Imagine if Canada created a Hollywood North. Indeed, Canada’s first response to the primacy of Hollywood was creating a Hollywood North; it’s just that Hollywood in the States received a head start. Many of us are quick to call Canadian films “amateur”, but in reality several Canadian filmmakers excel at creating incredible films. D.W. Griffith, an American director best known for the film Birth of a Nation, once said, “You in Canada should not be dependent on either the United States or Great Britain. You should have your own films and exchange them with those of other countries. You can make them just as well in Toronto as in New York.” Then why are we so quick to assume that Canadian films are amateur? Why don’t Canadians watch Canadian films?
It was with no small amount of sadness that I watched the mini drama that unfolded over Ben Affleck’s Academy Award winning speech for Argo. For those who are unaware, former Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, expected and ultimately received some mention of Canada’s role in the story Affleck was telling. When Affleck did mention Canada there was a good deal of cheering on Twitter from Canadians (‘OMG, he said Canada!‘). What it all meant to me was that Canada still has little culture of our own. We are still looking outside of our borders for legitimacy. This is true to varying degrees throughout the arts, but is especially true in the case of film.
The film industry in Canada is a multi-billion dollar industry employing more than 100,000 people, with foreign production accounting for a large part of that. Still Canada seems to have a surplus of film talent, including many Academy Award winners and we do make films domestically – quite a lot of them actually. The problem is that while Canadians cheer when Ben Affleck says Canada, they do not know or care about Canadian film.
For those of you who live in the suburbs, don’t you ever wonder why there are next to no Canadian films being screened at local movie theatres chains? Living in Mississauga myself, I have yet to see a single Canadian movie played locally. The theatres in Mississauga, as well as those in the nearby suburbs, show only those productions coming from American, and occasionally from British, studios. To see a Canadian film, people in the suburbs have to make an hour long commute to Toronto, spending even more money on bus tickets. It’s difficult enough as it is for those living in the suburbs, but I can only imagine the struggle someone in a rural area would have to go through to commute to see the work of their fellow citizens – it must be nearly impossible. As a result, young people are growing up on a foreign entertainment industry that dominates their own country. With all these problems, you’d wonder what was wrong with the Canadian film industry…
The answer is nothing. Canada’s film industry produces several fantastic films a year. However, there may be outside factors playing into the fact that not many Canadians watch their own films. Being aware of how Hollywood got a head start would probably help us understand why Canada fell behind in the production of films and why American films dominate. Canada was slow in entering the film industry for several reasons. At the time when Hollywood was rising, there were no large cities in Canada. This meant that there was no audience for their films. Then no one wanted to invest money into Canadian films. Canadians have been known to be more careful with their money; it’s the Americans who are the risk-takers. Lastly, there existed no national live theatre yet, like Stratford.
If you think about the average budget for an American film, roughly 120 to 200 million dollars, and compare it to the amount Telefilm Canada distributes amongst numerous Canadians directors annually, 110 million dollars, you can see why it’s a much harder task to create a Canadian film. On top of this, the American film studios spend several millions of dollars on advertising their films, which is a huge advantage because it gets a large amount of people to actually watch their films. Unfortunately, since Canadian movies do not have that advantage, most Canadians go simply unaware of the Canadian films that do exist so they will not go and see it.
The American film industry also received a huge head start and advantage because of the world wars – European film studios were bombed during the wars, so American films filled the gap. American film studios gain access to a lot more money, and especially in these days since they hold the reigns on these huge corporations such as Time Warner, Sony, and others controlling much of the media, they obtain the extra money needed to spend on advertising. The U.S. enjoys a huge cultural influence market and has a large population– so mass amounts of people paid to go see the American movies and that meant that the studios rained money again to make bigger movies. Their diverse culture has also always been a big advantage to them, seeing as they had to make more accessible movies with simple plots and universal themes, and this attracted a wide variety of people, especially immigrants (the magic of American films is simply that they make films that everyone can relate to). Last, and most importantly, is that the Hollywood studios were organized into the Major Motion Picture Association and that means they work together to promote their films, to set up American movie chains in other countries and to distribute their films globally.
So it’s not so much that Canadian films aren’t well done, or that Canadians are simply uninterested in their own films – it’s more than that. The much larger institution backing this up, making sure the American movies are globally dominating the film industry, is to blame. When it comes down to the actual films that Canada is making, they are incredibly well done. Every year, Canadian films find a spot in Oscar nominations. Not amateur at all.
