English Canadian Films: Why No One Sees Them
At least seven English Canadian movies are quietly slipping in and out of theatres this spring: Lucid, Fetching Cody, These Girls, Niagara Motel, Whole New Thing, Six Figures and The Limb Salesman. Never heard of them? No wonder. These are the kind of films that show up on a few screens, then vanish without a trace. They contain flashes of eccentric brilliance, and some fine performances. But they seem smaller than life. They tend to be populated by desperate women and repressed, self-loathing men. And they plumb new depths of anti-heroism, from the English teacher who's addicted to washroom sex in Whole New Thing to the wimp who threatens a pimp by pressing a stapler to his back in Niagara Motel. It's hard to imagine these movies were designed with an audience in mind.
So how do they get made? Welcome to the Byzantine world of English Canadian film financing - a surreal maze of auteur dreams, bureaucratic nightmares and ritualized failure. It's a world where distributors routinely snap up publicly funded movies, flip the TV rights to broadcasters for an easy profit, then dump the films into a few theatres for a token release. A few bigger pictures get a better shot, and occasionally one breaks through. But our FILM culture has become conditioned to obscurity. This is the story of a cinema in search of an audience.
English Canada's movie industry is in a severe crisis. Quebec has a diverse, thriving, remarkably self-sufficient cinema. Hits such as C.R.A.Z.Y. and The Rocket have had massive success with local audiences. Last year, Quebec movies counted for 26 per cent of our French-language box office. In English Canada, only 1.1 per cent of the box office went to Canadian films. Those Quebec hits don't usually travel well outside the province. But next week Alliance Atlantis hopes to defy that trend by releasing The Rocket, a Maurice Richard biopic, on more than 100 screens in English Canada, backed by over $1.5 million in promotion. It's a lot to expect Calgary to cheer on a Quebec nationalist paean to a French-Canadian hockey hero. But that's a vote of confidence English Canada's own movies rarely inspire.
In interviews with Maclean's, some of the industry's most prominent voices are now sounding the alarm - warning that their industry is in dire straits, and that TELEFILM CANADA, its federal funding agency, is dangerously adrift. One of those voices is actor-director Paul Gross."Telefilm is floundering," he says. "It's a public service, paid for by the Canadian people. But we are not making movies that people want to see. If we made roads that nobody wanted to drive on, that would be hard to defend as a public service."
On a warm spring afternoon, clad in a torn black leather jacket, Gross enjoys a coffee and cigarette on a patio café around the corner from his Toronto home. He looks very much a movie star. But he's a living embodiment of our failure to create a star system, the exception that proves the rule. At 46, this significant talent - who made his name as a Mountie on TV's Due South and turned his back on American network offers so he could remain in Canada - has learned to create his own opportunities.
He wrote, directed and starred in one of English Canada's rare big-screen successes, 2002's Men With Brooms. And now he's trying to mount a $17-million, all-Canadian production called Passchendaele, a First World War romantic epic on which he'll again serve as writer, director and star. It's unprecedented to attempt a Canadian movie on that scale without resorting to an international co-production. Planning to shoot in Alberta, Gross has secured a $5.5-million pledge from Premier Ralph Klein. In addition to private investment, he's looking for $3.5 million from Telefilm. But, on his quest to forge a populist Canadian cinema, Gross is not afraid to bite the hand that funds him.
Recalling a conversation with Telefilm executive-director Wayne Clarkson, Gross says, "Wayne's argument was if we wanted to make just commercial movies, we'd end up making Dumb & Dumber. But we should be so lucky as to make Dumb & Dumber. It takes a certain kind of cinematic courage to stick your tongue to a pole for two minutes and hope the audience doesn't leave. Why are the giants of cinematic comedy - Jim Carrey, Mike Myers - not making movies here? Because there's absoutely no room for someone like that in our system. Telefilm wouldn't consider in a billion years a movie where someone sticks his tongue to a pole."
Gross argues that English Canadian cinema is wedded to an auteur model based on the early festival breakthroughs of some "really terrific filmmakers like Atom EGOYAN." Then he adds, "It's been stuck in that mode for a while. Festivals are composed of audiences that you never see replicated in a normal theatre. We've hidden behind this intellectual rampart. And we end up in this perverse situation where we assign to any failed film a great deal of intellectual integrity."
