Embrace the Change - Advice to the Canadian Film Industry

Author: Anna Hardwick | Posted on Wednesday, 04 April 2012

Written by Anna Hardwick

Last Friday, the Canadian Film Festival held a timely panel on The State of the Canadian Film Industry, in the wake of the new federal budget, which saw enormous cuts to the industry. Toronto Star film Critic, Peter Howell, was the moderator, and the panel included John Galway, President, English-Language Program, Astral Media’s Harold Greenberg Fund; Chris Bell, Production Executive, Original Programming: Scripted, Corus Entertainment; Kathleen Meek, Manager of Original Programming for Astral Television Networks’ Movie Services; Mark Slone, SVP at Alliance Films; and Dan Page, Director of Content for Telus.

Despite the giant cuts sustained by Telefilm, the CBC and the NFB earlier in the week, there was a sense of positivity and hope amongst the panel. None were surprised by the cuts and most felt that we must embrace this new era.

With less regulation, as a government organization like Telefilm has less resources to support projects, the playing field has leveled.  Filmmakers can now leverage crowd-funding to produce their film and harness the power of social media for marketing and distribution.

Social media has changed the game entirely, according to Mark Slone of Alliance. He said they have all but suspended their Alliance website and focus on maintaining their Facebook page and YouTube channel instead. He feels that social media, especially Twitter, is the most effective tool for marketing. He cautioned though that the adage that any press is good press doesn’t hold true anymore, and one must be very savvy in an era where the “exclusive” trailer is a thing of the past, as content can spread like wildfire online.

“Does a 'like' on Facebook really translate into a $10 bum in seat?,” John Bunning of Made in Canada Media countered on Twitter. Only time will tell. Marketing, despite the sea-change of social media, remains a big hurdle for Canadian films. Peter Howell spoke of the power of the trailer in marketing a film, and that it costs $100,000 to get a trailer in cinemas, an exorbitant sum for most Canadian budgets.

One point that struck me was the discussion around the ratio of our successful films to flops, compared to the US industry. We don’t get to see all the flops that come out of Hollywood, but for every blockbuster there are many failures. We make far fewer films each year, but this year saw us represented at the Oscars twice, with the co-pro In Darkness and with Monsieur Lazhar, both nominated in the Foreign Language Film category.

According to the panel, we are at a new level of commercial and artistic success in Canadian filmmaking, on the cusp of something different, in English Canada particularly, as Quebec has enjoyed this success for years. The panel seemed pleased to see a renewed desire to create great, audience-pleasing Canadian films and that we’re no longer a nation of auteur films.

When I tweeted the advice from the panel on how to make successful films, I stirred some controversy. The panel told emerging filmmakers to find a clear vision but to write for an audience, with a wholistic view of the marketplace. They suggested avoiding cross-genre films and told us to make a films that are clear to describe in one sentence, ie: no junkie/road trip flicks. This sparked some major dissent among our indie filmmakers on Twitter.

What caused even more of a furor on Twitter was when I tweeted the suggestion of only making a rom-com if you have stars attached. “No one wants to see two people who they don't know kiss,” was one of the cautions from Mark Slone. Well, how does anyone become a star unless they have their breakout performance? Many great actors have emerged from obscurity as romantic leads.

In terms of Canada being a great place for foreign projects to film, Peter Howell said: “They used to come here for the low dollar, and now they come for the talent.” Our crews, new soundstages and acting talent are word-class. Co-pros also came up as part of this new model of filmmaking in an era of dwindling government support. The upcoming India-Canada co-pro agreement is cause for celebration as it’s a great opportunity to partner with this burgeoning economy. There were questions as to whether we should pursue a Canada-US co-pro agreement or focus on other markets.

Good news for the Video-On-Demand streaming service we’re creating for the best in Canadian film, as the panel felt that these budget cuts make room for new models to come forward, such as alternative platforms and VOD.

Kathleen Meek of Astral summed it up nicely. “What does the industry need? More money. More rigour on scripts. More time. More writers. Writing teams. More mentorship, like the CFC Comedy Lab.” Mark Slone reiterated this. “Funny is hard. It takes huge teams of writers to make those US blockbuster comedies.”

More money and time. Couldn’t we all use a little of both?