted life on the Prairies. Some of his films were Arrival of CPR Express at Winnipeg, Pacific and Atlantic Mail Trains and Six Binders at Work in a Hundred Acre Wheatfield. In 1898, sponsored by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), Freer toured England with his “home movies,” collectively entitled Ten Years in Manitoba. They were so successful that the federal government sponsored a second tour by Freer in 1902.
That same year, the CPR hired a British company to bring together a group of filmmakers, known as the Bioscope Company of Canada, to produce Living Canada, a series of 35 scenes depicting Canadian life, designed to encourage British immigration to Canada. The series also included the first fictional drama made in Canada, the 15-minute-long Hiawatha, The Messiah of the Ojibway (1903). Also in 1903, Léo-Ernest Ouimet established Canada's first film exchange in Montréal. He opened the first theatre in Montréal in 1906, followed in 1907 by the largest (1,200 seats) luxury theatre in North America, also in Montréal.
The CPR continued to produce films promoting immigration into the 1930s.In 1910, it hired the Edison Company to produce 13 story films to dramatize the special virtues of settling in the West. These promotional films were characteristic of most Canadian production through 1912 — financed by Canadians but made by non-Canadians to sell Canada or Canadian products abroad. The few Canadians (such as Ouimet in Montréal, Henry Winter in Newfoundland and James Scott in Toronto) who initiated their own productions made only newsreels or travelogues. Meanwhile, American film companies were beginning to use Canada as the setting for story films that featured villainous French Canadian lumberjacks, Métis, gold prospectors and noble Mounties.
After 1912, film companies in several Canadian cities began producing fiction as well as factual films. In Halifax, the Canadian Bioscope Company made the first Canadian feature, Evangeline (1913), based on the Longfellow poem about the expulsion of the Acadians. It was a critical and financial success. The company made several other less successful films before folding in 1915. The British American Film Company of Montréal, one of several short-lived companies in that city, produced The Battle of the Long Sault (1913). In Toronto, the Conness Till Film Company made several comedy and adventure films from 1914–15, and in Windsor, ON, the All Red Feature Company produced The War Pigeon (1914), a drama about the War of 1812.
Early Government Censors and Film Boards
From the beginning, the regulation of film content, distribution and exhibition was a provincial matter, with each province setting its own standards and practices. In 1911, Ontario established the first Board of Censors in North America and Manitoba passed an act that delegated film censorship to the City of Winnipeg. British Columbia, Alberta and Québec established active censor boards in 1913, and Manitoba founded a proper provincial board in 1916. Ontario's board, considered to set the gold standard across North American jurisdictions, banned the excessive display of the American flag when the United States failed to join the war effort in Europe until 1917.
The Ontario Motion Picture Bureau (OMPB), the first state-sponsored film organization in the world, was founded in May 1917 to provide “educational work for farmers, school children, factory workers and other classes,” and to produce films that would advertise Ontario and promote infrastructure projects. The OMPB initially contracted all production to private companies in Toronto. But in 1923, it purchased the Trenton Studios (the first in Canada, operating in Trenton, Ontario, since 1917) and began making its own films.
At its peak in 1925, the OMPB distributed 1,500 reels of film per month, using 28mm, non-theatrical safety stock in order to avoid the fire hazard posed by 35mm nitrate stock. Its distribution system became outdated in the late 1920s when 16mm film stock replaced 28mm. After becoming inefficient and irrelevant, the OMPB was shut down in October 1934. However, it established a legacy of government involvement in Canadian filmmaking which would become a defining feature of the Canadian film industry.
The Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau, founded as the Exhibits and Publicity Bureau in 1918, was the first national film production unit in the world. Its purpose was to produce films that promoted Canadian trade and industry. As the minister of Trade and Commerce put it in 1924, the Bureau “was established for the purpose of advertising abroad Canada’s scenic attractions, agricultural resources and industrial development.”
The Bureau produced a series of theatrical short films called Seeing Canada, which it distributed theatrically in Canada and abroad. By 1920, the Bureau maintained the largest studio and post-production facility in Canada and distributed its films to numerous countries around the world. However, for all its successes in production and distribution, the Bureau never attempted to develop a domestic film production industry in Canada and in fact actively discouraged it, favouring instead a business model that saw Canada as a branch plant of the American industry (see Staple Thesis). Bernard E. Norrish, the Bureau’s first director, stated that Canada “had no more use for a large moving picture studio than Hollywood had for a pulp mill.”
The Bureau focused on travelogues and industrial films through the 1920s and 1930s, with sporadic attempts at more meaningful projects, such as Lest We Forget (1935) and The Royal Visit (1939). The Bureau didn’t convert to sound films until 1934, and was effectively replaced in 1939 by the creation of the National Film Board (NFB), which officially absorbed the Bureau in 1941.
Expansion and Production, 1917–1923
The growth of Canadian nationalism around the First World War promoted a brief flurry in Canadian production and other aspects of the film industry. The first widely released Canadian newsreels appeared, and feature film production expanded, as did the Canadian-owned Allen Theatres chain and associated distribution companies. The motion picture bureaus established by the Ontario government in 1917, and the federal government in 1918, also contributed to the boom in activity.
This optimistic period of expansion was led by a number of enterprising producers: George Brownridge, principal promoter of Canada's first film studio, Adanac Films (opened in Trenton, ON, in 1917) and producer of three features including the anti-Communist The Great Shadow (1919); Léo-Ernest Ouimet, a producer, exhibitor and distributor who established the country's first film exchange in 1903 and opened Canada's first luxury theatre in Montréal in 1907; Blaine Irish, head of Filmcraft Industries, producer of the feature Satan's Paradise (1922) and of two successful theatrical short film series; Bernard Norrish, first head of the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau and later head of Associated Screen News; Charles and Len Roos, producers, directors and cameramen of many films, including the feature Self Defence (1916); and A.D. "Cowboy" Kean, an early cameraman and producer.
The most successful producer was Ernest Shipman, who had already established his reputation as a promoter in the US when he returned to Canada in 1919 with his author/actress wife, Nell Shipman, to produce Back to God’s Country (1919) in Calgary. This romantic adventure about an embattled heroine triumphing over villainy was released worldwide and returned a 300% profit to its Calgary backers, due in no small part to Nell’s groundbreaking nude appearance in the movie.
During the next three years, Shipman established companies in several Canadian cities and made a number of features based on Canadian novels, all of which were filmed not in studios, as was the common practice of the time, but on location. Although these films — including God's Crucible (1920), Cameron of the Royal Mounted (1921), The Man from Glengarry (1922) and The Rapids (1922) — were not as profitable as his first, they were not failures. Only his last film — Blue Water (1923), featuring future Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) leading lady Norma Shearer, and made in New Brunswick — was a disaster. Shipman left Canada in 1923 and died in 1931 in relative obscurity.
Shipman’s departure also marked the end of the minor boom in Canadian production. In 1923, only two feature films were in production in Canada, compared to nine in 1922. Even the production of short films showed a sharp decline. However, the number of Hollywood films with Canadian plots increased markedly.
