Filmmaking in Canada: Culture or Coma?

Cigarette smoke rises in small plumes, merging into the dust beam created by the projection light in a full theatre of young Canadian adults staring transfixed at the screen; a crippled fishing boat floats in dark, still water…  The weathered face of Robert Shaw is transformed into the role of Quint, a sea captain who tells the tale of the infamous USS Indianapolis (the ship that delivered the A-bomb that sent Japan into surrendering in WW II. Upon returning from their top secret mission, the ship was hit by a mine and sank instantly, sending a thousand sailors into the Pacific sea). Enthralled by Quint’s monologue, even the intrepid young viewers – strategically positioned in the back row to allow for some casual groping with their mates–take a break to listen…

“Didn’t see the first shark for about half an hour – a tiger – thirteen footer. You know how you know that when you’re in the water, Chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know, it was kinda like old squares in the battle like that you see in the calendar named ‘The Battle of Waterloo.’ And the idea was, the shark comes to the nearest man and he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’. Sometimes the shark go away. Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya, right into your eyes. Y’know, the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes after ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’ until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white, and then – aww, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’, the ocean turns red, and in spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and rip ya to pieces. You know, by the end of that first dawn, we lost a hundred men...”

The year was 1975 and Steven Spielberg’s JAWS was blowing other films out of the water… It was the lowest budget of three films produced by UNIVERSAL that year – yet it unexpectedly became one of the top grossing films of all time – it also marked the birth of a term that would forever change the face of American cinema – the “Opening Weekend” box-office gross… Today film producers wait with bated breath, biting their nails and their crack-berries, anxiously awaiting the Opening weekend numbers that may make or break their film and their professional futures…

Before 1975, films would open in select cinemas in major cities and ‘old-fashioned’ things would occur. Writers would write about it… Reviewers would review it. And friends would talk about it… Films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY would remain in cinemas for much longer periods than the blockbusters of today… What has changed? The goal of the process now is to open in as many cinemas possible across the world – make as much as possible as quickly as possible and follow up with another Blockbuster to do the same thing… Action films with stars in non-complicated scripts ensure that the merchandising potential of each film is maximized…. What does that mean? Films about super-heroes, Video games, best-seller novels and fantasy action-adventures… Action, explosions, lots of computer graphics – films like AVATAR or LORD OF THE RINGS that can sell a myriad of derivative products, including colorful lunch-boxes in Japan… And even if films like JOHN CARTER cost 600 million to produce and market, yet become epic failures at the box-office, film execs know it’s a numbers game and the next blockbuster will make it… Because people still spend a lot on movies, especially during times of economic hardship.

However, this has the nasty precedent of killing the mid-range budget genre… Films with 100 million dollar budgets or more and indie films under 10 million get produced but the mid-rage films (except for comedies) are increasingly becoming extinct… Now welcome to Canada, Bienvenue au Canada, where two disparate film industries are at work and neither has the luxury of such big budgets.

In English Canada, there is no star-system. We rent our film culture from the U.S. The vast majority of English actors, writers, and directors who want a “real” career dive into the States as the first possible opportunity presents itself. Though the challenges of producing English-Canadian films are multi-faceted, the problem remains firmly rooted in the distribution process that is dominated by the U.S. Canada is in fact the only non-U.S. country that is considered part of the domestic market by Hollywood studios. As a result, the marketing budgets and screening opportunities for Canadian films remain limited. In many cities outside of Canada’s largest metropolitan markets, the local movie theatres almost never book a Canadian film, and in many of the major markets, Canadian films are usually only available in repertory theatres.

In 2003, English films represented only 1% of the domestic box office, while French films made up 20%. Though this gap has since decreased, English Canadian film producers have been decreasing not increasing. Some may refer to this as part of a “Cultural Cringe” phenomena; I would refer to it as more of a Cultural Coma. Though it may take a miracle to exit a coma, it is quite possible to stimulate and promote a film industry. The first step would be “motivation” – we need producers to want to make English Films. Filmmaking is a stressful and complicated process – that’s good – it should be hard to make a film, but a filmmaker need not be so traumatized by the experience that it makes it impossible to want to continue. The financial rewards are not readily available in Canada. For example, writer-director Richie Mehta made more money on his short film AMAL then he did on his 2007 feature film AMAL. Successful film producers in Canada tend to be service producers for U.S studios, and basically they become damn good administrators of public funds.

To finance a film in Canada, producers usually have to convince at least 2 or 3 funding agent committees such as Telefilm (Federal), Sodec (Quebec), and the Harold Greenberg Fund (private) within the same fiscal year. Moreover, the development process can be an even more daunting submission game that never ensures a screenwriter can even get paid according to his guild’s parameters. In fact, it could very easily be argued be that the present system in place now is to ensure only really crazy or really driven professionals apply. To remedy this, Telefilm is now restructuring their development process to facilitate producer slated submissions. However, public funding agents – Telefilm and Sodec are not the problem – they continue to see their funds slashed by governments and they do their best to accommodate the many project demands they receive. They also have programs set up to cater to up-and-coming filmmakers.

