Imagine a movie theatre in downtown Vancouver that plays nothing but Canadian films. No Hollywood blockbusters. No European art-house smashes. No Asian epics. Just 100-percent Great White Northern celluloid.
It’s strange to have to wish for something like that in your own country. But with English Canadian films pulling in an average one percent of our own box-office receipts, it remains local director Carl Bessai’s unrequited dream. The challenges of being a Canadian filmmaker haven’t squelched the imagination of the director of Emile and Normal; they’ve made him more pragmatic.
“Beating Americans to the box office is not gonna happen,” he says on the line from his Vancouver office. “So why not just work with Telefilm, the film board, different agencies and associations to create a private-public partnership and have a screening chain that is dedicated to Canadian film?”
It’s one possible solution to the ongoing problem of ensuring Canadian films a fair run on our own screens. Yet in a year in which Canadian features shone in the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood spotlight—David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and Sarah Polley’s Away From Her were feted with Oscar nominations and other industry awards, and Canadian director Jason Reitman was nominated for an Oscar for Juno—why is this still a pressing concern?
Because the box-office statistics tell a different story.
The bright commercial promise of Bon Cop, Bad Cop and Trailer Park Boys: The Movie in 2006 went unfulfilled, according to Profile 2008, a February 22 report on the national film industry by the Canadian Film and Television Production Association. Canadian films earned 20 percent less at the box office in 2007 than the previous year, and they hit their lowest returns since 2002. Even though there were more Canadian films playing in 2007 (112 films) than 2006 (99 films), Canadian films brought in only $28 million, down from $35 million in 2006 and $46 million in 2005.
Our share at our own box offices? Only 3.2 percent. Who had the rest? Mostly Hollywood.
Films from the U.S. comprised 88.9 percent of Canadian box-office sales. American films, which increased from 295 films in 2006 to 312 films in 2007, earned $763 million in 2007, up from $713 million in 2005 and $734 million in 2006.
“Free enterprise isn’t all that free right now,” Bessai says. “We’ve got a huge monopoly of American and studio product dominating the exhibition venues, and we’ve got a system where distributors and exhibitors of Canada profit quite nicely off of this monopoly.”¦We’ve got a system that works really well for a lot of businesses in Canada, companies that flourish because of the domination of American films.”
Anita Adams, who runs the First Weekend Club—a nonprofit organization established to promote Canadian films through their crucial opening weekend—has grown to understand the positions of distributors and exhibitors. She understands that exhibitors are in business and that “it makes sense for them to take a blockbuster”.
“Canadian distributors,” she says by phone, “do not have the muscle to negotiate better time slots for Canadian films.”
Budgets are vastly different too. “A marketing budget for an American film often is over the budget of a production for a Canadian film,” Adams says. “You can’t even compare the two. There’s just nothing that goes into a budget for a Canadian film. You’re talking $100,000 compared to $5 million for marketing.”¦So how do you compete with that?”
One possible solution is screen quotas. Numerous countries, including Brazil, France, Hungary, Italy, Pakistan, and the U.K., have instituted such programs to ensure domestic films are shown in their theatres for a minimum number of days. Cultural sovereignty, however, is often incompatible with trade agreements. The U.S. government has repeatedly pressured countries to reduce or repeal their quotas.
South Korea’s program, in place since 1966, is often cited as a successful model. According to the Korean Film Council, the domestic-market share of South Korean films mushroomed from 15.9 percent in 1991 up to an impressive 62 percent in the first half of 2004 and maintained 50 percent the next year. Hallyu, or the Korean-wave films that swept over Asia this past decade, is proof of that triumph.
Conversely, the repealed Mexican program is a cautionary tale. After signing NAFTA in 1994, the Mexican government reduced the screen quota from 30 percent to 10 percent. The Mexican film industry, which produced 100 films per year in the 1980s, hit record lows and has produced only about 30 films or less per year after the reduction.
Bessai, representing the Citizens’ Coalition for the Protection of Canadian Films, proposed screen quotas to the Commons heritage committee in 2005. The idea never took off, but Bessai, who also suggests the possibility of an exhibition tax credit, points out how music and TV benefit from Cancon programs and CRTC legislation. But he adds, “No one’s gonna imitate Korea here in Canada”¦. There’s just too much opposition.”
Adams has mixed feelings. “I don’t think it’s necessarily right to force an exhibitor to say, ”˜You gotta make a cultural choice, not a business choice,’ although there’s another part of me that really wants to see a screen quota in effect.”
Adams also adds that because songs are three to five minutes long—whereas movies are about two hours long—radio and TV broadcasters can meet their quotas more easily than movie exhibitors.
Lindsay Nahmiache, spokesperson for Festival Cinemas, which operates the Ridge, Park, and Fifth Avenue theatres, thinks quotas are a bad idea. “I understand where the quota system comes on board for radio and television,” she says by cellphone, “because they are public airwaves, but for theatre and film, it’s a private decision when someone decides to go spend their money on a film.”
Nahmiache also points out that Korea has a definitive culture (not to mention its own language), whereas Canadian culture is ambiguous. “I think it comes down to the whole grey area of defining what is Canadian and what is American. Juno, for instance: the majority of the cast is Canadian, it was all filmed in Canada, it’s a Canadian director, and yet it’s not classified as Canadian because of some technical point system that’s in place.”
Hedy Fry, Vancouver Centre Liberal MP, suggests that the CBC could become a film distributor like the BBC is in the U.K. “We have, in Canada, a huge distribution problem,” Fry told the Straight. “Canadian distribution is subsumed by a massive American distribution machinery. It’s all tied in with the CBC possibly becoming the BBC of Canada.”
Bessai thinks that “getting the CBC to observe their mandate to promote and support Canadian film would be a great idea”. He also points out that digital distribution presents new possibilities as well. He says the National Film Board of Canada is experimenting with digital distribution for East Coast community-based cinemas.
After all, should it be so difficult to be able to see your own country’s films in your own city’s theatres? As taxpayers, Bessai points out, we are already paying for these films.
“What’s frustrating to me as an artist,” Bessai says, “is that when people no longer feel it’s even worth bothering to hold a mirror up to the place that we actually live in, then the validity of that place starts to disappear.”
Whether or not Canadian film and culture survives or vanishes may depend on how Canadians choose to vote with their ticket stubs.
With files from Charlie Smith.