Tracking Two Decades of Canadian Cinema
By Wyndham Wise
Editor’s note: As Northernstars was approaching its 20th year online we asked Wyndham Wise, one of the most knowledgeable writers on Canadian film, to report on our industry and give us his impression of where we were and where we are after all that time.
(March 14, 2019 – Toronto, ON) I’ve always likened Canadian cinema to a hothouse flower, exotic in its own country, and in need of a great deal of care. Let me relate an anecdote that I think illustrates the true nature of filmmaking in this country. Back around the time of Meatballs, Ivan Reitman was being interviewed on CHCH-TV out of Hamilton by a local blowhard who was hitting on him because he was producing films like Shivers, Rabid, and Meatballs, blatantly commercial films with public money, a controversial issue then as it is now. Reitman was unapologetic and simply said he made movies to make money, implying any other reason was idiotic. This, of course, is sacrilegious in Canada. The unrepentant Reitman soon left for Los Angeles to produce and direct Ghostbusters and make a great deal more money. The point being, there’s a widely held belief in this country that film is an art and not commerce; a hothouse flower, hidden away from public view, and in need of a great deal of care and cultivation, i.e. public money.
We have two industries in this country, not one. This is fundamental to understanding Canadian cinema. There is Quebec, and there is The Rest of Canada (TROC). TROC is divided into several regions: Newfoundland and Labrador, the Maritimes, Ontario, Manitoba, the Prairies, British Columbia, and the Territories and Nunavut. A lot of people want to pretend we have one industry, those in the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television for example, and academics and professional festival programmers who natter on endlessly about relevant themes in Canadian cinema. The truth is there are two, and TROC is so splintered that there’s no centre, which leads to fierce regional competition for available federal dollars in our heavily subsidized industry. Quebec protects its indigenous industry by not allowing distribution companies from the rest of Canada to set up shop there. It’s also blessed with a built-in audience based on language preference that as often as not prefers its local product to movies imported from Europe or Hollywood. TROC is so inundated with American product that it finds Canadian movies for the most part odd, boring, or foreign.
We lost the distribution / exhibition battle to the Americans a long time ago, and getting English-Canadian movies to their target audience remains a major stumbling block. Canadian films play on less than two per cent of the screens in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area (GTHA) in an average year, and the GTHA is the largest market for Canadian films in the world. (Quebec films occupy about 15-to-20 per cent of their own screens per annum.) Unenforceable quotes are out of the question. Been there (1975–77). Done that. There are alternative film distribution routes such as TIFF’s Film Circuit, and the ever-multiplying Canadian film festivals provide their own alternative circuit. There are so many festivals that a film can play across the country for months and attract larger audiences than it will ever achieve on commercial release.
We have built a thriving art-house cinema since the producer-driven disaster of the tax-shelter years (1974–81), and we tend to dismiss the commercial successes such as Porky’s, The Art of War, Air Bud, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse as aberrations. The Canadian film canon is a funny thing, and defining a Canadian film is a parlour game with no satisfactory solution. Why is a generic knockoff sequel like Resident Evil: Afterlife considered Canadian, when David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is not? Because of federal tax regulations, pure and simple. Resident Evil: Afterlife is a multi-country, registered co-production with Canadian financing, ergo it’s Canadian. An American company wholly financed A History of Violence, ergo it’s not, despite its Canadian director and crew.
Our cinema enjoys a great deal of respect overseas – if not at home – and occasionally we break through on Variety’s weekly Top 50. We’re the subversive art-house cinema of North American movie culture, the anti-Hollywood. But mark this; from Mary Pickford and Mack Sennett to Jim Carrey and Ryan Reynolds, Canadians have been at the very heart of Hollywood. Our cinematic curse and our successes lie in the fact we share our border with the largest, most powerful and most aggressive producer of visual culture the world has ever known. Still, Quebec continues produce world-class filmmakers in a line that can be traced directly from Claude Jutra through Denys Arcand to Denis Villeneuve, and English-Canadian cinema is now well represented on the world stage by the holy trinity of David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Guy Maddin.
For me, the distinguishing feature of the past 20 years is the slow death of a film culture and the rise of digital production and distribution. Integrated handheld phone/television screen/computer/camera devices have replaced the rather quaint notion that watching a movie in a darkened theatre was the only way to go. The relative passive viewers of 1999 watched content that was scheduled or programmed for them, whether on an ever-growing number of television services, in movie theatres, or on physical media such as DVDs. In 2019, passive viewers of programmed screen content are being supplanted by a generation of engaged Millennials who seek on-demand and immersive media experiences at their fingertips wherever they go. Between these two extremes of traditional film and television viewers, and engaged media participants, is a consumer in transition. Millennials are still watching linear television (but less of it), still enjoying feature films (but less frequently at the theatre), and contemplating “cutting the cord” to enjoy digital media anytime, anywhere. Sixty-one per cent of Canadians between the ages 18-to-34 subscribe to Netflix, while only 15 per cent of Canadians 65+ years do so. The new digital platforms, however, have no obligations to exhibit, promote or help audiences discover Canadian feature films.