The problem is that you cannot have a film industry based ONLY on subsidy. At some point private financing has to kick in. The Harold Greenberg Fund is an example of a private fund that has successfully participated in the production of English Canadian films. What is needed is more initiative and tax credits for private investors. Yes in the 1970s such a tax credit for private investors was in place and many abused it, so it was subsequently slashed. Yet instead of an all-or-nothing approach, there is certainly much room for a middle ground that is hardly ever discussed or explored.

Were it not for those tax credits, many production companies such as Robert Lantoz’ Serendipity Point films may never have come into existence (and we would have never had the pleasure of seeing Vigo in that cool nude sauna fight scene from EASTERN PROMISES). So, why more tax incentives to film investors? Because it makes good business sense. The more private investors and producers are motivated to actually try and confront the suffocating American distribution system – the more jobs will be created for Canadians. Besides, the Americans have been gracious enough to train our production crews for years now…  Canadian technicians are known as among the best in the world and video-game post production houses are also second to none. The talent is here.

It is very appalling to see our government waste funds, energy and resources on issues such as the gun registry, and endlessly debating the issue of unity… I would argue that instead of arguing about what unites us, it might be wise to create more of what unites us… Culture is Unity – and a film industry is a medium that can firmly entrench a Nation’s culture. It stimulates the economy as smaller countries like Australia have proven time and time again. The French side of Canada has figured that out. In fact, it could be said in terms of our film culture, were it not for the French-Canadian producers, we would just be an American marketplace.

Since our country continues to maintain cultural identity as a priority on the political agenda, then all that helps define our culture should be emphasized… Giving tax incentives to private investors for film-makes more sense than giving tax breaks to oil companies hell-bent on exploiting cancerous tar sands. The best fiction produced of late in Canada seems to be from Stephen Harper’s speechwriters, and the only culture our PM may be familiar with is the agri-culture of the Prairies, yet he is not the only scapegoat to blame. Most of the responsibility remains with the voter, the movie-viewer. If culture is important, we must make our voices heard or else remain comatose to let others decide.

In contrast, French Canada has a star system. One can argue it is doing better than ever, despite slashes and cuts to funding. Emerging producers like Luc Déry of Microscope have known outstanding domestic and international success, namely with films like INCENDIES and MONSIEUR LAZHAR – both nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars… The advantage of being a French-language film from Canada is that it can be entered in the Foreign film category… contrary to an English Canadian film. CANNES’ love affair with Quebec continues with writer-director-producer-actor-caterer Xavier Dolan as he continues to explore gender identity and relationships with his films. MONSIEUR LAZHAR is a low-budget heart-warming story about an immigrant replacement teacher who attempts to help a class of children deal with their teacher’s suicide. It’s smart, simple and touches an archetypal chord without need for explosions and CGI… English Canada can make more films like these.

If Canadian English Films are ever to “live long and prosper”, it will come from the next generation. There is much infrastructure in place so far.  The Canadian festival circuit is an opportune venue to showcase young filmmakers. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has an outstanding Canadian Initiatives program. Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, and Calgary host numerous festivals each year featuring a myriad of genres. Moreover, grants like Bravo! FACT continue to allow short film directors a chance to hone their craft. Digital cinematography is becoming less and less expensive – and young filmmakers are becoming more cunning and able to beg friends with equipment to help in order to shoot on a shoestring budget. Perhaps the most difficult and last hurdle to circumvent for young producers is the distribution problem. Either independent distributors work seriously and authentically with young producer \ film-makers or young director-producers find ways to circumvent them altogether and distribute their films themselves, on-line – wherever and however possible… Films that make money will inspire more film-making, and producers who make money will be inclined to take more risk, time, effort, and continuously explore new financing sources. Everything cannot come from subsidy alone.

New Canadian Film-makers will have to be perhaps even more innovative than Spielberg who, once upon a time was given a lot of money to create a mechanical shark… that didn’t work… and his film was sinking fast.  He could only use it with minimal effects – so he adapted because less is more… And imagining the shark was much more horrific! The rest is History, based on a fictitious history, because… the shark-attacks depicted in Quint’s USS Indianapolis monologue are grossly exaggerated… In fact, of the 300 survivors, none reported any shark attacks. Only the dead corpses retrieved later by Search-and-Rescue had evidence of shark mauling. Sharks do not hunt people in real life – but that is the power of a good film – it can make an audience believe… With the power of imagination – anything is possible, including coming out of the deepest of comas into a creative world filled with opportunity and diversity.

  • Eva Vecsei

    good article, all the facts are there!