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The Trouble With Awards for 'Canadian' Movies

03/12/2014 01:08 EDT | Updated 05/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Last Sunday the Canadian Screen Awards were broadcast, the amalgamation between the Canadian TV awards and the Canadian film awards -- or rather, the combining of the Canadian film awards with the English-Canadian TV awards. So French and English films are nominated in the film categories -- but I think only English-language TV series are nominated in the TV category. Yeah -- something off about that. Shouldn't there also be a French-language TV category? Even if handed out off-air (given it's an English-language broadcast) but the winners announced on air?

Anyway, a long standing category at the Canadian film awards has been the Golden Reel Award (not to be confused with the American sound editors award). It's an award given to the Canadian movie that garnered the biggest domestic (ie: within Canada) ticket sales.

Now one might argue a successful box office is its own reward -- why give out a trophy, too? Well that relates to the long and tortured history of Canadian film and of Canadian film awards.

The Canadian film awards are meant to honour the "achievements" of writers, directors, actors, etc. But they're also intended as a big wet-kiss of a commercial for Canadian movies. Admittedly, that's true of, say, the American Oscars, too -- but the Oscars don't hand out awards for box office, because it's assumed a lot of American movies have been successful.

It's a Catch-22. Canadian movies tend to fair poorly at the box office, and most Canadians haven't even heard of most of the nominated films. So the awards are seen as a chance to stir up some publicity. Yet because most people haven't heard of the films, it's hard to get people to watch, or even be aware of, the awards show (which is why the film awards have been blended with the more populist TV awards).

And that's why they instituted the Golden Reel Award -- recognizing making money is as important as good reviews. It's a way of encouraging Canadian filmmakers who, against all odds, actually managed to move a few tickets! As well, it's a way of getting a movie that the audience might have heard of (and maybe some of its stars) on the awards show marquee, drawing in extra viewers.

Which brings us to this year's Golden Reel winner -- The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.

It's the latest in the wannabe teen-fantasy franchise trend. There's big money in teen franchises -- as Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Narnia has proven. Admittedly, The Mortal Instruments's longevity is uncertain. A sequel was announced even before the movie premiered -- but tepid box office and indifferent (even negative) reviews led to some waffling, with plans for the sequel scrapped, then started again.

The Mortal Instruments isn't a bad movie. But it can feel slightly -- bland. Kind of "been there, done that" when it comes to these kind of franchises (teen girl discovers magical beings walk the city streets, and she is some uber-child heir to that legacy, and there's a hunky bad boy to get her heart a flutter). But, hey -- I'm not exactly the target demographic (Lena Headey plays the heroine's mother in what amounts to barely more than a cameo -- I'd much rather watch a movie where Lena Headey was the heroine than one where she's playing the heroine's mom).

But whatever else one might say about it: it looks expensive. It's got breathtaking set designs, oodles of special effects, and good performances. Watching it, you wouldn't realize it was a Canadian movie.

And therein lies the rub.

Because, for the most part, it ain't.

The Mortal Instruments is an international co-production involving Canadian, European and, yes, Hollywood partners. It's set in Brooklyn, New York (though filmed mostly in Canada). The director is a Hollywood director, born in The Netherlands. The Screenwriter is, I believe, American. The novels upon which it's based are American. The cast is mainly from the U.K. The few Canadian actors aren't in central roles and, I'm guessing, don't even live in Canada these days, so it's hardly a showcase opportunity for the "domestic" talent pool.

Any one (or more) of that would be expected in an international co-production. But none of the stars, writer, director, setting, characters, source material are Canadian.

Such movies represent the talents and efforts of behind-the-scenes Canadian crew. But so does, say, The X-Men movies.

Not many people who watch The Mortal Instruments would identify it as Canadian. I can't imagine a fan of the movie seeing in it a triumph of Canadian creativity. It won't send you back to the DVD store (or Netflix, or whatever) looking for other Canadian films because you've suddenly been turned on to the talent and capability of the Canadian film biz.

For all intents, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is a Hollywood movie that happened to have been shot in Canada, with a few Canadians signing the pay vouchers.

And that's fine -- nothing wrong with that.

But is that what the Golden Reel was intended to celebrate? Surely it was intended to give a pat on the back to enterprising Canadian artists who managed to make commercially successful Canadian movies -- to say to them "good for you" for making a populist Canadian movie. Not to applaud productions that are not made by or with Canadians, that are not set in Canada or about Canadians (and that's even ignoring the fact, as I say, that the movie's international success was so tenuous, its sequel has been an on again/off again enterprise).

When Starbuck or Passchendaele or Bon Cop, Bad Cop won the Golden Reel it was a high-five to the industry. But what does it celebrate when The Mortal Instruments or Resident Evil (fill-in-the-number) takes the prize?

Although The Mortal Instruments didn't exactly grip me, I actually regard it more benignly than a lot of the (adult-written) reviews I've come across about it. And if you loved the movie -- great. But The Mortal Instruments has already won a prize -- by selling more tickets than any other Canadian-produced movie in 2013.

If there is to be a Golden Reel Award, shouldn't it celebrate movies that are actually trying to build and develop a domestic Canadian industry?

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