OTTAWA — Some of Canada’s biggest film producers are warning against proposed changes to a key federal funding program, saying a new politically correct focus on gender and racial equality could hamper the commercial viability of Canadian cinema.
Their concerns centre around a decision earlier this year by Telefilm Canada, a Crown corporation that finances Canadian films, to review a stream of funding known as Fast Track, which distributes money to Canadian movie producers based on past success generating box office returns or winning prestigious film awards.
The Crown corporation suspended the Fast Track stream amid COVID-19, then launched a “transparent and inclusive” industry consultation that would completely reorient Telefilm’s mandate “through a lens of diversity and inclusion in order to abolish systemic racism.”
spoke with six film producers who raised concerns over the consultation process, saying the move appears well intentioned from a distance, but could actually wrestle control of the allocation of funds away from the industry in favour of a small group of bureaucrats. Fast Track has for 20 years served as a crucial source of capital for some of Canada’s most successful and award-winning films, the producers said, from
The Barbarian Invasions
Rifts between Telefilm and film producers point to deeper-lying tensions over the growing adoption of socially conscious policies, which often seek to enforce guaranteed outcomes based on race, gender, or other categories of identity. Producers worry the new mandate could effectively fail to ensure guaranteed opportunity for filmmakers, and lose sight of Telefilm’s initial mandate to create commercially viable films.
“We should not judge a program based on who benefits from it,” said Denise Robert, who produced films including
The Barbarian Invasions
. “I think the question should be very basic: what films have been made with this program? And are those films worthwhile?”
Robert has secured Fast Track funding for several of her movies, including
, a psychological thriller that performed well internationally, but that she says would have never gotten made without additional support from Telefilm.
“If this film would have been submitted to juries or to committees or whatever, it would not have been done,” she said.
Telefilm opened up consultations on the Fast Track stream to a number of special interest groups both inside and outside the Canadian film industry, including the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion and the Racial Equity Media Collective, among others.
Many said that the so-called “success index” under the Fast Track stream, which gauges the past successes of film producers based on past box office revenues and other numerical values, effectively created an elite club of producers who can access funds for films, while minority groups are left out. Producers who spoke to the
, some of them women, immigrants, or visible minorities, said that characterization overlooks the immensely difficult work producers inside the Fast Track stream had to put in before they could access the funds.
“There’s this notion that we’re in this very exclusive club and we want to protect our interests, but that’s not the case at all,” said Niv Fichman, producer of
The Red Violin,
which generated $15.2 million in the U.S. and Canada. “It was a hard-earned privilege,” he said.
Many producers who spoke to
said the new mandate is at risk of overlapping with the Canada Arts Council, which has a budget twice the size of Telefilm, and has explicit mandates to funnel money to underrepresented First Nations, Black or other artists. Telefilm also pledged $100,000 to the Black Screen Office earlier this year, and provides $100,000 to the Indigenous Screen Office annually.
Telefilm’s Fast Track stream, meanwhile, was created 20 years ago with the explicit goal of supporting films that would “put bums in seats,” according to then-Heritage Minister Sheila Copps.
“Telefilm is an investment agency; they’re not an arts council,” Fichman said.
Most producers who spoke with
said they support better gender parity in film, but ultimately categorized Telefilm’s new direction as an effort to seize control of more of the Crown corporations roughly $100-million budget.
“Telefilm is reinventing itself as part of a cynical exercise,” said Robert Lantos, producer of
, a well-received Russian mob drama directed by Canadian David Cronenberg. “They’re trying to reframe this as the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have-nots’, as an issue of skin colour, as an issue of gender. But that’s not the issue. It’s a false dichotomy. But it’s a dichotomy that works very well for their agenda, because their agenda is to take control of all of the funds and make all the decisions themselves.”
Executives at Telefilm Canada reject claims that their new mandate will exclude the perspectives of successful mainstream producers in favour of special interest groups. The updated mandate simply aims to elevate underrepresented voices in the Canadian film industry, rather than downplay existing voices, they said.
“The industry has changed, and we need to adapt. It’s as simple as that,” said Christa Dickenson, executive director of Telefilm Canada.
She added that the current mandate had not been updated in a decade, and needed a “modernized” approach to account for gender and racial disparities.
Telefilm’s mandate is “beyond just the financial return on an investment,” said René Bourdages, senior director of cultural portfolio management at Telefilm.
The allocation of the Fast Track stream was initially created with 50-50 input between civil servants and industry members, but that was later cut back to 35 per cent input from industry. The industry side of the stream, which is allocated via the success index, accounted for $24 million in funding in 2019-20, according to Telefilm’s annual report. The Crown corporation recoups roughly $5 million per year from films that generate positive returns, Telefilm executives said.
Bourdages said special interest groups and other representatives in the consultations said that there was an overemphasis on commercial scoring that took precedence over all other considerations.
“Most conversations that we had with producers were around their score, and not necessarily around the creative or the strength of their project,” he said.
Industry insiders now worry the success index could either be permanently scrapped or have its goal posts adjusted. In a summary of an Oct. 14 consultation over the success index, posted on Telefilm’s website, participants said that the success of gay and lesbian films, for example, should be gauged on a separate scale than that of mainstream films because they target smaller audiences.
“Ditto for genres, target audiences, diverse creators, etc. – consider the impact on the target (don’t compare with mass appeal products),” one recommendation said.
Producers were in agreement with Telefilm, however, on the narrower topic of funding. Several producers and theatre representatives wrote Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault in September, calling for a $50-million increase to the Telefilm budget. The current $100-million budget hasn’t risen with inflation, producers said, which has left fewer funds to be distributed among a growing pool of movie makers.
“I think what’s going on is there is clearly not enough funding at Telefilm and they’ve chosen to pit certain producers against others,” said David Gross, producer of Room, which received four Oscar nominations in 2016 and won Best Actress. The critically-acclaimed film secured $3 million in Fast Track funding and eventually grossed $35 million at the box office.
Gross, like others, supports the general bid by Telefilm to make movies more equal, but said removing or adjusting the Fast Track stream could simply worsen the problem by making Canadian films less competitive.
“I don’t believe diversity and commercial success are mutually exclusive goals.”
Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques