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Canadians Should Be Making Fewer Films

08/10/2014 11:50 EDT | Updated 10/10/2014 05:59 EDT
Reel Canada

I'm going to put on my provocateur hat today (not that I take it off too often) -- so contrary opinions are welcomed:

Canadian films struggle -- most people acknowledge that. The films struggle to get made, to get distributed, to get promoted, to be seen, and to be accepted by viewers.

The "why" is multi-faceted and, honestly, I was thinking of penning a post just on all the different (and contradictory) obstacles. Just as an example of a catch 22: domestic theatres refuse to show many Canadian movies because those films don't make much money, while journalists refuse to cover Canadian films because what's the point if the theatre's not showing it? While filmmakers complain they can't win an audience if they don't get their movies shown in the theatres and written about by the press.

Canadian films are often low-budget -- and low-budget affects the type of stories you can tell, which in turn affects the commercial potential. You can't make Guardians of the Galaxy or The Hobbit with a few grants, a maxed out credit card, and a list of "thank-yous" in the end credits to all the people who volunteered their time.

That's why, for example, Canadian music doesn't suffer quite the same problems as Canadian film in terms of achieving popular (and even international) success. Money is less of an issue. Bruce Springsteen's guitar doesn't cost significantly more than Jim Cuddy's -- and if it does, it probably doesn't sound any more in tune. Canadian music also was aggressively protected in its embryonic stage by Can-Con rules allowing it to be nurtured and to grow -- something that was never afforded to Canadian film and only half-heartedly applied to Canadian TV.

There's an irony to the fact that Canadian films are often so low-budget -- because Canada is a G-7 Nation. Canada is actually one of the wealthiest, most successful nations in the world (which I suspect depresses a lot of Canadians -- "What?" they say, "this is as good as it gets?")

Apparently Canada, per capita, has roughly the same GDP as California. Yet Canada produces low-budget, barely distributed films while California dominates the global entertainment landscape. OK -- a moronic comparison. Apples to oranges. After all, the reason California has a GDP comparable to Canada is because of its entertainment industry (and, presumably, Silicon Valley) -- remove those from the equation and its GDP (and population) would drop down to that of Mississippi or some place (not a dig at Mississippi -- I'm just randomly naming another state).

Still, I'm just making a point that you would think a G-7 nation could have a more muscular film industry.

We know the technical skill exists -- because so many Hollywood productions, both film and TV, are shot in Canada, utilizing Canadian crews and actors.

A difficult, hurtful, and troubling thing to ask, though, is maybe the problem is Canada makes too many films. There's only so much money to go around -- from various private and public sources, grants and tax breaks. And maybe it's being spread too thin. Maybe instead of producing a 100 low-budget films we need 50 moderate budget films. Or 25 decently budgeted films. Right now it can seem a bit like anyone with moxie, a dream, and who knows his way around filling out an application form or setting up a crowd-funding site can scare up a few thousand to make a film in Canada. But a few thousand isn't necessarily enough to make a good film. An "interesting" film? Sure. A "promising" film? Yeah. But a "good" film?

I once read a quote from a film professor (I think he was working at the Canadian Film Centre) who said that part of his job was teaching the kids how to make movies cheaply so they didn't lose too much money.

Reasonable and pragmatic advice, particularly given the obstacles in getting movies distributed and promoted. But it does seem a bit self-defeating if even before you've shot your first scene your focus is on how not to loose too much money -- rather than on trying to actually turn a profit!

Yet the problem with my saying maybe we need fewer movies, but with bigger production values is, of course, the obvious: how do we decide who those few, those lucky few, get to be?

Even in the current situation (for all my flippant remark about anyone who can fill out an application form) the ratio of films that get made to ideas that are pitched is probably -- what? -- 50 to one? 100 to one? Maybe the great Canadian scripts are already written -- they're just not the ones getting the green light!

And if we cut this back even further, so that only an increasingly select and privileged few get the money to shoot their film, would the cream rise to the job? Would the best and the brightest finally get their shot to shine with enough money to tell their story right? Or would simply the usual suspects (the ones with an established network of friends and contacts in the biz) be given bigger and bigger budgets to continue to make films that under-perform and underwhelm?

After all, Canada has had a long history of attempting bigger films, such as the Hollywood North era (late 1970s to early 1980s) which produced scores of Hollywood-style movies with Hollywood actors and yet produced few box office successes and, worse, much critical derision. Subsequently it seemed like every year there would be at least one "big" movie the industry (and the media) would rally around, that was intended to be "the" Canadian blockbuster for that year, from sci-fi films like Johnny Mnemonic to sweeping period epics like Bethune to literary classics like Joshua Then and Now. Most under-performed at the box office and underwhelmed critics (well, movies like Johnny Mnemonic were generally panned, while Bethune and Joshua received respectable-but-mixed reviews).

My perception is this one big push each year doesn't seem as prevalent as it did. But maybe that's because critics have become jaded, having been invited to this dance once too often, or maybe I'm just not perceiving them that way as much. Certainly high brow movies like Barney's Version and Midnight's Children and populist efforts like Mortal Instruments and Pompeii fill the same niche (most of these only nominally Canadian). Would-be blockbusters that barely scuff the block.

Of course another question is whether budget is entirely the issue? My perception is a modest-to-low budget American or British film are still more expensive than modest-to-low budget Canadian films -- but I don't know for sure.

So what's my point?

Just that it's hard to make a good -- commercial -- movie without a decent budget. But, equally, having a good budget doesn't necessarily insure a good, or at least a commercially successful, movie.

But all this was really meant to be a brief prologue to what I really wanted to write about -- and clearly I rambled on a bit. So next time I want to ask the all-important question:

Are too many Canadian filmmakers making "films" when they should be making "movies"?

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