National Board puts titles online, fights cutbacks

TORONTO — Canada’s National Film Board turns 70 this year, and impressively, has racked up an equal number of Oscar noms. The Canuck public film producer and distributor includes a dozen wins nearly spanning its history, from the first-ever Oscar doc for “Churchill’s Island” (1941) to animated short “The Danish Poet” (2006).

The NFB is marking the occasion by uploading its cinema legacy. Last month it launched an online screening room (nfb.ca) where more than half its 13,000-plus English and French titles — including docs (Terri Nash’s U.S. Justice Dept.-censored 1982 short doc Oscar-winner “If You Love This Planet”), drama (Claude Jutra’s 1971 “Mon Oncle Antoine,” widely considered the best Canuck pic) and animation (faves like “The Big Snit” and classics by Norman McLaren) — are on view.

“We are looking into launching projects there as well as making content available on mobile platforms,” says Tom Perlmutter, who has made bringing the NFB into the digital age a priority since becoming chief in 2007.

But while the board celebrates, including a retrospective at Toronto’s Hot Docs fest (April 30-May 10), it’s also struggling to survive. NFB’s funding has dwindled since a major mid-1990s wallop to its stagnant annual budget. Over the years, Montreal-based org has responded by trimming jobs and shifting resources. And as a sign of desperate times, last week 260 staffers from the six production centers, via their unions, launched a “Save the NFB” campaign to remind Canadians and politicians of the agency’s unique cultural import.

For now, the org remains a vital domestic and international player, a sought-after partner thanks to its quality brand. Despite the agency’s more frequent co-producer status, Perlmutter says its role is never mere co-financier.

The NFB’s “ability to operate in areas where the private sector can’t, to be a risk-taker, has become absolutely central,” he says.

“We’re only interested in projects that advance the art of cinema.”

Brett Gaylor’s IDFA aud award-winner “RiP,” which explores copyright and sampling issues while inviting contributors to remix parts of the docu, is the most recent example. A new creative co-producing partnership with NHK is likely the first of more similar agreements.

“The NFB has always been a haven for filmmakers with things to say that didn’t fit the TV mold, either by content, length or form,” says veteran helmer Paul Cowan (“Paris 1919″), citing his previous doc on abortionist Dr. Henry Morganthaler. The NFB’s longstanding role in developing aboriginal, visible minority and emerging talent adds to that status.

Chris Landreth, Oscar-winner for “Ryan” (2004), says the board is unique in its institutional support for short filmmaking, especially animation.

“There is a tolerance for really weird ideas that quite often turn into really important films,” he says with a laugh.

Landreth points to last year’s Oscar-nommed stop-motion short “Madame Tutli-Putli” as a project that could help the animation industry develop in Canada.

Landreth’s just-completed NFB-produced CGI short, “The Spine” (which will bow circa Cannes), illustrates the agency’s importance as a training ground. “(Toronto’s) Seneca College graduate students were the animators on this film — and they all have jobs now.”

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