Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Canadian Feature Film Solution? (Part 3)

Part three of three. Again, this article by John Harkness was first published in 1995, is a bit dated. But what it has to say is not. As usual, I have interjected with my own two-bits.

3. Federal and Provincial Governments Should Stop Funding Feature-Film Production

My fingers tremble as I process these words. I can’t believe that I’m about to say what I’m about to say. Well, God hates cowards.

The governments, federal and provincial, should stop funding feature-film production. The Canadian government has been pouring money into this financial dry hole for about a quarter of a century now, and exactly what have we gotten for the millions “invested” – a film “industry” that lies continually in intense care, tubes running in and out of its body, dozens of specialists running in and out of the room to monitor its pulse, blood pressure. It’s a Karen Anne Quinlin of a film industry that one one’s willing to pull the plug on.

I once spoke with a producer who had made films on both sides of the border, and he said to me that in the U.S. industry, to be successful as a producer, at some point one must satisfy an audience. It may be an audience plunking down $8 to see the movie in a theatre, it may be an audience renting a video for $3, it may be people turning into you movie when it shows up on television, but an audience must be satisfied or the film is a failure.

In Canada, he said, you never have to satisfy an audience. You have to satisfy Telefilm Canada, the Ontario Film Development Corporation, the CBC, the National Film Board of Canada.

That is, you have to satisfy a group of well-meaning, highly educated cultural bureaucrats. This means three or four things. It means that a filmmaker would be far likelier to get approval for a move that espouses whatever liberal cause is fashionable at the moment than for anything truly audacious, unsettling or interesting. I suspect that the entire career of the terminally tedious Anne Wheeler is based on the fact that she’s a “two-fer” – a woman director and a regional director in one package, fulfilling a big chunk of whatever unconscious quota system exists in the minds of the culture-crats. (and that system exists. A few years ago, I was talking to one of the principals in Deepa Mehta’s Sam and Me, who told they had a devil of a time getting funding because, someone at Telefilm Canada told them, Telefilm already had an Indian film that year.)

When something daring comes through the English-Canadian offices of Telefilm, like John Greyson’s Zero Patience or Srivinas Krishna’s Masala, one can bet that it is being funded not because it is daring, but because it fulfills some minority quotas.

Why does the government fund films? If the intent was to create a viable, working film industry that creates products that audiences want to see, then almost three decades of government funding has been an abject failure in English Canada. Good films have been made, but I would suggest that most of the best films have been made by people so obsessed with their visions that they would have been made whether the government funded them or not. People who need to make the films will make films, whether they get a grant or not. And people who are successful at making films that they have to make will continue to make them.

The government has never done the one thing essential to create a working film industry. It has never guaranteed Canadian films theatre space. How can we have a working film industry without control of the exhibition? On those occasions in the past three decades when the various federal government have made noises about quotas or box-office levies, Jack Valenti, Hollywood’s lobbyist/enforcer, has shown up and got the government to back down.

If the government really wants to create a viable film industry, they shouldn’t be funding production. They should build a theatre chain that would let people see Canadian films in an environment comparable to that in which they see Hollywood films. Perhaps 60 screens to start, and then match distributors dollar for dollar on promotion and advertising. Then we’d see if there’s any sort of market for Canadian films in Canada, rather than who is committed to getting grants, bridging loans and development money.

Here's where I differ, but times have changed since this article. I don't believe theatres are the answer anymore. Canada lost that battle in the 1930s when we sold our theatre chains to the U.S. (on a promise that Hollywood would make Canuck themed-pictures). DVD, BluRay and other formats are accounting for at least 60% of a features revenue anyway. Technology has opened up some opportunities. Even Hollywood films are not making enough dough at the theatre to cover their budgets or marketing expense. It is now treated as an expensive form of advertising dominated by 'tent-pole' $100 million to 200 million dollar movies.

And do I really want a Crown corporation involved in how my film is marketed? That's something filmmakers should be asking. Ask farmers how much they liked the Wheat Board running their business for them.

When it comes to concluding these three parts, a better writer than I has the best quote as to whybureaucracies like Telefilm and others exist. And as long as they exist in their present form, we can expect more of the same.

A film is, in fact, only a courtesy under this system. It functions, as do the endless and proliferating committees of Government, as a repository of bureaucratic power. This power exists, and can exist, only in potential - for should the committee ever come to conclusions, its task, and so its operation as a bureaucratic fiefdom, would cease. So the bureaucrat, studio or otherwise, learns not only of the inadvisability of any test or completion but also of such conclusions absolute foolishness. This lesson, we see, was learned very well by the folks at Eron et al. - executives who saw power to grow wealthy stemmed from the brave decision to stop making anything at all."
- David Mamet (Bambi versus Godzilla)

Reproduced from the archives of Take One Magazine with permission. Web

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