These days, Telefilm is under siege from the heart of the industry. Victor Loewy, chairman of Alliance Atlantis's distribution arm, says, "The industry in English Canada is in total disarray. Its relationship with Telefilm is the worst I've seen in 34 years in the business." Robert LANTOS, the country's most powerful producer, says Telefilm desperately needs to change its policies to recognize the realities of the marketplace. "Many, many millions of dollars," he says, "are being spent making allegedly theatrical films that don't play in theatres."
Meanwhile, Lantos and a number of his colleagues are outraged that the whole system of public funding for Canadian cinema is in jeopardy because some productions bankrolled by Hollywood have found a way of accessing Telefilm funds. Canadian co-producers of two U.S.-backed horror movies, White Noise and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, are now each eligible to receive up to $3.5 million a year for three years from Telefilm under a so-called "envelope" system designed to reward Canadian producers who score at the box office.
As Telefilm's new chief, Clarkson has come under some heavy fire. Last year, when he replaced Richard Stursberg, the industry embraced him as a saviour. Stursberg, who's now in charge of CBC TV's English-language network, was attacked for sending Telefilm on a Hollywood tangent. Clarkson was not just another bureaucrat but a cinephile with pedigree in Canadian cinema - one of the prime architects of the Toronto International Film Festival, the innovative chairman of the former Ontario Film Development Corp., and head of the Canadian Film Centre. He was immensely popular. But after 15 months on the job, he's become the target of growing discontent.
Filmmakers once complained about having to deal with Telefilm's faceless committee system of selecting films. Now Clarkson is about to appoint a "film czar" to make the agency's funding decisions, but Gross, Lantos and others feel he's simply deferring responsibility. "The bottom line is there's just no leadership," says producer Niv Fichman of Rhombus Media (The Red Violin). "Wayne hasn't taken any interest in making decisions or creating a voice for Telefilm. I disagreed with Stursberg's voice, but at least he had one. If Telefilm was a Hollywood studio, every single executive would have been fired many times over. They have no accountability."
That's not sour grapes from a producer who can't get funding. Under Clarkson's watch, the agency has contributed to Fichman's $25-million co-production of Silk, a period romance starring Michael Pitt and Keira Knightley that's currently being shot by Quebec director François Girard (Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould). Fichman is also producing Passchendaele with Gross.
Like Gross, Alexandra Raffé is another producer trying to make more accessible Canadian films. She recently sought Telefilm support in developing a script for Crusade, which she describes as "a popcorn movie - a techno medieval quest movie with laser swords." She says, "Telefilm asked me, 'Why would we want to develop something so commercial?'"
Like the CBC, Telefilm is a cultural agency struggling to make sense of its mandate. And there's endless debate over its priorities. No country in the world has a film industry that can survive without government financing - with the robust exceptions of Hollywood, Bollywood, Hong Kong and (oddly) Nigeria. Telefilm's annual feature film fund of roughly $80 million is a pittance in Hollywood terms, just enough to pay for one average studio movie. The agency funds about 40 productions a year, with amounts ranging from $100,000 to $3.5 million.
The way the system now works, a producer applying for Telefilm funds first needs a Canadian distributor to sign on. If the movie gets green-lit, the distributor will often sell the broadcast rights to pay-TV channels - which have a legislated appetite for Canadian content. The distributors can make an easy profit by spending a fraction of what they got for the TV rights on a token release in theatres. "The distributor has to convince an exhibitor to throw the film on a screen for a week," explains Gross. "And he'll say, 'Yeah, as long as you cover the cost of popcorn.' Then it's over. It's free money. It's like flipping apartments."
Lantos concurs. "It's a sick system," he says. "You're relying on a salesman who makes his commission if he doesn't make a sale." Lantos suggests that Telefilm use a jury system to fund low-budget movies from emerging filmmakers. But for projects costing more than $1 million, he argues that the agency require distributors to take a risk. Pointing out that distribution is the economic engine of the movie business, he says, "There's a simple solution: Telefilm shouldn't allow any film through the door unless the Canadian distributor is on the hook with a financial commitment that significantly exceeds the TV sale." That, he adds, will radically reduce the number of films applying, and there will be more incentive to find an audience.