Through the rest of the 1920s, production in Canada was mainly restricted to inserts for American newsreels, sponsored short films, and documentaries produced by the government motion picture bureaus and a handful of private companies. There was one brief resurgence in 1927 when private investors contributed $500,000 to produce Carry on Sergeant!, a silent drama about Canadians in the First World War, written and directed by British author and cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather. Though well received by critics, it came at the dawn of the sound era and died within weeks of its release.
The CMPDA and Famous Players, 1922 Takeover
Theatre ownership was traditionally the most lucrative sector of the film industry, with the theatre owner typically taking 50 per cent of every ticket sold. Because of the high cost of film production, widespread distribution is vital to a film's commercial success. In the 1920s, the major Hollywood studios (Paramount, RKO, 20th Century Fox, MGM and Warner Bros.) adopted a vertically-integrated model of ownership, combining production and distribution under one umbrella. The majors then aligned themselves with the large national theatre chains in order to guarantee an outlet for their product, in some cases purchasing theatre chains outright.
In 1922, the Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association (CMPDA) was formed. Although Canadian in name, the association consisted of the Canadian offices of the major American distribution companies and was, in essence, a branch of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America. For the purposes of calculating domestic gross revenue, American distributors began including Canada in their bottom line.
In 1923, American-born N.L. Nathanson, owner of the Toronto-based Famous Players Canadian Corporation (FPCC), a company owned by Adolf Zukor's Paramount Pictures, bought all 53 of the Canadian-owned Allen Theatres, making Famous Players the largest theatre owner in Canada and giving it control of the Canadian exhibition market. Then Zukor, through his holding company, acquired direct control of Famous Players.
In 1930, under the Federal Combines Investigation Act, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett appointed Peter White to investigate more than 100 complaints against American film interests operating in Canada. White's report concluded that Famous Players was a combine “detrimental to the Public Interest.” The provinces of Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC took FPCC and the American distribution cartel represented by the CMPDA to court in Ontario. After a lengthy trial, FPCC and other defendants were found not guilty on three counts of “conspiracy and combination.”
A decision against the US cartel would have been a historic turning point for the future of filmmaking in Canada. Apart from the work of Associated Screen News and government production (which also suffered funding cutbacks during the Depression), by the 1930s the Canadian film industry had become virtually a branch plant of Hollywood.
European film industries also faced the threat of Hollywood domination in the 1920s, but most governments moved quickly to protect their domestic industries by controlling ownership of exhibition and distribution companies, or by stimulating national production. Canada took no comparable action.
One such action was taken by the UK. It passed the Cinematographic Films Act of 1927, which came into effect in 1928. The law stipulated that 15 per cent of films shown in Britain had to be of British or Commonwealth origin. From 1928 to 1937, a total of 22 low-budget feature films — commonly referred to as “quota quickies” — were produced in Canada by Canadian-based, American-financed companies in order to take advantage of the quota.
When the legislation was introduced, production companies sprang up in Calgary, Montréal and Toronto, but the most active producer of quota quickies was Kenneth Bishop of Victoria, BC. He produced two films (1932–34) through his Commonwealth Productions and another 12 films in three years (1935–37) through his second company, Central Films. All of the films, only some of which were set in Canada, were essentially generic Hollywood B-movies. Bishop had all the post-production and editing done in Hollywood so that his financiers, Columbia Pictures, could approve the final product.
When the quota law was renewed by the British government in 1938, it was amended to remove the inclusion of Commonwealth films, mainly due to the manner in which Canada had allowed the law to be subverted. There were attempts in Ontario, Québec and Alberta to introduce provincial quotas for British films, but none of these bills became law.
In his book One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema, George Melnyk argued that the quota quickies “played their own historical role in marking Canada’s transition from its British colonial past to its new imperial master, the United States.” As Lewis Selznick, one of Hollywood's pioneering producers, once remarked, “If Canadian stories are worth making into films, American companies will be sent into Canada to make them.”
Years of Inaction
The only memorable feature of this period was The Viking (1931), a dramatic depiction of the hazardous life of Newfoundland’s seal hunters, produced in Newfoundland in 1930 to 1931 by the American adventurer Varick Frissell. Though technically not a Canadian production, it is a key example of what was to become a characteristic Canadian genre: documentary dramas and films blending fiction and nonfiction, often rich in a sense of place, which explore the relationship between people and their environment. This approach emerged early in Canadian film and distinguished many later Canadian features.
In the 1930s, however, this docudrama approach was scarcely evident. The commercial industry had died, the Ontario Motion Picture Bureau had been closed down by the provincial Liberals, and the studio at Trenton was closed. Even the Government Motion Picture Bureau had lapsed into sterility. Only in the work of a few individuals (especially Bill Oliver in Alberta, and Albert Tessier and Maurice Proulx in Québec) and at Associated Screen News (founded in Montréal in 1920 and active until 1958) was there any continuing sense of creative vitality. Though ASN's mainstay was newsreels and sponsored films, it did produce two widely released short-film series: Kinograms in the 1920s; and the Canadian Cameo series from 1932 to 1953. Supervised and usually directed by Gordon Sparling, these films showed flair and imagination, and were almost the only film representation of Canada either at home or abroad.
Only one English Canadian feature film was made in the 1940s — Bush Pilot (1946), an imitation of Hollywood’s Captains of the Clouds (1942). A print of the film was restored by the National Archives (now Library and Archives Canada) and TMN television network.
The National Film Board of Canada
One of the most significant events in Canadian film history was the establishment of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). In 1938, the federal government commissioned Scottish filmmaker John Grierson — who had coined the term “documentary,” and had been head of the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office in Britain — to study the state of film production in Canada. He wrote a report that year that led to the creation of the NFB in May 1939, and was named the Board’s first film commissioner in October 1939.
The NFB was originally designed as an advisory board to coordinate the production of films, but the demands of the Second World War led to a shift towards active production, which involved absorbing the Government Motion Picture Bureau in 1941. By 1945, the NFB had grown into one of the world's largest film studios with a staff of nearly 800 people based in Ottawa. More than 500 films had been released — including the propaganda series Canada Carries On (1940–59) and The World in Action (1942–45), which were shown monthly in Canadian and foreign theatres — an animation unit had been set up under the supervision of Scottish-born animator Norman McLaren, non-theatrical distribution circuits were established and many young Canadian filmmakers were being trained.
The NFB became a leading producer of world-class documentaries, animation and experimental films, and its productions have won more than 5,000 international awards, including a dozen Academy Awards. But its creation did little to solve the problem posed by the dominance of foreign films.
Canadian Cooperation Project
By 1947 there were two large theatre chains in Canada: Famous Players and Odeon Theatres. N.L. Nathanson, the founder of Famous Players, left the company to form the rival Odeon chain with his son, Paul. The two chains controlled roughly two-thirds of the theatrical market. Odeon was later sold to the Rank Organization of England, Britain's largest vertically-integrated film company, making both major exhibition chains foreign-owned. This arrangement had two main consequences for the Canadian industry: first, Canadian-produced films were virtually frozen out of their own market; and second, most of the theatrical revenue, approximately $17–20 million annually, went to the US.
