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Canuck helmers shoot for broader appeal

New auteur-style films could reach wide audiences

MONTREAL — Telefilm Canada executive director Richard Stursberg is on a crusade to increase the box office of Canuck films and somehow convince reluctant Canadian moviegoers to actually plunk down hard-earned cash to see homegrown films. He also wants to see more accessible Canadian films.

So you might think he would be ambivalent about the Canadian programming at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, which historically has tended to fairly arty stuff.

But Stursberg, who took over the top job at Canadian film funder Telefilm in January, says Toronto remains a key launching pad for Canuck film and he begs to differ with the notion that the fest is only focused on navel-gazing art films.

He notes that “Bollywood/Hollywood,” the opening film of Toronto fest sidebar Perspective Canada, is quite an accessible film. The latest feature from Deepa Mehta (“Fire,” “Earth”) is a romantic musical comedy set in Toronto that makes much use of Bollywood-style songs, Hollywood choreography and a plot that blends Hollywood storytelling with a Bollywood morality play.

Casting a wider net

In addition, the fest has a number of prominent new Canadian auteur-style films that could well reach wide audiences at home and elsewhere, says Stursberg. He is thinking of Atom Egoyan’s Armenian-themed opening selection “Ararat” and the David Cronenberg-directed Ralph Fiennes starrer “Spider.”

But Stursberg maintains that English-Canadian film needs some shaking up and filmmakers have to start thinking more about selling tickets.

“What we’re not short of in English-Canadian film are art films,” says Stursberg. “What we are short of is commercial film. What we’d like to see is a better balance on the English side so that we’ll have thrillers, kids films and comedies.”

As usual, the picture is rosier in French Canada. Homegrown Quebec films accounted for 6% of the overall box office in 2001, up from 4% a year earlier. And early indications are that 2002 will be an even better year for French-Canadian pics, thanks to the run of hockey comedy “Les Boys III” into January, summer hit laffer “L’Odyssee d’Alice Tremblay” and surprise kids success story “La Mysterieuse Mademoiselle C.”

Popular auteurs

Even auteur films often do decent box office in French Canada, like modestly budgeted “Quebec-Montreal,” which garnered a respectable C$400,000 ($250,000) this summer in Quebec.

Last year, Telefilm unveiled a new policy to try to boost the fortunes of Canadian pics. The federal funding agency was under pressure from Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, who oversees Telefilm, to up the box office performance of homegrown films. The government doubled the amount of public coin available annually for Canuck movies to $63 million, but with a significant string attached — Telefilm had to start funding more commercial titles.

Telefilm’s stated goal is to have Canadian films account for 5% of the box office nationally, a target many in the industry feel is unrealistic. In the first quarter of this year, English-Canadian films pulled in only 1.7% of box office revenues in the country, compared with 9.8% for French-language Canadian pics.

But there are signs that English producers are making more commercial projects. The Robert Lantos-produced curling comedy “Men With Brooms,” starring and directed by “Due South” star Paul Gross, was one of the biggest homegrown hits in English Canada in years.

Stursberg and others also have high hopes for “Mambo Italiano,” which was shot in Montreal in August. It is based on the play of the same name, a major hit in both English and French in Montreal, and features well-known stars from both of Canada’s dominant cultures, including Mary Walsh, Ginette Reno and Sophie Lorain.

“This is a mainstream movie,” says Denise Robert, “Mambo’s” producer. “The film will have a major launch (in the summer of 2003) and the distributor has committed $940,000 to the launch of the film. ‘Men With Brooms’ opened some doors and we want to go through those doors. Making movies is expensive, so I think you want to reach as large an audience as possible.”

But some believe Canadian filmmakers should remain focused on arthouse pics.

“There are successful arthouse films and I think we should find a place in that world rather than making Hollywood-style films,” says Peter Sussman, CEO of the Alliance Atlantis Entertainment Group. “The issue isn’t budget. The issue is quality.”

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