Film Co-operatives

Anywhere independent filmmakers gather, film co-operatives are sure to follow, at least in Canada. The cost of production is so high that shared ownership of equipment is an obvious solution to a common problem.

Film Co-operatives

Anywhere independent filmmakers gather, film co-operatives are sure to follow, at least in Canada. The cost of production is so high that shared ownership of equipment is an obvious solution to a common problem. As a result, filmmaking partnerships and media collectives form spontaneously wherever films are made - and dissolve just as quickly. In Canada, a habit and an infrastructure have been established that help those spontaneous collectives outlast the interest of the founding members.

Since the late 1960s, the CANADA COUNCIL for the Arts has played a central role in sustaining film and video co-ops. Other organizations that fund co-ops include the National Film Board, provincial and municipal arts boards, and various government programs and private foundations. But the Canada Council is by far the primary funder of the Canadian co-op movement.

The Canada Council was formed in response to the Massey Commission of 1957, as a funding body to support arts and culture in Canada. In the late 1960s and early '70s, huge numbers of film- and video-makers were applying for funds. Central to their applications was a need for the tools of film- and video-making. These tools were expensive, would outlast a single project, and were common to most applicants. The council was faced with a handful of options: fund a few filmmakers very well, fund many filmmakers poorly, or support the collective ownership of resources and equipment.

Financial Support

Around the country, the co-op model was already proving effective. In 1967, as part of Canada's Centennial cultural funding, a collective called Intermedia received a one-time grant of $40,000 (a huge sum at the time). Intermedia was a loose collection of artists, filmmakers, poets and performers whose work had a distinctive media arts focus. Over the next 10 years, Intermedia ceased to be; in its place arose a handful of media-related organizations, including the Western Front, Satellite Video Exchange, Video Inn, and the Canadian Filmmakers' Distribution West (now Moving Images Distribution).

In Montreal, the first co-ops arose out of NATIONAL FILM BOARD cultural experiments. The NFB established its Challenge for Change program to "encourage dialogue and promote social change." Its purpose was to give marginalized groups access to the means of media production. In Montreal, this led to the founding of Videographe, a 24-hour centre for video production, presentation, and distribution. When the NFB stopped funding Videographe, the Canada Council stepped in, along with provincial and municipal funding sources. Other co-ops in Quebec include SpiraFilm in Quebec City, Main Film in Montreal, and PRIM Video, which grew out of Véhicule Art, an artist-run centre.

In Toronto, co-ops arose from several different communities. Trinity Square Video was a community-based studio and production facility, while Charles Street Video came out of A Space, an artist-run centre. In film, two earlier organizations - the Toronto Film Co-op and the Funnel - have sunk away, leaving the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto (LIFT), the largest media arts co-op in Canada, in their wake.

Where Co-operatives Are Found

Co-ops aren't limited to the major cities; most cities of size have at least one. Some, like Guelph, have only a video co-op (Ed Video); others, like St. John's, only have film (NIFCO, the Newfoundland Independent Filmmakers Cooperative). A few have several: Ottawa, with centres for film (IFCO, the Independent Filmmakers Cooperative of Ottawa), video (SAW Video), and new media (artengine); or Calgary, with a film co-op (Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers), a video co-op (EMMEDIA), a community TV station (NUTV), and the Quickdraw Animation Society, which for years was the only animation co-op in Canada. Winnipeg is also well equipped, home to Video Pool (production, exhibition and distribution) as well as the internationally renowned Winnipeg Film Group, poster child of the co-op movement and home to Guy MADDIN and John Paizs.

The Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative (AFCOOP), the oldest English-language film co-op in Canada, was created by 17 filmmakers who met in a bar and decided to start a co-op. Within a year they had secured a $50,000 grant from the Canada Council; hundreds of films have since been made there. Other co-ops in Atlantic Canada include the Centre for Art Tapes in Halifax (video), the New Brunswick Filmmakers' Co-op in Fredericton, and the Island Media Arts Co-op in PEI.

Another fascinating group is Igloolik Isuma Productions in Igloolik, Nunavut. Originally a video co-op based on the practices of Zacharias KUNUK, Isuma has grown into several co-ops and production companies and made the award-winning feature Atanarjuat, the thirteen-part series Nunavut, and several documentaries and short dramas.

Elsewhere in Canada are other native artist groups with a media arts component: IMAG (Indigenous Media Arts Group) in Vancouver, Sâkêwêwak in Regina, Urban Shaman in Winnipeg, and the Centre for Aboriginal Media (CAM) in Toronto.