After the Second World War, Canada, like many countries, experienced a balance of payments problem with the US. As a result, in 1947, the federal government restricted imports on a large number of goods. Money made on films was discussed, and there was talk that some kind of quota system could be conceived to force Hollywood to invest part of its box-office profits in Canada. In February that year, Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) leader M.J. Coldwell proposed in the House of Commons that the federal government impose a protective tariff on Hollywood films exhibited in Canada. Later that year, Liberal Finance Minister Douglas Abbott met with Famous Players and the CMPDA, and asked them to voluntarily invest some of their box-office profits from the Canadian exhibition market in Canadian production facilities.
Instead, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Eric Johnston, intervened and proposed what became known as the Canadian Cooperation Project, which was approved by the Liberal government of Louis St-Laurent in 1948. The Hollywood film lobby agreed to shoot some of their films on location in Canada, include favourable references to Canada in Hollywood movies in order to promote tourism, and encourage the distribution and exhibition of NFB films in the US, all in exchange for the uninterrupted flow of dollars out of Canada.
The nationalistic lobbying on behalf of Canadians was successfully defeated. Famous Players' profits were not restricted, the idea of an exhibition quota for Canadian-produced films was dropped and a multi-million-dollar film studio under development in Vancouver was shuttered. The NFB, which had lobbied for fiscal restrictions on Hollywood money, was also thwarted, and distribution of NFB films in the US did not increase. Several Hollywood films — such as Canadian Pacific (1949), Saskatchewan (1954) and generic B-movies like Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders (1953) — were shot and/or set in Canada. American tourism into Canada actually decreased during the first four years of the project and only increased by 15 per cent from 1948 to 1958, compared to a 130 per cent increase from all other countries.
By 1957, the balance of payments problem was no longer an issue and the protective tariff no longer a threat. The project was quietly terminated in 1958. After St-Laurent retired from politics, he became a member on the board of directors of Famous Players Canadian Corporation.
Private Production Begins, 1947–67
The Canadian Cooperation Project helps to explain why, during the 1940s and 1950s, there was virtually no feature film production in Canada outside of Québec (see The Cinema of Québec). However, thanks to the economic boom in Canada following the Second World War, a number of small, independent producers began to establish themselves, making primarily industrial films and shorts. In 1941, Nat Taylor founded the trade magazine Canadian Film Weekly, and in recognition of the nascent private film sector, the Canadian Film Awards were established in 1949. (The Canadian Film Awards would become the Genie Awards in 1980 and the Canadian Screen Awards in 2012.) The inaugural presentation was held in Ottawa, and Crawley Films of Ottawa won the first Film of the Year Award for the short film, The Loon's Necklace (1949).
In a gesture to the industry in 1954, a 50 per cent capital cost allowance (CCA) was introduced by the federal government to encourage private investment in Canadian film companies. About a half-dozen English feature films were made in the late 1950s. Sir Tyrone Guthrie, who was instrumental in establishing the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, directed a production of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (1956) starring Douglas Campbell, William Hutt and Douglas Rain. A young CBC writer, Sidney Furie, directed two low-budget films of considerable promise that dealt with young people rebelling against society. Both A Dangerous Age (1957) and A Cool Sound from Hell (1959) attracted international critical attention, especially in Britain. However, the neglect the films suffered in Canada persuaded Furie to emigrate to Britain in 1960, where he told the British press, “I wanted to start a Canadian film industry, but nobody cared.”
Furie was typical of the emigration of English-speaking filmmaking talent from Canada at this time, an impressive list that includes directors Norman Jewison, Arthur Hiller and Ted Kotcheff — all of whom left to pursue their careers in England or Hollywood.
Although, the development of feature filmmaking in Canada was still sputtering, pioneering work was being done at the NFB. By the late 1950s, Norman McLaren had won eight Canadian Film Awards, two major prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival, an Academy Award for his short film Neighbours (1952) and an Oscar nomination for A Chairy Tale (1957). The Board’s Unit B was putting out work of consistent quality and the Candid Eye series was producing groundbreaking direct cinema films.
In the realm of features, the 1960s started in much the same way as the previous decade had ended, with middling productions occasionally appearing, one of which — The Mask (1961; a.k.a. The Eyes of Hell), the first Canadian film picked up for US distribution — employed the fashionable 3-D process. However, times were about to change and a new optimism was apparent. Ottawa filmmaker and producer F.R. “Budge” Crawley turned his limitless energies towards features and produced René Bonnière’s Amanita Pestilens in 1963. This film was the first screen appearance of French Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold, the first Canadian feature filmed in colour and the first to be shot simultaneously in English and French. However, it was never released theatrically in Canada. The following year Crawley had a modest hit with Irvin Kershner’s The Luck of Ginger Coffey, the gritty story of an immigrant writer (played by Robert Shaw) making his way in Montréal.
The NFB, although primarily focused on documentary films, short subjects and animation, produced two English-language features in the early 1960s that were a harbinger of things to come. Drylanders (1963) turned to history for its subject matter and Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964), directed by Don Owen, explored the ennui of two suburban teenagers. Shot in the suburbs and streets of downtown Toronto, the film was financed by the NFB as a short docudrama but was clandestinely expanded into an improvised feature. Panned by Canadian critics upon its initial release, it gained new life when it became a critical darling at the New York Film Festival.
The late 1950s and early 1960s also saw the rise of cinema in Québec. Emboldened by the creation of a French production branch at the NFB and the relocation of the Board from Ottawa to Montréal, the boom in television production in Québec and technological innovations being made to production equipment, filmmakers such as Pierre Perrault, Gilles Carle, Claude Jutra, Michel Brault, Gilles Groulx, and Denys Arcand produced works of tremendous importance to the Quiet Revolution and the development of direct cinema. Feature films also began to emerge, namely Groulx’s Le Chat dans le sac (1964) and Carle’s La Vie heureuse de Léopold Z. (1965), that were heralded as the first fiction films to truly speak to the Québécois experience. (See also: The Cinema of Québec.)
Production throughout Canada also began to flourish in other ways. The aesthetic advances made by the French “New Wave” led to a more “personalist” cinema, and the development of cheap, mobile 16mm cameras allowed more access to a medium that had hitherto been the preserve of a few. A number of low-budget features were produced across the country, mainly on university campuses. The Bitter Ash (1963), the first film made by Larry Kent while he was studying theatre at the University of British Columbia, created the most controversy. The sex scenes in the film turned it into an overnight sensation. Kent went on to direct two more features on the West Coast before moving to Montréal.
Many other student features were made, some by directors who continued to work in the industry, such as David Secter (Winter Kept Us Warm, 1965), John Hosfess (The Columbus of Sex, 1969) and Jack Darcus (Great Coups of History, 1968). An important figure during this period was David Cronenberg, who made two experimental, futuristic short films — Transfer (1966) and From the Drain (1967) — as a student at the University of Toronto in the late 1960s and helped found the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre before turning his talents to commercial production.
The Canadian Film Development Corporation, 1967
With a viable, emerging industry beginning to produce critically acclaimed films, and with English and French filmmakers looking to government to protect their fledgling interests, in 1967 the federal government took a significant step towards investing in a domestic industry by creating the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC, now Telefilm Canada), funded with $10 million to develop a feature film industry that would last. However, the CFDC only concerned itself with production, and did not attempt to break the stranglehold American interests had over Canadian commercial distribution or exhibition.
