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Canadian Film – The Last 20 Years

Empty Cinema Seats, image,
Seats at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema.

Canadian Film – The Last 20 Years
by Ralph Lucas – Publisher

(April 24, 2019 – Toronto, ON) Earlier this year as we began to approach our 20th anniversary online, I looked for ways to measure the state of Canadian film. I think Telefilm said it best when they wrote: “In 2001 the Canadian feature film policy began a decade of measuring the success of Canadian films based on their performance at the box office.” Unfortunately that standard was changed as Telefilm went on to admit, “As the years went by, however, it became evident that the Canadian films that received critical acclaim and won awards were not necessarily the ones earning big box office numbers in theatres.”

The new formula as determined by Telefilm isn’t complicated, but for the past several years, the box office component is only 40% of the measure of a film’s success. Another 30%, divided equally three ways, go to films which have screened at international film festivals, won awards at international films festivals or won awards in Canada.

There were some grumblings in the Media Room at the Canadian Screen Awards this year. The one most often heard was that not one of the nominated films for Best Picture was made outside of Québec. Another was that not one of the nominated films had had theatrical release in or around Toronto, the largest English film market in Canada. I wondered then and ask now, what message does that send not just to filmmakers, but to the cinema-goers as well?

Awards, although important, are highly subjective. A personal dislike by a single judge can skew the outcome. and I think Telefilm puts too much weight on them.

Back when the Golden Reel Award for top grossing Canadian film meant something, and producers were proud to display the award and mention these successes on their resumes,

Golden Reel Award, trophy, image,
Photo © 2016 by Ralph Lucas.
the cold, hard numbers were also a selling tool. A film that did well might get extended screen time. A producer or directer that delivered a profitable project would be more likely to get backing for their next project. Success bred success.

Twenty years ago when Northernstars went online, the 1999 Golden Reel Award went to Les Boys. Made in 1997 and released in 1998, it was directed by Louis Saïa and took in over $6,000,000 in Canada and another $4,000,000 from foreign box office sales. It also was the foundation for three more Les Boys films, all of them topping the Quebec box office in the years that they were released. It also spawned a successful TV series. Now that’s success.

Jumping ahead 20 years, the top grossing Canadian film for 2018 was 1991, from Ricardo Troji. Released at the end of July, it made a little more than half of Les Boys with a take of $3,059,192. It should be noted that less than 2,000 dollars of that was made outside Québec. That’s a significant decline over the past two decades and should worry everyone from filmmaker to cinema-goer to the more obvious stakeholders.

Canadian Film - The Last 20 Years, image,
Promotion image from the 2018 film, 1991.

Speaking of Québec, 7 of the Top 10 films of 2018 were made there. Here’s the scary part. The film at the bottom of the Top 10 list made a total of $331,569. What that means is the other 500 or so films produced in Canada in 2018 made less than that and I hazard a guess few, if any, made money for the people, companies and organizations backing them. The highest grossing English film was Indian Horse with a take of almost 1.7-million dollars; it ranked 5th. I should point out that many films made in late 2018 will only get theatrical release this year or maybe next year or maybe not at all.

By the way, as much as I like the Canadian Screen Award trophy, I think the Academy should reintroduce the imposing Golden Reel Award trophy. It was something special, something to behold and was highly cherished.

Box office gross and success is extremely tenuous in most of Canada. Everyone knows the expression that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In Canadian film the weakest link is exhibition. Getting films onto screens in Canada and keeping them there remains a problem. I know a lot about getting Canadian content out there. I began my career in radio when there were no Canadian content regulations and saw how the music industry grew and flourished when regulations were imposed. Cinemas are different. The airwaves are owned by the public and therefore government regulation is easy to impose. Cinema chains are owned by corporations and they have every right to run their businesses unfettered by government interference. I suggest where regulation won’t work, incentives might be tried. Instead of various government-funded agencies duplicating each other’s work and spending resources on projects that privately run companies can do more efficiently, maybe they should be buying screen time, or underwriting advertising campaigns for Canadian films. Or, maybe an idea similar to that tried by the Ontario Lottery in the late 1970s might help. Back then a non-winning lottery ticket could be used to get a discount when buying a Canadian book. Why not use the same idea to get bums in seats for Canadian films?

This is admittedly a cursory look at an industry that has always had trouble. And it is not a reflection of the film production industry which has experienced tremendous growth over the last two decades. However, tied by so many bonds to the Hollywood machine, we’ve been unable to elbow our films into Canadian cinemas. There is no question that we can make great films. But, twenty years into this publishing experiment, I think the entire industry and its large gaggle of supporters, including Northernstars, has to examine what we have accomplished, could we have done better, and is there a better way to increase public awareness and interest in the work of thousands of Canadian filmmakers?

I hope so. We’re counting on it. Here’s to our next 20 years.

Northernstars logo imageRalph Lucas is the founder and publisher of Northernstars.ca. He began writing about film and reviewing movies while in radio in Montreal in the mid-1970s.