The following unsettling statistics are taken from Profile 2016: An Economic Report on the Screen-Based Media Production Industry in Canada: “Canadian theatrical feature film production declined by 28 per cent to $255 million in 2015/16 despite the 30 per cent increase in production supported by Telefilm Canada’s Feature Film Fund. English-language theatrical feature film production decreased by 30 per cent to $178 million. French-language theatrical feature film production decreased by 20 per cent to $76 million. Theatrical feature films produced in other languages accounted for approximately $2 million in production. The volume of theatrical feature films produced by Quebec-based producers decreased by 36 per cent, and accounted for 42 per cent of the national volume. Production by Ontario-based producers decreased by 25 per cent, and accounted for 3 per cent of the national volume. Production by BC-based producers decreased by 24 per cent and accounted for 16 per cent of the national volume. Foreign financing of Canadian theatrical feature film production dropped by 42 per cent to $54 million and accounted for 14 per cent of total financing. Canadians produced only 71 fiction features in 2015/16 (a 10-year low) compared to 89 the year before. Across both languages, the average budget also hit a 10-year low of $2.4 million.
“The drop in fiction feature production and average budgets was accompanied by a drop-off in the private financing of Canadian feature films, particularly English-language feature films. Financing from Canadian distributors, foreign sources and other private sources were down significantly in 2015/16. Indeed, the drop in the volume of fiction production pulled down the overall volume of Canadian theatrical feature film production, as the volume of production in other genres (i.e., documentary, children’s and youth, etc.) actually increased by $3 million to $89 million. With respect to Aboriginal feature films, the Aboriginal production community has developed extensively over the last 10 to 15 years. APTN and the imagineNATIVE Film Festival are looked upon as leading examples in the world for showcasing and supporting Aboriginal audiovisual content. Telefilm’s micro-budget for Aboriginal productions is also viewed as an excellent initiative for supporting Indigenous screen-based content.”
As for the mythic Hollywood North, Vancouver is now the second best city in North America for filmmakers to live and work, according to MovieMaker magazine. The magazine, which scored each city based on film activity, film infrastructure in place, population size, ease of transportation, tax credits, and architectural and geographical distinctiveness, ranked Vancouver just behind Atlanta, Georgia. The top North American moviemaking centres are Atlanta, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Boston, Toronto, Austin, Texas, and Montreal.
On the international stage, over the past 20 years Canadian Oscar winners include François Girard’s multinational co-production The Red Violin (1998, best musical score), Denys Arcand’s Canada-France co-production The Barbarian Invasions (2003, best foreign-language film; Arcand was nominated for best original screenplay), the Canada-Ireland-U.K. co-production Room (2015, Brie Larson, best actress; also nominated for best picture, director and adapted screenplay), and Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2029 (2017, best cinematography and best visual effects; nominated for best sound, sound mix and production design; note: Blade Runner 2029 is essentially a U.S.-U.K. co-production but with enough Canadian content to qualify as a minority co-production).
Over the same period, Oscar-nominated films include the multinational/NFB animated feature The Triplets of Belleville (2003, original song and best animated feature), Deepa Mehta’s Canada-India co-production Water (2005, best foreign-language film), Sarah Polley’s Canada-U.K. co-production Away from Her (2006, Polley for best adapted screenplay and Julie Christie for best actress), David Cronenberg’s Canada-U.K. co-production Eastern Promises (2007, Viggo Mortensen, best actor), Denis Villeneuve’s Canada-France co-production Incendies (2010, best foreign-language film), the Canada-Italy co-production Barney’s Version (2010, best makeup), Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar (2011, best foreign-language film), Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle (2012, best foreign-language film), and the Canada-Ireland-U.K. co-production Brooklyn (2015, Saoirse Ronan, best actress, picture and adapted screenplay). Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005), often cited as a Canadian movie – but it’s not, it’s American – received two nominations, for best supporting actor, William Hurt, and best adapted screenplay. Montreal-born Jason Reitman received two best directing nominations, for Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009, also best adapted screenplay and picture), and Denis Villeneuve received a best directing nomination for Arrival (2016).
And finally, at home, of the Top 15 Canadian films at the domestic box office of all time (expressed in millions), 12 were released post 1999: Bon Cop, Bad Cop ($11.9, 2006) producer Kevin Tierney; De père en flic ($10.8, 2009) producers Daniel Louis and Denise Robert; Séraphin: Heart of Stone ($9.6, 2002) producer Lorraine Richard; Seducing Doctor Lewis ($7.6, 2003) producers Roger Frappier and Luc Vandal; the multinational co-production Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D ($7, 2010) producers Don Carmody and others; Bon Cop Bad Cop 2 ($7, 2017) producers Patrick Huard, Pierre Even and François Flamand; De père en flic 2/em> ($6.5, 2017) producer Denise Robert; the co-production Brooklyn ($6.09, 2016) producers Marie-Claude Poulin and many others; the multinational Resident Evil: Apocalypse ($6, 2004) producers Don Carmody and others; C.R.A.Z.Y. ($6, 2005) producer Pierre Even; The Barbarian Invasions ($5.9, 2004) producers Denise Robert and Daniel Louis; and the multinational Resident Evil: Retribution ($5.4, 2012) producers Don Carmody and others. With a worldwide box office in excess of $300 million, Resident Evil: Afterlife is now the Canadian-produced box office champion.
Wyndham Wise is Editor of Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film and former editor-in-chief of Take One: Film in Canada, as well as an occasional contributor to Northernstars.ca.