At first, the CFDC gave money to some of the student filmmakers. Many of the subsequent films were artistic and commercial failures. A few attempts to imitate American models of filmmaking were supported, but with a similar lack of success. However, three films indicated more successful future directions. Television director Paul Almond, without CFDC money, directed Isabel (1968), a story set in the Gaspé starring his then-wife Geneviève Bujold. After several well-received documentaries, Toronto filmmaker Don Shebib directed the landmark docudrama Goin’ Down the Road (1970), an artistic and commercial success that received national and international distribution, and attracted large audiences. After honing his craft on numerous NFB documentaries and the groundbreaking À tout prendre,Claude Jutra directed the acclaimed Mon oncle Antoine (1971), still regarded by many as the greatest Canadian film ever made.
These films were unmistakably Canadian, using regional landscapes and characters with sensitivity. They were followed by a number of richly observed films, such as Almond’s Act of the Heart (1970), Clarke Mackay’s The Only Thing You Know (1971), William Fruet's Wedding in White (1972), Peter Carter’s The Rowdyman (1972), Peter Pearson’s Paperback Hero (1973), Paul Lynch’s The Hard Part Begins (1973) and Frank Vitale’s Montreal Main (1973). The first fiction feature made by a woman, Sylvia Spring’s Madeleine Is ... (1971), was made on the West Coast during this vibrant period.
All of these films were made on modest budgets and only a few enjoyed modest commercial success. The CFDC was pressured to raise the visibility of the material it was funding, either by legislating the marketplace in order to guarantee the distribution and exhibition of Canadian films, or by employing foreign talent in conjunction with Canadians. The Ontario Ministry of Industry and Tourism appointed producer John Bassett to head a task force to study the Canadian film industry. The conclusion of the Bassett Report was that “a basic film industry exists. It’s the audiences that need to be nurtured through theatrical exposure. The optimum method of accomplishing this is to establish a quota system for theatres.” In 1973, a group calling itself the Council of Canadian Filmmakers petitioned the Ontario government, urging it to follow the recommendation of the Bassett Report.
Instead, in 1975, Secretary of State Hugh Faulkner negotiated a voluntary quota agreement with both Famous Players and Odeon Theatres: the chains were to guarantee a minimum of four weeks per theatre per year to Canadian films, and invest a minimum of $1.7 million in their production. Compliance with the quota was lukewarm at best, and within two years any semblance of it had evaporated.
(For a discussion on Québec films of this period, see The Cinema of Québec.)
The Tax-Shelter Era, 1974–82
Although the federal government proved reluctant to exert any control over the distribution and exhibition of films in Canada, it did act decisively to provide financial incentives for investment in domestic film production through tax benefits. In 1974, it increased the Capital Cost Allowance from 60 to 100 per cent, creating a tax shelter that allowed investors to deduct from their taxable income 100 per cent of their investment in feature films that were certified as Canadian. This resulted in a massive increase in investment in Canadian production and marked the beginning of what became known as the “tax-shelter era.”
For a film to qualify as Canadian, it had to be at least 75 minutes long, have at least one producer and two-thirds of the “above the line” creative team who were Canadian, and perform at least 75 per cent of the production and post-production services in Canada. The adjustment in the CCA was, in large part, a reaction to the commercial failure of most of the films produced through the CFDC since its inception in 1967. The approach echoed the conclusion of the Tompkins Report, issued by the secretary of state in 1976, which argued that, since the American control of the theatrical marketplace in Canada made it virtually impossible for Canadian films to turn a profit at the domestic box office, the Canadian film industry should focus instead on producing commercial products for export.
A new aggressiveness took hold within the industry and within government agencies responsible for film. Priorities shifted from the low-budget, cultural film to higher-budget, commercial projects. This policy shift — and the funding of feature films with public money in general — came under further scrutiny after the critic Robert Fulford (writing under the name Marshall Delaney) wrote a scathing review of David Croneberg’s CFDC-funded horror film Shivers in the September 1975 edition of Saturday Night magazine. The review, titled “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is. After All, You Paid For It,” called the film “an atrocity, a disgrace to everyone connected with it — including the taxpayers… If using public money to produce films like this is the only way that English Canada can have a film industry, then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry.” A furious debate was sparked in the House of Commons over the use of tax-payer dollars to fund films.
Ironically, the beginning of this period was marked by the success of two films of high quality with solid cultural pedigrees that went on to become commercial hits, both receiving Oscar nominations for their screenplays: Ted Kotcheff’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), starring Richard Dreyfuss and based on Mordecai Richler’s novel; and Ján Kadár's Lies My Father Told Me (1975), based on a script by Ted Allen. But these films proved to be the exception during this period and not the rule.
In 1978, a shift in management was made at the CFDC to reflect the new, more commercial orientation. NFB veteran Michael Spencer, who had been in charge since 1968, was replaced by Michael McCabe, a politically-connected money manager with little film experience. The emphasis was placed on film as an industry, not as an art form. Producers, not directors, were given priority, and the CFDC acted like a bank, providing “bridge financing” to producers with a track record and “bankable” projects. The making of deals that benefitted producers and lawyers took priority over the making of films. Production budgets became inflated by salaries paid to second-rate Hollywood stars, who were meant to make the films more commercial, and to lawyers and accountants, who were needed to navigate the intricacies of the CCA.
Most of the international co-productions and trite commercial vehicles that littered the second half of the 1970s — such as City on Fire (1979) with Henry Fonda and Ava Gardner, Running (1979) with Michael Douglas, and Nothing Personal (1980) with Donald Sutherland and Suzanne Somers — provided one box office and artistic embarrassment after another.
Some benefits did emerge from the tax shelter era. In the same way that the British quota of the 1930s initially resulted in low-quality films but ultimately laid the groundwork for necessary infrastructure and nurtured the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Alexander Korda, so too did the tax shelter productions provide valuable experience to a growing industry of craftspeople and a number of prominent producers, including Harold Greenberg, Garth Drabinsky, Peter O’Brian, Robert Cooper, John Kemeny and Robert Lantos, who emerged as Canada’s leading movie mogul through his companies Vivafilm and Alliance Communications. Although David Cronenberg has recognized the tax shelter scheme as a failure, he has also credited his tax-shelter films — Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), Fast Company (1979), The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981) — with launching his career.
A number of tax-shelter films, though not identifiably Canadian in any cultural sense, did very well at the box office: the queer cinema classic Outrageous! (1977); Daryl Duke’s critically- acclaimed The Silent Partner (1978), starring Elliot Gould and Christopher Plummer; Ivan Reitman’s Meatballs (1979) with Bill Murray; Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree (1979) with Plummer, Donald Sutherland and Geneviève Bujold; Paul Lynch’s Prom Night (1980) with Jamie Lee Curtis; Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980) with George C. Scott; Louis Malle’s Oscar-nominated Atlantic City (1980) with Burt Lancaster; Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire (1982); and perhaps most notoriously, Clark’s Porky’s (1981), which stood for decades as the top-grossing Canadian film of all time.
