POLITICS

Oscar nomination comes after a few lean years for National Film Board

01/26/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/27/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - After a tumultuous period of budget cuts and high-profile staff departures, the National Film Board celebrated its 75th year with a welcome bit of good news: an Academy Award nomination.

During a tough 2014, the NFB weathered the full ramifications of the government-initiated budget cuts of 2012 (shrinking the organization's public funding by around $6.5 million to roughly $60 million) while earning headlines with the sudden exits of former chair Tom Perlmutter and his deputy, Ravida Din.

So the recent arrival of an Oscar nomination for Norwegian-Canadian filmmaker Torill Kove's winsome short "Me and My Moulton" came as a rare bit of good news.

It was the NFB's first Oscar nomination since landing two in 2011, and for an organization that wears its golden Oscar history proudly — 73 nominations in 75 years — it came as a validating acknowledgment.

"Well, of course, the Oscar nomination is at the top of the list of any awards that exist in this world," said NFB commissioner Claude Joli-Coeur in a telephone interview.

"I think you have the Oscars and you have the other prizes. ... It's some proof of the potential of the talents that we are dealing with."

He pauses to point out how many accolades the NFB receives from other bodies, 111 last year alone, 68 from international sources.

So it's not only the Oscars that are important.

"But of course the Oscars is really special. Really, really special," he added.

If the NFB's potential for creating award-worthy fare remains intact, Joli-Coeur acknowledges that the organization's biggest challenge now is connecting more deeply with audiences.

On his organization's reach, Joli-Coeur supplies a staggering statistic: 27 million Canadians "one way or another" in the last year screened an NFB product.

The organization's mandate hasn't changed; the NFB exists to "reflect Canada and matters of interest to Canadians, to Canada and the rest of the world."

And yet, it's still worth distinguishing the NFB from other arts-boosting agencies. Where the Canada Council for the Arts provides grants or Telefilm Canada funding, the NFB produces and distributes its material, often reaching outside for funding.

With a production slate of roughly 60 to 80 films per year and around 400 employees, the NFB is an "incubator of ideas," argues Joli-Coeur, offering a creative atmosphere uncommon for a film producer.

"We have at the NFB an environment of creation that doesn't exist anywhere else," he said. "We are efficient about how we do things but we are never in a rush. We can adjust the creation process to get the best work."

In Kove's case, the NFB provided her equipment, technical advisers and a place to stay, among other things. Online editing and sound mixing for her films take place at the NFB's Montreal headquarters and, though Kove says her NFB producers are creatively non-intrusive, she leans on them for help throughout the process.

All three of Kove's NFB co-produced short films have been nominated for Oscars (and 2006's "The Danish Poet" gave the NFB one of its 12 wins).

She doesn't solely credit the NFB with Canada's history of esteemed animated fare, but says it's an important piece in the puzzle.

"I think (the movies) would probably be made anyway — animation comes out from all places in the world that don't have an NFB," she said.

"But very few countries have this kind of continuity where you can depend on this institution to come out with a few really good films every year.

"There's not a lot of places like that, if any. And I think that's important."

Kove moved to Montreal in the late '80s and became enamoured of the NFB's archive quickly. She was considering attending Concordia University for animation and was "amazed by the range of different techniques" on offer in the NFB's catalogue.

Graham Annable, co-director of the recently Oscar-nominated "The Boxtrolls," was similarly won over by NFB animation.

As a Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., high-schooler with a biology textbook covered in doodles, he was trying to decide between a future in science or art when he discovered Richard Condie's 1985 NFB production "The Big Snit."

Annable chose art.

"And I still think that's the funniest piece of entertainment that's ever been created," he said in a recent telephone interview.

Joli-Coeur hopes that the NFB's move to a new headquarters in Montreal's central Quartier des Spectacles (planned for 2017) will have a transformative effect on the film board's presence in the city, noting that their current building is "in front of a major expressway, between two car dealers."

Right now, a modest $5 million of the NFB's budget is derived from reinvested film revenue, with the rest coming from the public. But Joli-Coeur says the budget cuts of the past few years have not been debilitating.

"Of course it has been stressing on the organization, but at the end of the day it hasn't had a major impact on how we're delivering our service to Canadians," he said.

"Sometimes, cuts like that or revenue shortages, they force you to reinvent and look at things differently.

"A difficult financial situation can also be inspiration for innovation."

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