Equipment and Training

Whether film or video, the production co-ops have several things in common. Members can rent production and post-production equipment, including cameras, microphones, lights and editing suites. Rental rates at co-ops are generally much lower than at commercial rental houses, with the restriction that equipment be used only for independent, artist-driven projects, and not as cheap gear for strictly commercial projects. The Saskatchewan Filmpool, in Regina, is unique in charging no equipment-rental fees to members; other centres feel that rental revenues make up too large a part of their budgets for that model to work for them. The production co-ops also provide training in the use of their gear.

In smaller cities, co-operatives are sometimes the only institutions to provide media arts training, and education becomes a large part of their role in the community. While education was not part of the Canada Council's initial hope for the co-ops, some educational and regional funders are quite fond of the role. Even in the larger centres, purely technical training has increased as the "digital convergence" of the late 1990s led to a rash of new acquisitions and senior artists came back to familiarize themselves with the new tools.

Centres also present numerous artistic workshops, visiting artists, residencies, and screenings. The particular flavour of this programming changes over time and from centre to centre. Many of them screen works from other co-ops, often received through several artist-run distribution centres.

The oldest distributor is the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) in Toronto, which was founded in 1967. Their western office, CFMDC West in Vancouver, split off to become Moving Images Distribution in the late 1980s. Other film distributors include the Winnipeg Film Group and Cinema Libre in Montreal. There are also several video distributors, including VTape in Toronto, Vidéographe in Montréal, and Video Pool in Winnipeg, which is the primary distributor for video work in the Prairie provinces. Several production co-ops also distribute the work of their members.

Most co-ops provide some sort of funding for member production, either in the form of a formal production fund, direct commissioning of work, or through reduced or waived rental rates. Volunteer activities are generally rewarded with discounted rental rates. The Newfoundland Independent Filmmakers Cooperative (NIFCO) has an interesting program for first-time filmmakers; they are provided with 400 feet of film, free equipment access, and a crew, enabling artists to make their first film at virtually no cost. Some centres are experimenting with new models of support for production. Les Films de l'Autre, in Montreal, is an artist-run production company, structured so that film projects are eligible for tax credits and funding opportunities from the Société de Développement des Entreprises Culturelles (SODEC) and Telefilm Canada.

National Organization

In 1980, at the Yorkton Short Film Festival in Saskatchewan, representatives from a dozen co-ops met to form a national umbrella organization for Canadian film and video co-ops. Called the Independent Film and Video Alliance, it sponsors an annual conference and lobbies on behalf of its member organizations. The IFVA grew to include groups representing audio and new media artists; in response, in June of 2003 it changed its name to the Independent Media Arts Alliance. At that time, it represented more than 80 member organizations, which themselves represented more than 5000 media artists. Recent additions include new media centres, screening societies, and niche festivals.

Digital Convergence

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, film and video co-ops remained distinct from one another (with a few exceptions, like Edmonton's FAVA, which includes both under one roof). Video practice was informed more by the visual arts than by the cinema, and tapes were more likely to be seen in a gallery context than in a theatre. Many video and new media co-ops came out of artist-run centres for the visual arts, and their work continues to be informed by that heritage.

Artists working out of the film co-ops generally intended their work to be seen in theatrical contexts by traditional film audiences. These could include cinema, university, or even TV, but were audiences distinct from those for video-based work. Despite the essential similarity of the two types of moving picture, film and video were separated by different modes of practice, different communities of interest, and by the dissimilarity of their technologies.

By the mid-1990s the technologies were growing back towards one another, as Avids supplanted Steenbecks and analogue gave way to digital. Computers became the seat of most post-production work, and a handful of successful movies that originated on video (Hoop Dreams, Celebration, The Blair Witch Project) meant that it was no longer ridiculous to think about theatrical screenings of work shot on video.

This digital convergence is behind some recent growing pains in the Canadian media arts community and has prompted some interesting questions from funders. If the equipment is the same, they wonder, then why is it necessary to fund multiple co-ops in a single city?

That kind of question has not been popular among the co-operatives, but some have responded by reorganizing. Video Vérité, Saskatoon's lone co-op, recently folded itself in with The Photographers Gallery, an artist-run centre dedicated to photo-based work, to form "Paved Art and New Media." This indicates that perhaps the appropriate distinction is not between one capture medium and another, but between different kinds of work and modes of practice.

Some of our most influential media artists have come out of the co-ops, and many of them continue to produce or distribute their work through them. There will be changes as accessible gear democratizes film- and video-making, and "new media" artists, working primarily with computers, become more connected to the existing media arts community.

In the late '90s funders challenged the co-ops with the question, "How is film different from video?" Though the question now being asked is "How is video different from new media?," film co-operatives remain a vital part of film and video art in Canada.


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