Though the majority of Canadian films in the late 1970s and early 1980s suffered from identity crises, a few worthy films emerged from this period. Silvio Narizzano’s Why Shoot the Teacher (1977) and Allan King’s Who Has Seen the Wind (1977), both of which were adapted from Canadian novels, retained their integrity and did well at the box office. Several other films managed to project a distinctly Canadian sensibility. Gilles Carle’s Les Plouffe (1981), originally produced as a CBC TV miniseries and released theatrically in a shortened version, was very well-received. Francis Mankiewicz’s Les bons débarras (1980) and Phillip Borsos’s impressive debut feature The Grey Fox (1982) are widely considered among the best Canadian films ever made. The Grey Fox, in particular, proved to be a key film, restoring pride to the industry and again giving Canadians the sense that they could produce distinct films of high quality.
The tax shelter incentive did result in a boom in Canadian film production. In 1974, there were three feature films produced in Canada. In 1979, the peak of the tax shelter era, more feature films were produced in Canada (77, compared to 99 in Hollywood) than in any year previously, with an average budget of $2.5 million. However, many of the films did not receive distribution, and many that did were derivative efforts, practically indistinguishable from poorly made American films. As one perceptive critic put it, the tax shelter scheme “was like trying to compete with Ford Motors by building a car in the basement.” In 1982, the CCA was reduced to 50 percent and the era came to a close.
The Québec Cinema Act, 1983
The tax shelter had a very different impact on the film industry in Québec, where the limited market for French-language films provided investors with no incentive to invest in them. As Manjunath Pendakur has explained, “In 1978 and 1979, two-thirds of the films made in Québec were produced without benefit of the tax shelter. Film directors who in the 1960s helped put Canada on the world map — such as Claude Jutra, Gilles Carle, Michel Brault, Denys Arcand — were unable to get financing to make any French-language films.” Only three per cent of feature films produced in Canada from 1978 to 1981 were in French.
In 1981, the Parti Québécois came to power under René Lévesque. With the preservation of Québécois culture, particularly through preserving the French language, a key part of its mandate, the government commissioned a study of the film industry in Québec — Le cinéma: une question de survie et d’excellence — which led to legislation in the form of Bill 109, introduced in December 1982. Bill 109 was a bombshell with regards to distribution. In addition to creating several new regulatory bodies, the bill required distribution companies in Québec to be at least 80 per cent Canadian-owned, and distributors and exhibitors to contribute a percentage of their profits to a production fund.
The bill was unanimously adopted in June 1983, but the ratification process was protested and delayed at every opportunity by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its president, Jack Valenti. The provincial Liberal Party came to power in December 1985, and in October 1986 Minister of Cultural Affairs Lise Bacon signed an agreement with the MPAA that actually strengthened the Hollywood majors’ position and legalized their presence in the province.
The Film Products Importation Bill, 1988
A similar situation transpired at the federal level a year later. In 1987, the federal government under Brian Mulroney attempted to address the long-standing problems faced by Canadian distribution companies. Minister of Communications Flora MacDonald introduced the Film Products Importation Bill, which, if passed into law, would have allowed the Hollywood majors to distribute in Canada any films for which they owned world rights or in whose production they had participated, while giving Canadian companies the right to distribute all other movies.
The proposal generated intense lobbying in both Ottawa and Washington, and encountered stiff opposition from MPAA President Valenti, who enlisted US President Ronald Regan to speak out against the bill. When the Film Products Importation Act was tabled in May 1988, the original proposals had been considerably weakened and, during the free trade negotiations that followed, the federal government agreed to abandon even those.
CFDC Becomes Telefilm Canada
In the early 1980s, the film industry in Canada was on shaky ground, almost wholly dependent upon government financing and unable to secure screen time in Canadian theatres. Francis Fox, the Liberal federal minister of communications, issued the National Film and Video Policy in 1984, and the CFDC was transformed into Telefilm Canada with a $35-million Broadcast Program Development Fund to reflect its new dual orientation: funding television programs as well as theatrical feature films.
Further initiatives were taken to assist in the marketing and promotion of English Canadian feature films, an area always perceived as the industry’s Achilles heel. Amid the monumental missed opportunities of the failed Québec Cinema Act and the Film Products Importation Bill, Telefilm created the Feature Film Fund in 1986. In 1998, the organization increased the Broadcast Fund to $60 million and created the Feature Film Distribution Fund, which introduced lines of credit for Canadian companies to draw from in order to distribute films internationally.
Film Cooperatives, Funding Agencies and the Growth of Regional Cinema
Beginning in the early 1970s, regional film cooperatives — such as the Toronto Filmmakers Co-op (1971–79), the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative in Halifax (1974–) and the Winnipeg Film Group (1974–) — began to train young filmmakers who remained committed to the concept of a cultural cinema. From the early 1980s to the late 1990s, a generation of talented independent filmmakers began to emerge, further aided by the introduction in the mid-1980s of provincial funding agencies.
In 1986, the Ontario Film Development Corporation (OFDC) opened its doors and had an immediate success with Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), which won the Prix de la Jeunesse at the Cannes Film Festival and became an international critical darling. The OFDC, which refuted the export product model of the tax shelter era in favour of supporting emerging writer-directors with distinctive personal visions, acted as a model for other provincial agencies that followed its lead. A newfound confidence led to a wealth of low-budget independent production from across the country. This in itself was a significant development; previously, production had largely been limited to the metropolitan centres of Montréal and Toronto, with a few notable exceptions. Now, production emerged from every region.
Sandy Wilson had a hit in New York with My American Cousin (1985), a charming coming-of-age story set in BC’s Okanagan Valley in the 1950s, and followed this with its less successful sequel, American Boyfriends (1989). Her features, following hard on the heels of The Grey Fox, did much to inject new energy into the domestic Vancouver filmmaking scene. Patricia Gruben, an experimental filmmaker of considerable originality, found success with three idiosyncratic features: Low Visibility (1984), Deep Sleep (1990) and Ley Lines (1993).
Other prominent women filmmakers emerged with their own distinctive visions. Mina Shum's delightful Double Happiness (1994) captured the dilemma of a young Chinese-Canadian woman, played by Sandra Oh, trying to escape the traditions of her rapacious family, while talented newcomer Lynne Stopkewich managed a highly successful adaptation of a Barbara Gowdy short story with her debut feature, Kissed (1996), a dark romance that focusses on the love life of a young necrophiliac, played by Molly Parker.
Also in Vancouver, John Pozer made a highly original debut feature, the offbeat The Grocer's Wife (1991), followed by The Michelle Apartments (1995). Since the mid-1990s, Vancouver's Bruce Sweeney established himself with an impressive body of work dealing with contemporary male-female relationships, including Live Bait (1995), Dirty (1998) and Last Wedding (2001). And Carl Bessai directed an average of a film a year through the 2000s, including the family-dynamics trilogy Mothers & Daughters (2008), Fathers & Sons (2010) and Sisters & Brothers (2011).
