Tag Archives: film industry

Why don’t Canadian films LOOK Canadian? What makes a film truly Canadian?

What do we expect from Canadian movies? I feel like this is a question we Canadians should be asking, but end up overlooking entirely. I’ve brought this up in previous posts, but I’m going to bring it up again because I feel it’s important for us to challenge ourselves as Canadian citizens: Why aren’t we watching Canadian films? Arts contribute a large part in creating a sense of cultural pride, and films are a huge part of that, but how often do we watch our own films? More importantly, why don’t Canadian films LOOK like they’re Canadian? Why are more and more Canadian movies pretending to be American? You guys know what I’m talking about.

In Canadian films, the characters never talk about where they come from or mention where they are going. The very thought of dialogue saying “I’m from Alberta” or “I’m going to Newmarket” never crosses a writer’s mind or if it does the producers will remove it. No one in our films is reading The Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star (in one film, a bundle of newspapers being delivered was turned upside down to avoid revealing its name), no radio announcer is ever to say, “This is the CBC.” The police are seldom identified by their actual uniforms and the cars they use, no politicians are ever mentioned, no hospitals, schools or public buildings are identified, and seldom a maple leaf flag is seen flying. Contrast this with what we see in American and Québec films. Their filmmakers are delighted to be proud of their places and their society and put it naturally on the screen. Montreal lives constantly as do other places in the province used as locations; when people go abroad and say that they are from Canada the usual response is “Oh! From Montreal?” No one ever asks if a Canadian is from Toronto because no one has ever recognized it on the screen, even though they may have seen flashes of it. The CN Tower should be as well-known as the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, but it is not and the way we hide everything it never will be. Even a silly but outrageously black Vampire comedy from Québec called Karmina gives us a customs inspector saying “Welcome to Canada” and when money changes hands the $5 bill is clearly Canadian, not hidden and not American — as it usually is.

This is quoted from the article titled “Canadian Films: What Are We to Make of Them?” by Gerald Pratley. Actually, 75% of this post will be directly quoted from Pratley, as I think it addresses most of the problems with Canadian films today and gives us a good look at the reality of why the Canadian film industry is lacking identity (and dignity).

Today it is hard to avoid being suffocated in flags and dreary speeches from Ottawa exuding patriotism and telling us what a wonderful country we live in.  Back in the past we let the Americans celebrate their ‘freedom’ four days after Canada Day — we had fish to catch and lakes to swim in, the CBC to listen to, Export A cigarettes to smoke, Maclean’s and the Toronto Star to read — or the daily papers of other cities; and no one twisted themselves into knots wondering who they were and where they were. When therefore, our film producers came on the scene during the fifties they were afraid that such symbols, references and practices, even the people themselves, would be dull subjects to form the basis of profitable movies. Our young independents of those days were left behind, and our English-track producers, the so-called big players, thinking then as they do now, only in terms of the US market, adapted the “international look” — meaning the American look — and stripped away any references to Canada substituting Americanisms instead and passing off Canadian places as being American. This led to a certain amount of public criticism forcing producers to drop overt American references leaving their films to take place in “never-never” lands.

To this day producers are resolutely opposed to making English-speaking Canadian films contain anything that might I’ve away their origin. And have they found success as a result of this in selling their films to the US? Absolutely not, but they never learn and continue to deny us the very trappings of life which make us what we are. The Americans would never sell themselves out as our film and television producers do.

Those moviegoers who do see Canadian pictures must be mystified as to why American players are involved particularly as we have so many good actors of our own who are mostly under-employed.

There are continual complaints being vented by the ‘cultural activists’ (kind of like myself I guess… whoops) about why our films have such a tiny audience. They blame Hollywood for taking up so much screen time leaving us with only 3 per cent. They seem to forget that if the cinemas did not have American films to show they would be forced to close down, putting thousands of employees out of work, because we cannot fill the screens.

There is no joy in creativity for these Canadian producers, no satisfaction in putting Canada on the screen. Their rewards come purely in financial gains. The business of film is one of greed; soulless and without vision, our identity lost and national revelations entirely absent. And now a competitor is on the way in the form of Lionsgate Films of Vancouver. They have announced their intention of making Canadian films; they will no doubt produce films in Canada but it is unlikely they will be about Canada…

Our producers, who are only in film as a business to make money rather than to put their country on the screen, use our small market as a reason to concentrate on pseudo-American films they are certain will show profits from the US market. They seldom do, but producers never learn. To spend more than these sums on a truly Canadian picture is to invite financial loss unless it finds wide public acceptance in this country.

I personally think that what the nonexistent Canadian film industry needs is the right people to make genuinely well done and entertaining Canadian films. If you look over at Québec, they’re not making Wannabe American films, they’re making great Québec  films and people are actually going out to watch them. The Québecers are producing more successful films (financially speaking) because they aren’t pretending to be something they aren’t. And I think it’d be the same deal here in the English-Speaking Canadian provinces, if only there were more producers willing to take a risk. Playing it safe by trying to produce American-like films has always been the demise of the Canadian film industry… We just need the right filmmakers to create genuinely Canadian films that are actually entertaining to watch and that people would want to spend their money on to go see it in theatres.

Maple Syrup does not make a film Canadian. Sticking  a moose in a scene does not make it Canadian. The people of Canada need to be able to relate to these films if we want the people of Canada to be proud to say “This is a Canadian film.” I don’t think I can personally relate to having a moose pass by casually in my backyard.

We do need our films to address the many social issues within Canada, such as the “multicultural” question and the Aboriginals. However, the reason the American film industry is so successful is that it also produces numerous “feel-good” movies that people can relate to. Why don’t we ever see a romantic comedy movie about a couple who live in Toronto? Or a drama based in Vancouver?

So what should we expect to see? Is it too much, too narrow, too parochial, too nationalistic, to then expect that a Canadian film, financed by us, by the state, should be recognizably set in this country and identified as such, written by Canadians, and portrayed by Canadian actors? Many are, but the matter of where they take place is usually blank. The reward of self-recognition among audiences is rare.

What makes a film “Canadian” is not the fact that is was directed by a Canadian, filmed on location in Canada, or that it contains Canadian actors – what makes a film truly worthy of the title “Canadian” is one that is not afraid to reveal that it IS, in fact, Canadian. One that proudly shows off the silhouettes of the Canadian Rockies, the mix of nature and city life in Vancouver, the skyscrapers – the CN tower itself – in Toronto, the european feel of Montreal, The Globe and Mail newspapers, the “Welcome to Canada” sign. A truly Canadian film isn’t hesitant to contain a scene with the Canadian flag itself god damn it.

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Why have we played Host & Mistress to so many Hollywood big boys? Why don’t Canadians watch their own films?

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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?

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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…

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