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Telefilm celebrates 40th birthday

Despite uphill struggle, Telefilm renews homegrown fare focus

TORONTO — Telefilm Canada is celebrating its 40th birthday, and veteran independent producer Laszlo Barna (“DaVinci’s Inquest”) wants to give the federal cultural agency that has supported his work “hundreds of times” its due.

Telefilm has, overall, protected and grown an indigenous industry in all sectors,” he says, “and on its 40th anniversary, the government, whoever that may be, ought to look at giving it substantial support.”

It was on March 3, 1967, that the Canadian Film Development Corp. was established by the federal government with the rather naive thought that it could bankroll a national film industry with a one-time allocation of C$10 million ($8.5 million).

“It was quite visionary of the government of the day,” says Montreal-based producer Arnie Gelbart (“The Hanging Garden”), “because they created an industry where none existed and no one was likely to commit to without a mechanism of this sort. In the U.K., France and elsewhere, Telefilm was a model for other agencies around the world.”

Things may not have worked out as initially planned, but Telefilm (as it was renamed in 1984 when it added TV to its to-do list) has since become part of the ongoing bedrock of both the film and TV industries in Canada, thanks to the largess of the Canadian government.

Last year, Telefilm had a budget of $342 million and 211 employees at its Montreal headquarters and at satellite offices in Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax.

The majority of Canadian features that get released theatrically enjoy some measure of financial support from Telefilm, and most homegrown TV is supported by the Telefilm-administered (but not managed) Canadian Television Fund. It also touts a new media division and is a significant supporter of film festivals and industry training.

Telefilm has offered plenty to crow about of late. Last year kicked off on a high note with the achievement of a goal, set five years previous, of a 2005 B.O. market share for homegrown fare of 5%. (The figure was actually 5.3%.) Then in October, the Telefilm-supported bilingual buddy pic “Bon Cop, Bad Cop” garnered the largest B.O. of any Canadian film at home since “Porky’s” (1982), when it surpassed $9.5 million at the wickets. Then in January, Deepa Mehta’s Hindi-language/Telefilm-supported feature “Water” garnered an Oscar nom for best foreign-language film.

And yet, years of navel gazing and tinkering notwithstanding, Telefilm has had, and, continues to have, its challenges. Whether it’s due to language, culture or just economics, there has from the beginning been a dramatic lopsidedness to the English- and French-Canadian movie business, with French-Canadians enjoying — and having access to — their own fare while the English-Canadian market is virtually tied up with Hollywood’s version.

So of the 5.3% homegrown box office in 2005, the English-Canadian share was just 1.1% while that of French Canada was 26.6%; those figures for 2006 were 1.7% for English-language fare and 17.1% for French, for a total of 4.1%.

In addition, Telefilm has always kicked far more into the system than it — and critics would add the rest of Canada — has gotten back.

In 2005-06 for example, Telefilm’s Canada Feature Film Fund invested $79.1 million in Canuck pics (two-thirds of it English-language fare) that brought in B.O. receipts of $34.8 million (85% of which came from French-language movies).

So what you get come the night of the Genie Awards, Canada’s version of the Oscars, is a slate of films that have for the most part come to a theater near few — unless it’s French and you live in Quebec.

Tube groove

Television, where there exists a similar French/English imbalance, has not been any easier. While approximately 40% of English-language primetime fare is homegrown, 78% of English-Canadian primetime viewing in 2004-05 was of foreign — mostly U.S. — product, and just 7% of drama viewing was Canadian-made.

Telefilm’s stewardship of the public funding of Canadian television has been an on-again/off-again affair in which, most recently, administrative, but not managerial, responsibility for the embattled Canadian Television Fund was given to Telefilm.

Certainly Telefilm itself is less to blame than U.S. spillover or Canadian broadcast regulation, but any producer who has worked with Telefilm can tell you that as it has grown and built such a labyrinthine bureaucratic structure, it has at times alienated its own constituencies.

“When it started, it was a small industry and things were simple,” Gelbart recalls. “You’d go in and have one meeting, and the deal would be done.” But then the lawyers and accountants seemed to take over. “Over time, Telefilm has become a world unto itself, and it sees the producer not as the main client but as another part of the system that has to be kept in check.”

Ditto on the television end. “There wasn’t always due process,” says producer Barna. “There wasn’t necessarily the transparency that needed to be there in terms of how stuff was being selected. There were too many political tradeoffs, and sometimes people lost perspective on what they were doing and not necessarily selecting the best project.”

Exec director’s view

Stakeholders are optimistic, however, about the will of current executive director Wayne Clarkson to take on these challenges. Calling this “a new era of partnership with the industry,” Clarkson kicked off his tenure in 2005 with round after round of thorough consultations.

“This industry is becoming so fragmented,” he says, “that if we don’t come together four, five, six times a year and start sharing these challenges, we’re not going to meet them head on.”

In particular, Telefilm has pounced on new technologies with its latest five-year corporate plan, “From Cinemas to Cell Phones,” in which new media are held out as something of a panacea to the problems of high production costs, tightly controlled distribution channels and the battle for audience share.

But even if the concept of producers as “content developers” and audiences as “end users” were an easy sell, the challenge still remains one of coin — both from Telefilm, which has just $11.9 million to play with, and with returns.

“This is a challenge for the entire industry,” Clarkson says. “Witness the (recent) struggle between (the Canadian thesp union) ACTRA and producers to try and give some monetary value to a multiplatform universe. The business models have not yet emerged.” (ACTRA recently ended its strike against the Canadian Film & Television Production Assn.)

In the meantime, Clarkson says, “Fundamentally what doesn’t change is what drives the institution. It did so 40 years ago, and it does so today. It’s Canadian talent making Canadian programming that engages audiences and the world.”

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