The Prairies were also witness to a number of highly engaging films. Most prominently, Anne Wheeler debuted with her powerful family drama, Loyalties (1986), and followed this with Bye Bye Blues (1989), her whimsically sentimental tale about a young woman singer making her way during the Second World War. In the 1990s, Gary Burns emerged from the Calgary film scene with a trio of edgy suburban comedies: The Suburbanators (1996), Kitchen Party (1998) and waydowntown (2000).
Perhaps the most original production emanated from Winnipeg Film Group alumni, who after getting their feet wet in short films, graduated into the longer form. John Paizs led the way with the critically-praised but seldom seen Crime Wave (1985). But it was Guy Maddin who created an international reputation with his highly individualistic style, combining silent movie conventions, ironic humour and a postmodern taste for the incongruous. Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), Archangel (1990), the brilliant Careful (1992), Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), the short film The Heart of the World (2000), The Saddest Music in the World (2004), My Winnipeg (2007) and Keyhole (2011) constitute a remarkably coherent body of work that has earned Maddin an international cult following.
From the East Coast the most singular vision belongs to William D. MacGillivray, who consistently draws on his Nova Scotia roots and explores the relationship between art and life. His first drama, the hour-long Aerial View (1979), was a prelude to the more ambitious studies undertaken in the feature films Stations (1983), Life Classes (1987), Vacant Lot (1989) and Understanding Bliss (1990), and the documentaries I Will Make No More Boring Art (1988), For Generations to Come (1994), Reading Alistair MacLeod (2005) and The Man of a Thousand Songs (2010), about folk singer Ron Hynes. Mike Jones, based in St. John’s, drew on a comic tradition of local humour in The Adventures of Faustus Bidgood (1986) and Secret Nation (1992). Another filmmaker of note in the region is Paul Donovan, who carved out a successful career by making a number of more commercially-oriented comedies such as Buried on Sunday (1993) and Paint Cans (1994).
Québec cinema emerged from the doldrums of the late 1970s and early 1980s with Carle’s Maria Chapdelaine (1983). Denys Arcand rocketed to international attention with the acclaimed The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Jésus de Montréal (1989), both of which earned Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. Other old guard directors who created notable work during this period include Jacques Leduc (Trois pommes à côté du sommeil, 1988; La vie fantôme, 1992), André Forcier (Kalamazoo, 1988; Une histoire inventée, 1990; Le vent du Wyoming, 1994) and Anne Claire Poirier (Tu as crié/Let Me Go, 1997). Veteran theatre directorRobert Lepage also made a well-received transition into cinema with Le Confessionnal (1995), Le Polygraphe (1996), Nô (1998) and La face cachée de la lune (2003).
Québec also saw the emergence of a number of promising new directors: Yves Simoneau (Pouvoir intime, 1981; Dans le ventre du dragon, 1989; Perfectly Normal, 1991); Léa Pool (Anne Trister, 1986 ; À corps perdu, 1988; Mouvements du désir, 1994; Emporte-moi/Set Me Free, 1999); Pierre Falardeau (Elvis Gratton, 1985; Octobre, 1994); Jean-Claude Lauzon, who directed two films of audacious quality (Un zoo, la nuit, 1987; Léolo, 1992) before dying in a plane crash in 1997; André Turpin (Zigrail, 1995; Cosmos, 1996; Un crabe dans la tête, 2001); Philippe Falardeau (La moitié gauche du frigo, 2000; Congorama, 2006; C'est pas moi, je le jure!, 2008; the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, 2011); Catherine Martin (Mariages, 2001; Océan, 2002; Dans les villes, 2006; Trois temps après la mort d’Anna, 2010; and Une jenue fille, 2013); and most notably the innovative and original Denis Villeneuve (Cosmos, 1996; Un 32 août sur terre, 1998; the multiple Genie Award-winning Maelström, 2000 and Polytechnique, 2009; and the Oscar nominated Incendies, 2010).
The late 1990s also saw the rise of commercial cinema in Québec. The hockey comedy Les Boys (1997) became the biggest domestic hit in Canadian film history, grossing over $6 million, almost exclusively in Québec. It was followed by the equally successful sequels Les Boys II (1998) and Les Boys III (2001), as well as such box office hits as Jean-François Pouliot’s La grande séduction/Seducing Dr. Lewis (2003). (See also The Cinema of Québec.)
In the North, noted soapstone carver Zacharias Kunuk of Igloolik, NU (then Northwest Territories) turned to filmmaking in the late 1980s, founding the video co-op Igloolik Isuma Productions in 1988 with Norman Cohn, Paul Apak Angilirq and Pauloosie Qulitalik. After blending documentary and fiction in several acclaimed videos and the 13-episode Nunavut series (1993–95), Kunuk directed Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) (2001), the first feature-length fiction film made by Inuit in the Inuktitut language. It won worldwide acclaim, including the coveted Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and six Genie awards including Best Picture. Igloolik Isuma followed that success with The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006) and Before Tomorrow (2008).
David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan
It is Toronto that still provides the critical mass when it comes to English-Canadian cinema. The two key filmmakers, from different generations, are undoubtedly David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan. Cronenberg acts as both a mentor and an example. He proved that Canadian filmmakers could stay in Canada, make the films they wanted to make and become major players on the international scene. Furthermore, he did this without compromising his vision. Indeed, if anything his work became more personal as his growing reputation allowed him to investigate his most personal fears.
Cronenberg's career, from the experimental features with which he began his career in the 1960s (his first mini-features were Stereo in 1968 and Crimes of the Future in 1969), through his commercial period where he worked within the science-fiction and horror genres (Shivers, 1975; Rabid, 1976; The Brood, 1979; Scanners, 1980; and Videodrome, 1981) to his adaptations based on the work of other artists (The Dead Zone, 1983; The Fly, 1987; Dead Ringers, 1988; Naked Lunch, 1991; M. Butterfly, 1993; Crash, 1996; and Spider, 2003) constitute a remarkably cohesive world view — fear of the destructive power of the mind and the fragility of the body, a pervasive paranoia about scientific notions of progress, and a fascination with sexuality and gender. Cronenberg has branched out into more conventional subject matter with A History of Violence (2005), based on an American graphic novel, Eastern Promises (2007), his Russian gangster film set in London, A Dangerous Method (2011), about the inner workings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and Cosmopolis (2012), his adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel.
Second only to Cronenberg and deeply influenced by his example has been the Egyptian-born, BC-raised Atom Egoyan, who has also steered a singular path. His career has been built slowly but deliberately, from his first feature, the precocious Next of Kin (1984), through Family Viewing (1987), Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991) and Exotica (1994) to the highly acclaimed, Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter (1997).
Yet Egoyan's worldview shares many of the same attributes as Cronenberg's. Both are concerned with the transformative power of technology, perhaps a uniquely Canadian obsession largely influenced by Marshall McLuhan. Egoyan's universe is one of uncertainty, where dysfunctional families and psychologically-damaged individuals struggle with their murky pasts. Felicia's Journey (1999), based on a novel of the same name by Irish author William Trevor, was the first of Egoyan's films to be set outside Canada and the first that was not independently produced. He followed that film with the ambitious Ararat (2002), a complex meditation on the 1915 Armenian genocide, Where the Truth Lies (2005), his less-than-successful Hollywood-style murder mystery, Adoration (2009), his high-profile Chloe (2010), a drama of sexual intrigue starring Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried, and Devil’s Knot (2013), starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.