Distributors, naturally, aren't keen on the idea. As president of Mongrel Media, Hussain Amarshi is one of the country's boldest distributors of Canadian films. He has scored some startling successes, including The Corporation, a documentary that grossed more than $1 million in Canada, and Water, which took in $2.2 million - a phenomenal feat for a subtitled film. In Canada, both those titles outgrossed Lantos's last three productions, which boasted far more lavish budgets - Being Julia, The Statement and Where the Truth Lies. Amarshi takes issue with Lantos's bid to put distributors at risk. "Everybody should be at risk," he says. "Singling out the distributors is wrong-headed."
Where Lantos and Amarshi agree is that hits are both rare and unpredictable in the movie business, even in Hollywood. "If six films come out in four weeks and none of them succeed," says Amarshi, "it shouldn't be seen as a failure. Box office numbers are now as common as hockey scores. It's misleading. Hollywood uses them for momentum, but we're not in the entertainment industry strictly speaking; we're in the cultural industry."
There's a fierce debate about that. Canadian producers are in an uproar over Telefilm's "envelope" system. Here's how it works. Most films get Telefilm funding only after an arduous selection process. But if a movie earns more than $1 million in domestic box office, its producer qualifies for no-strings financing of up to $3.5 million a year for future projects. The system was designed to recognize commercial track records in Canadian cinema. But recently two producers who specialize in mounting Hollywood shoots in Canada have qualified for Telefilm envelopes - Vancouver's Stephen Hegyes, who co-produced White Noise, and Toronto's Don Carmody, a producer of Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Both movies are international co-productions backed by Hollywood distributors. "There's been an outcry," says Lantos, who claims that, although they legally qualified as Canadian co-productions, these movies are "ultimately owned and controlled outside Canada." Both Hegyes and Carmody maintain their movies have Canadian ownership.
"Robert [Lantos] doesn't leave a penny of pubic money on the table," Carmody fumes. "He goes and shoots his movies in Greece or Hungary or whatever. Resident Evil was shot 100 per cent in Canada and dropped over $30 million into the economy. And it's somehow considered inferior to a picture that was shot in Hungary with virtually no Canadians? Because we're successful and the envelope is available to us, suddenly we're carpetbaggers? I defy anybody to determine that Resident Evil is less Canadian than Being Julia or whatever the heck he's doing."
No English Canadian producer has spent more Telefilm money in the past two decades than Lantos. Some of his movies have been spectacular failures, most recently Norman Jewison's The Statement and Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies. But in serving as a Medici-like patron for talents like Egoyan, David Cronenberg - and now Jeremy Podeswa, who's directing his production of Fugitive Pieces - Lantos has served as the grand impresario of Canadian cinema, carving out a place for it on the world stage. And as he's fond of pointing out, even when they fail, his films at least get to the starting gate - unlike many Telefilm movies.
Clarkson has heard all the criticisms of Telefilm, and he parries them with the agility of a career diplomat. Asked about distributors flipping TV sales, he says, "Is there an issue? Absolutely. Is the present system working? Not to the degree that we all wish it would. Do there have to be changes? Absolutely." Clarkson says Telefilm is considering a policy that would divorce distributors from the funding process, and remove their access to the broadcast licence fees. "Once the film is shot," he says, "then the distributor can choose to participate genuinely or not."
As for the furor over rewarding Hollywood-backed genre movies with envelopes, Clarkson says, "There's legitimate cause for concern. Are these genuinely owned and controlled Canadian productions? How do you determine that? A smell test? There's no question that they met the criteria. But is it an issue? You bet."
It's too early to judge Clarkson's Telefilm - the proof will lie in the movies made under his tenure. But so far he's been "a disappointment," says Raffé. "I think he underestimated how much damage had been done at Telefilm over the past seven or eight years. He understands the issues and he cares. But he's not yet got the industry onside, which is surprising considering most of us are personal friends of his. There's no communication."
That criticism baffles Clarkson. "I have done nothing but consult with the industry," he says. "How many times have I been back and forth across the country? In the last year and a half, the longest I've been anywhere is three nights." Sounds like a thankless misson - trying to placate a fractious film business while jockeying with a new Conservative government to preserve funding. From his perch in bureaucratic limbo, Clarkson is already beginning to envy the film czar he's about to appoint: "If there's one job I would want other than the one I have, it would be this one, because you can effect a change." And change is the one thing everyone agrees is needed as our cinema looks for its audience in Hollywood's lengthening shadow.
Maclean's April 17, 2006