“From the Americans’ perspective, this is a huge market and they don’t want to give it up,” says Lindsay Gaughn of Dynamics Professional Videosystems. The company, in which he works in the sales department, is based in Mississauga, Ontario, one of the few Canadian film distributors. Gaughn points his finger at the ownership of that industry. “It depends on the distribution systems. Right now it seems to be controlled south of the border.” In fact, he notes that American companies control 95% of film distribution in Canada. Without Canadian films being distributed to theatres, its unlikely that many will specifically request them.
Matthew Ridell, a Ryerson student like myself, says he’s never seen a Canadian movie. “I don’t think people are informed enough to think ‘I want to see this movie because it’s Canadian and it interests me.’ Ridell feels that as long as advertising and publicity of such films are low, “I don’t think it’s ever going to work.” Another Ryerson student, Sara Marks, says she can’t recall ever seeing a full length Canadian feature film either. She thinks Canada is destined to do poorly in film because the population isn’t densely concentrated. In other countries, showing movies in a few urban centres would make them available to nearly the entire population. “If we send them [Canadian movies] over to Britain, the European market is huge. With Canada, it’s a bit hard because we’re so widely spread out.” She believes that Canadian content rulings, such as those imposed on radio and television stations, might be helpful. However, Marks can’t see the industry watchdog, the CRTC (Canadian Radio and Television Commission), having the money to expand its operations. “Like the National Film Board, their funding has been going down. It’s not really fair, but with health care going down it only makes sense to cut that too.”
Gaughn reminds us that the Canadian predicament is not seen in most other nations. “In certain countries like France they have a strict policy,” Gaughn notes, in reference to national content restrictions. He also gives some support to the notion of Canadian content regulations. This might force the cinemas to do the work to pick up a greater number of Canadian films, Marks thinks.
He finds Canada’s current method of dealing with low national content federal funding for certain films ineffective. Gaughn sees Telefilm, the federal agency that dispenses funding, as a biased and exclusionary method of promoting film. “The problem with publicly funded films,” he says, “is that they are invariably safe and unchallenging. The downside is that you don’t get good films.” Gaughn believes that the industry should be more market driven, with funding incentives given to films that seem capable of making money. “I think Bruce MacDonald made his first film, Roadkill, with very little public funding,” he says.
But Gaughn can’t see a political move to improve the chances of Canadian films anytime soon. And he can’t see any American acceptance of such a move. U.S. companies make a large amount of money in Canada, and tend to consider it part of their domestic market. “They won’t give up their golden egg without a fight,” he says.
The main problem is that it’s hard to persuade Canadians to watch their own films. In Peter Howell’s Toronto Star article, he states, “We Canadians enjoy making fun of how mild and self-deprecating we are on the world stage, but it’s a pity that many of us actually believe the joke. Nowhere is this defeatist attitude more evident than in our collective approach to our country’s films.” He goes on to talk about how Martin Knelman reported the facts and arguments of Starlight seeking CRTC muscle to force big cable operators Rogers, Shaw and Bell into providing the newcomer first-tier channel status. This sought-after “mandatory carriage” ruling, which the CRTC will consider in late April, would cost each Canadian cable subscriber just 45 cents per month on his or her bill. The money would also be used to fund between eight to 12 new features per year. “I think the idea is good and necessary (so does the Star) to support, promote and develop a domestic film industry that is forever in the shadow of the Hollywood giants. Yet the cable biggies are opposing it, for reasons succinctly described as “greed and control.”
It’s rather disheartening to see these prominent Canadians having to do a sales job to convince their fellow Canucks that the country’s films are worth watching. (I should note at this point that it’s mostly English Canadians who require the persuading, since Quebecers loyally support their province’s French-language productions.) The irony of it all is that moviegoers outside Canada don’t require arm-twisting to see our movies. Canadian productions are actually gaining in popularity in the U.S. and overseas. There’s no stigma attached to them outside our borders.
You can see this at the Academy Awards, as mentioned above, where Canadian movies have landed a coveted Best Foreign Language Film nomination the past three years running: Rebelle this year, Monsieur Lazhar in 2012 and Incendies in 2011. This is over and above the regular love the Academy shows our NFB, which over the years has received 72 Oscar nominations, with 12 wins.
So what’s going on Canada? Everyone else is watching our films except us. Weird, eh?
Here is a list of great films you probably thought weren’t Canadian but are:
Mama (2013) directed by Andres Muschietti
Bon Cop Bad Cop (2006) directed by Eric Canuel
Chloe (2009) directed by Atom Egoyan
One Week (2008) directed by Michael McGowan
Childstar (2004) directed by Don McKellar
Juno (2007) directed by Jason Reitman
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) directed by Edgar Wright
Passchendaele (2008) directed by Paul Gross
If you call yourself Canadian, you should go watch them.
PS: And isn’t it funny how so many American films are shot in Vancouver and Toronto? I’ll be writing more on this topic soon, so stay tuned…