The Toronto New Wave
There is a much larger group of Toronto-based filmmakers, informally known as the Toronto New Wave, many of whom emerged along with Egoyan in the mid-1980s. Rather than an expression of a particular group aesthetic, Toronto New Wave is a catchphrase for a spirited generation of English-Canadian filmmakers. Most were graduates of film departments at the University of Toronto, Sheridan College or Ryerson Polytechnic University. They generally gravitated to LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto), the funky film co-op founded by a group including Bruce McDonald and Peter Mettler that succeeded the Toronto Filmmakers Co-op.
Patricia Rozema achieved great initial success with her acclaimed I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) and followed this with White Room (1990) and When Night Is Falling (1995). Bruce McDonald exploited his interest in rock-and-roll to create the rambunctious Roadkill (1989), Highway 61 (1991), Hard Core Logo (1996), Trigger (2010) and Hard Core Logo II (2012), along with the quieter Dance Me Outside (1994). Peter Mettler, a highly gifted cinematographer, moved with equal ease between fiction, documentary and experimental film, directing, while a student, the surprisingly achieved Scissere (1982), the ambitious but flawed The Top of His Head (1989) and Tectonic Plates (1992), based on a Robert LePage play. Jeremy Podeswa made an impressive debut with Eclipse (1994), while Darryl Wasyk provided audiences with a harrowing portrait of the drug world in H (1990). Don McKellar, who had written Roadkill and Highway 61 with Bruce McDonald, had his own auspicious feature directorial debut with Last Night (1998).
Three major events of the 1980s proved to be instrumental to the growth of this new breed of English-Canadian filmmakers: the founding in 1984 of the Perspective Canada programme, the world’s largest international platform for Canadian cinema, by the Toronto Festival of Festivals (now the Toronto International Film Festival); the creation of the OFDC in 1986; and the founding in 1988 of the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) by Norman Jewison, which began to produce an impressive body of work by the mid-1990s. Clement Virgo and Stephen Williams were graduates of this program and a number of other highly-accomplished filmmakers began to appear. Don McKellar attended and developed the script for François Girard’s innovative and highly-acclaimed Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993). David Wellington directed two polished features: I Love a Man in Uniform (1993); and a beautifully realized adaptation of the Stratford production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (1996). John Fawcett emerged from the CFC and had a cult hit with the inventive teen horror move Ginger Snaps (2000), while Vincenzo Natali’s debut Cube (1997), produced through the CFC's Feature Film Project, broke box office records for a Canadian film in Japan and grossed $15 million in France.
Significantly, a cinema emerged in the 1990s that began to reflect the diverse ethnicity of the country. Atom Egoyan focused on his Armenian heritage with Calendar (1993) and Ararat (2002), and Sturla Gunarsson returned to his native Iceland to shoot Beowulf & Grendel in 2005. Srinivas Krishna drew on his Indian roots in the carnivalesque Masala (1991) and followed this with his second film, Lulu (1996), which centred on a Vietnamese refugee. Deepa Mehta also delved into her Indian background with Sam and Me (1990), Fire (1996), Earth (1998), Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), the Oscar-nominated Water (2005) and the Salman Rushdie adaptation Midnight’s Children (2012), the latter two set entirely in India. Black filmmakers also began making films that spoke to their experiences: Clement Virgo directed the highly accomplished Rude (1995) before following it up with Love Come Down (2001) and Poor Boy's Game (2007); while Steven Williams appeared with Soul Survivor (1995). Along with the previously mentioned Mina Shum, Keith Lock, another filmmaker of Chinese background, produced his first fiction feature, Small Pleasure (1993), after an extensive career in short filmmaking.
While various forms of ethnic cinema flourished, gay filmmakers also came to the fore in the 1990s. A CFC graduate who began his career in video, has quickly established himself as one of Canada’s most original talents. John Greyson, who produced one of the most impressive shorts ever produced in this country, The Making of “Monsters” (1991), followed this with some very innovative work, most notably the AIDS musical Zero Patience (1993), Lilies (1996) and The Law of Enclosures (2001). Halifax-based Thom Fitzgerald broke through with his gay-themed The Hanging Garden (1998); and underground filmmaker Bruce LaBruce has also made a distinctive contribution, delving into the gay porn underground scene with No Skin off My Ass (1990), Super 8½ (1994), Hustler White (1996), The Raspberry Reich (2004) and L.A. Zombie (2010).
Famous Players and Cineplex Odeon — Sales and Mergers
In 1994 the federal government approved the takeover of the Canadian assets of Paramount Communications by Viacom of New York; these assets included the Canadian Famous Players theatre chain. In turn, Viacom promised to exhibit more Canadian films and spend more money in the marketing of Canadian films in Famous Players theatres. In 1998 the chain of US and Canadian Cineplex Odeon theatres was bought by the communications giant Sony. In 2002, Onex Corporation, a Canadian holding company, acquired Loews Cineplex from Sony. It sold off Loews, the American parent, but kept the Canadian theatres.
In 2003, Cineplex Odeon merged with Galaxy Entertainment to create Cineplex Galaxy. In 2004, Cineplex Galaxy acquired Famous Players from Viacom, effectively bringing an end to a legendary Canadian business rivalry dating back 60 years. The new company, known simply as Cineplex Entertainment, came to control 60 per cent of the movie screens in Canada. The Federal Competition Bureau required that Cineplex divest itself of 34 theatres from British Columbia to Ontario; Halifax-based Empire Theatres bought 27 of them and became Canada's second-largest exhibitor. American-owned AMC, which merged with Loews in the US, became the third largest.
Funding Cuts, Telefilm Canada Mandates and Rising Populism
In the mid-1990s, funding cuts at all levels of government began to take their toll on the industry, severely effecting the support offered by the provincial funding agencies. In 1995, the Liberal government under Jean Chretien cut Telefilm’s budget from $123 million to $109.7 million. The NFB’s budget was reduced by $4 million and the CBC’s by $44 million. In 1996, Mike Harris’s Conservative government in Ontario slashed funding to the OFDC and the Ontario Arts Council. The OFDC was virtually scuttled, losing funding for production and marketing but retaining the Ontario Film Investment Program.
In 1998, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps announced the creation of a new feature film fund, which eventually came into effect in 2001. Under the direction of new Telefilm Canada head Richard Stursberg, the object of the $100-million-a-year fund was to boost the audience for Canadian films. Noting that Canadian films typically account for only two per cent of annual box-office revenue, Stursberg set a target of reaching five per cent in five years. The result was a series of middling generic films that strove for popular appeal, such as Paul Gross’s Men with Brooms (2002), William Phillips’s Foolproof (2003), Charles Martin Smith’s The Snow Walker (2003) and Émile Gaudreault’s Mambo Italiano (2003). The difficult nature of predicting the box-office success of a film was perhaps exemplified by My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002); denied funding by Telefilm, the Toronto-shot film written by and starring Winnipeg-native Nia Vardalos grossed more than $240 million at the box office.
