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Bilingual battle for Canadian coin

Films in French, English pull funder in dual directions

As head of film funding agency Telefilm Canada, Carolle Brabant knows she must serve two masters.

She’s constantly under pressure from two very different film communities — those in Toronto, the hub of the English-Canadian biz, and those nearer Telefilm Canada’s head office in Montreal, center of Canada’s Franco film milieu.

Unsurprisingly, everyone wants a bigger piece of the Telefilm pie and, by global standards, it’s hardly the biggest pie around. The federal agency has only $100 million to dole out annually for all things film-related, including development, production and distribution. Most of the cash, around $65 million, is earmarked for production. The rule of thumb is that two-thirds goes to English-language films.

This roughly reflects the linguistic makeup of the country: 60% of the population are native English-speakers, 23% are French.

But Quebec films do better commercially on their home turf than English-Canadian films. Local French-language films grabbed 13.4% of all French-language ticket sales in Canada last year, compared with a market share of just 1.4% for English-Canadian films.

Some Quebec producers feel that the French-language filmmakers should be receiving more than one-third of the Telefilm dough, due to the disparity at the local box office.

“I don’t have an easy solution, but all I can say is that success is not rewarded in a fair way,” says Montreal producer Roger Frappier (“Seducing Doctor Lewis”). “Everywhere else in the world, success is rewarded.”

Brabant is quick to point out, however, that the English films tend to make more money internationally.

“The potential for international opportunities are probably a little bit bigger on the English side just because of the language,” she says. “The larger-budget (films) in English tend to be co-produced. The production companies all have the same objective — trying to develop films that will be attractive to audiences. In Quebec, a lot of companies are developing films that are attractive to Quebec audiences..”

Now, however, companies in Quebec developing projects that are not only of interest to Quebecois, but to international audiences as well, Brabant notes.

Quebecois helmer Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies” broke out internationally last year, snaring an Oscar nomination in the foreign-language film category and winning prizes at film festivals around the globe. That’s in large part because his dark drama about sectarian conflict in an unnamed country in the Middle East had a more global theme than most recent Quebec films.

Montreal production house Microscope, which produced “Incendies,” has a new film that’s making waves beyond Quebec’s borders: Writer-director Philippe Falardeau’s “Monsieur Lazhar,” about an Algerian refugee teaching in a Montreal grade school, nabbed two prizes at the Locarno fest and was named top Canadian feature at the Toronto festival.

While Canadian distributors Alliance Films and Seville Pictures have developed a real expertise in marketing their local French-language pics, Brabant and her colleagues at Telefilm are well aware that the same distribs have been much less successful with English-language Canadian films.

“In Quebec, the marketing is really specific to the audience,” Brabant says. “I think in English, we’ve had a tendency to use the same type of approach in marketing our films from one ocean to another, looking at the audiences (across the country) as if they were attracted to the same kind of films. But that’s not true.”

The Telefilm honchos see a need for distributors to tailor each campaign to different regions of Canada. But that’s also more of a challenge in English Canada, which doesn’t have the media — the locally produced TV talkshows, the star-gossip weekly publications — that are so prevalent in Quebec.

“There’s a need for a bit more innovation in the way we’re distributing (English Canadian films),” Brabant says. “We’re using the same recipe the Americans are using, but we’re not in the business of making $100 million films, and of course we don’t have the $100 million for promotion that the studios have. We’re in a niche market.”

The federal government has set a goal for Canadian films to reach 5% of overall box office, but they haven’t made that mark in recent years, hovering between 3%-4% — almost entirely due to the boffo ticket sales for French-language Canadian films. But Brabant is proud to note that Canadian films account for close to 20% of the independent — i.e. non-Hollywood — box office in Canada.

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