In 2005, Telefilm’s report cited that while box-office share for domestic films in Québec was a remarkable 21.2 per cent, English-Canadian films languished at 1.6 per cent — a fraction higher than when the Ontario provincial treasurer complained 80 years earlier that “not one per cent of the pictures shown in Canada are Canadian made.” That same year, Sarah Polley and Don McKellar lobbied the federal government to change the way it supports Canadian films, recommending that theatres be forced to devote more screen time to Canadian films and their trailers, and to require broadcasters to air Canadian films and advertisements for them. No such action was taken.
Despite the failure of Telefilm’s box office mandate, a new sense of populism seemed to take hold, as many filmmakers began producing movies with broader commercial appeal that still retained a specific sense of Canadian identity. Michael Dowse followed his indie head-banger hit FUBAR (2002) with the raucous electronica extravaganza It's All Gone Pete Tong (2005), the equally successful FUBAR 2 (2010), the hit hockey film Goon (2010) and the Daniel Radcliffe vehicle The F Word (2013).
Québec continued its string of box office successes with Charles Binamé’s biopic The Rocket (2005), starring Roy Dupuis as Maurice Richard, Jean-Marc Vallee’s inspired coming-of-age story C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) and Erik Canuel’s bicultural buddy movie Bon Cop Bad Cop (2006).
The cult comedy Trailer Park Boys: The Movie (2006) scored a rare success in English Canada, opening on more than 200 screens and grossing $1.3 million on its opening weekend. It was followed by the sequel, Trailer Park Boys: Countdown to Liquor Day (2009), which went on to gross more than $3 million.
The indie youth sex comedy Young People F---ing (2006) received an unexpected boost in publicity when it became the poster child for the proposed changes to the Income Tax Act (Bill C-10), which would have allowed the heritage minister or a government committee to retroactively deny tax credits to films that were deemed offensive and “contrary to public policy.”
Actress Sarah Polley made a distinguished directorial debut with the beautifully-crafted, Oscar-nominated Away from Her (2006) and followed that success with two other investigations of infidelity: the colourful and moving Take This Waltz (2010); and the inventive personal documentary Stories We Tell (2012). Rubba Nada made an impressive debut with Sabah (2005) and had a modest hit with Cairo Time (2009). Paul Gross made a valiant attempt at a historical prestige piece with the lavishly-produced First World War drama Passchendaele (2008); and Kari Skogland adapted The Stone Angel (2007) from the novel by Margaret Laurence. Michael McGowan had a sleeper hit with the road movie One Week (2008); Jacob Tierney wrote and directed a successful star vehicle for Jay Baruchel with The Trotsky (2009); and Vincenzo Natali scored another sci-fi hit with Splice (2010).
Xavier Dolan emerged as the most talented Canadian filmmaker in recent memory with his award-winning autobiographical directorial debut J'ai tué ma mère (2009). He followed that with the sensuously cinematic Les amours imaginaires (2010), Laurence Anyways (2012) and Tom à la ferme (2013). The Rocket and La grande seduction screenwriter Ken Scott had a huge hit in Québec with the whimsical Starbuck (2011) — remade by Scott in Hollywood as the Vince Vaughn vehicle Delivery Man (2013) — while English Canada looked to model that same success with Don McKellar’s remake of The Grand Seduction (2013).
In 2011, Telefilm announced a new system to measure the success of Canadian films, one that takes into account the sales of a film’s worldwide rights and gives points based on film festival appearances and awards, as well as the amount of private investment a film generates. In 2013, a group led by Robert Lantos that included David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Paul Gross and former Alliance CEO Victor Loewy attempted to launch Starlight, a television channel devoted to Canadian movies. However, the proposed channel died when it was denied mandatory distribution by the CRTC.
Notable Recent Successes
The 1990s and first decade of the 21st century saw the production of world-class cinema in Canada. The industry as a whole — with many American film and television productions shot here to take advantage of the professional crews, state-of-the-art studio space and infrastructure, tax breaks and generally lower dollar — has become a multi-billion-dollar business built over 50 years. Despite the massive difficulties still faced in the exhibition market, the industry is on reasonably solid footing. In the 1960s, no more than two or three Canadian films a year received proper distribution in the Toronto market. In 2011, more than 50 Canadian movies played the Greater Toronto Area, the largest market in the world for English-Canadian films.
In 1997 Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter won the Grand Jury Prize, the International Critics Prize and the Ecumenical Award at the Cannes Film Festival, making it the most honoured Canadian film ever to play the festival. It was nominated for Academy Awards for adapted screenplay and best director, the first for a Canadian director. In 2001, Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), the first dramatic feature to be shot entirely in Inuktituk with an all-Inuit cast, won the Caméra D'Or at Cannes. In 2004, Denys Arcand ‘s Les Invasions barbares/The Barbarian Invasions (2003) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, another first for a Canadian. Four Canadian films in the next eight years earned Oscar nominations in the same category: Mehta’s Water (2006); Villeneuve’s Incendies (2010); Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar (2011); and Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle (2012)
In 2006 the Québec comedy Bon Cop Bad Cop grossed nearly $12 million, making it the most successful Canadian film at the domestic box office to date. In 2010, Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D, a co-production with Germany, became the top-grossing Canadian film of all time, surpassing Porky's with a worldwide box office of $250 million.
David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) are, of his long career, his most successful at the box office, and he is internationally recognized as one of the top directors in the world today. Other Canadian directors have become sought-after commodities in Hollywood, with Atom Egoyan (Devil’s Knot, 2013), Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, 2013) and Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria, 2009; Dallas Buyer’s Club, 2013; Wild, 2014) all directing big-name Hollywood stars in high-profile American productions.
While it is now possible to speak of a Canadian film industry as a whole, with a thriving domestic industry in Québec, feature films made by English-speaking Canadians remain the weak link in the chain. Government money continues to be crucial to their success and the link between English Canada's feature filmmakers and their Canadian audiences is a tenuous one at best.
The Cinema of Québec; Documentary Film; Canadian Film Animation; Experimental Film; Film Distribution; Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time; English Canadian Films: Why No One Sees Them; National Film Board of Canada; Telefilm Canada; Canadian Feature Films; Film Education; Film Festivals; Film Censorship; Film Cooperatives; Cinémathèque Québécoise; The Craft of Motion Picture Making.
Peter Morris, Embattled Shadows: A History of Canadian Cinema 1895–1939 (1978).
Sandra Gathercole, “The Best Film Policy This Country Never Had,” Cinema Canada (June 1978), 28–31.
Pierre Véronneau and Piers Handling, eds., Self Portrait: Essays on the Canadian and Québec Cinemas (1980).
David Clandfield, Canadian Film (Oxford University Press, 1987).
Douglas Fetherling, ed., Documents in Canadian Film (Toronto: Broadview Press, 1988).
Manjunath Pendakur, Canadian Dreams and American Control: The Political Economy of the Canadian Film Industry (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990).
Wyndham Wise, ed., Take One's Essential Guide to Canadian Film (2001).
Katherine Monk, Weird Sex and Snowshoes: And Other Canadian Film Phenomena (Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2001).
Peter Urquhart, 1979: Reading the Tax Shelter Boom in Canadian Film History, Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University (Montréal, 2004).
George Melnyk, One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema (2004).