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Is Canada Ready for a Canadian Movie Channel?

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There's currently a proposal for a new Canadian TV specialty channel -- Starlight TV -- backed by many of the established movers and shakers in Canadian film.

What that should be doing is getting the conversation going -- about Canadian film. Where it's been, where it is, and where is it going. Yet I've seen very little coverage of it -- pro, con, or even just as a starting point for a debate. At least the proponents of this new channel are doing something -- they are, so to speak, running an idea up the flag pole and seeing who will salute.

Its mandate would be simple: to show Canadian movies. Period. Every day, all day. The argument is -- and has always been -- Canadian movies have trouble getting in front of eyeballs, sidelined by theatres more interested in the latest Hollywood offering, and TV networks more interested in American programs.

The catch? They want it added to the rather exclusive club of mandatory networks your cable provider offers as part of its basic package. Which would add a couple of bucks to your cable bill. Not a lot -- but people grumble about their cable bills as it is, and having too many channels they don't watch already.

So now the proposal is to make mandatory a channel whose raison d'etre is: "You know those movies you ignored at the theatre and on DVD? Tah dah! Here they are -- in your home!"

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The more cynical might conjure an uncomfortable image of Jack Nicholson axing his way through your front door snarling: "Heeeere's Johnny!"

Still, Starlight has a legitimate point.

There is a desperate need to get Canadian productions before eyeballs. And TV might be the best way, since you're simply hoping the audience will be channel surfing, and a scene will catch their eye, and before they know it, they're enjoying a Canadian movie. The point isn't that Starlight would get great ratings in its first week, or month, or even year. The point is, just by having Canadian movies playing regularly, the audience might stop thinking of those films as a rare abnormality of which they've heard rumours but have never seen. So that the next time a Canadian movie is playing at the theatre, or they stumble upon it at the DVD store, they don't think of it as a "Canadian" movie...but as simply a movie that happens to be Canadian. And they will judge it by its individual merits.

Starlight is also about generating revenue, hence why they want to be put on the mandatory carrying list. One can snort and see it as greed -- those backing Starlight are hoping to make money. But it's also about creating a funding source, with Starlight promising to finance original movies.

So there are a lot of admirable reasons to support the idea of Starlight.

But there are also problems.

Just to take my last point first, Starlight's proposal seemed to be something like generating $20-odd million to finance a dozen movies per year. But I think we have to move past the "low-budget" movie mindset. Heck, some Hollywood TV series spend that kind of money per episode. I'd rather see Starlight promise $20-odd million to make, say, two or three films a year.

More fundamental concerns:

People already grumble about their cable bills and more and more people are dropping cable entirely for Internet streaming and the like. A lot of these movies are already available on DVD, so if the audience really wants to see them, they can. Customers who support the idea of Starlight probably do so because they agree it's a worthy enterprise...more than because it'll fill a personal void in their own entertainment diet.

Another problem is simply: quality. Years and years of Canadian movies that don't do very well. And though some of that can be blamed on poor marketing, publicity and distribution, a lot can also be blamed on the films. And now they propose an entire channel devoted to them? A lot of the movies on The Movie Network are undistinguished, mediocre, and even bad...but they at least are scheduled around a core of blockbusters and old classics.

What's admirable about Starlight's proposed schedule (their website offering a mock programming grid of likely films -- most of which I have, indeed, seen) is that they aren't playing favourites: offering a mix of respected "Art" films and cheesy old Hollywood North programmers, TV movies and documentaries. Archly Canadian films...and those only-Canadian-if-you-look-at-the-fine-print movies. So the programmers aren't just shoving their own preferences down our throats.

But maybe that's the problem, and has always been the problem with Canadian movies programmed to fill a hole in a schedule.

No quality control.

Movies that are aired just to fill a quota, and not because the programmers seriously think they are any good. One could argue it's not necessarily that Canadians make worse movies than Americans, it's just Americans lock their bad movies away like Mr. Rochester's first wife. They languish in the discount DVD bin rather than get regular slots on prime time. So I can admire the egalitarian philosophy behind Starlight proudly listing the 1980 sci-fi flick The Last Chase as part of its theoretical schedule...even as simultaneously I weep tears of maple syrup.

If the Starlight proposal fails, as I suspect it will -- not because I don't support its goals and ideals, but just because I suspect it'll be a tough sell to the CRTC and problematic in execution -- what's next? Well, those putting it together went big...but that doesn't mean they should go home. Rather, take those same goals and ideals, and figure out something more feasible.

Instead of a Canadian movie channel...how about an all-Canadian channel, of which movies would be a significant part? A channel that shows TV series as well as movies. After all, Canadian TV series tend to enjoy more popular support than movies. So from the point of getting people to tune into your channel, and therefore stick around for the movies, maybe offering a schedule that offered old series in addition to movies would be a better, more popular formula.

Or don't even think of a specialty channel -- not yet. Does it do Canadian film any good if in order to fill up your schedule you have to program a lot of movies even you know, deep inside, are awful? So what Canada maybe needs is not a Canadian movie network...but a Canadian movie program. A regular, weekly slot on existing networks.

But the problem that advocates for Canadiana have always had is network programmers rarely live up to their commitments to Canadian Content, smugly knowing no station or network in the history of Canadian broadcasting has ever had its license pulled over a failure to satisfy even the minimum requirement of Canadian programs.

Canadian filmmakers have learned one unarguable truism over the decades: Don't Trust the B____ (or the B______) in the Programmer's Office!

So maybe what they could do is offer a pre-packaged movie program -- like a TV series. Say to the programmers: we'll do the heavy lifting. We'll select the films, clear the rights, do all that stuff -- all you have to do is give us a two hour block once a week, some commercial promotions, and three or four months to see if we can deliver the ratings. And this could be done differently for different channels. I mean, we have a History Channel, for Radisson's sake! And if there's one thing Canadian film has accrued over the years, it's period dramas.

Or maybe whoever would do this (Starlight or some successor group) could simply buy up the slots on their own, selling commercial space themselves -- in much the same way that I believe The Red Green Show did a few seasons where it couldn't get any support from Global, so it simply paid for the time slot and then sold commercial spots to advertisers itself.

And of course the big point would be that "quality control" idea I alluded to -- cherry picking the best and brightest. And, yeah, I know -- get five people to make a list of the 10 "Best" movies...and you'll end up with 40 different movies (and some movies will actually be on someone else's 10 "Worst" list!)

But it's about "branding" -- getting the audience to see Canadian movies, not even as great movies, but as simply okay movies. And that means cutting loose that low-budget film that looks as though it was shot for less money than the cost of a used car, and not plopping that dense Art film that challenges perceptions of conventional narrative in the middle of prime time. So not a 24-hour movie channel that will air anything, nor leave the decisions to programmers who don't give a rat's ass just as long as they can check off their "Canadian Content" box. Instead just a steady stream of OK-time-killers that can, over time, wear away the stigma.

It gets back to my point about brand. Before you can convince the audience they desperately need an all-Canadian movie channel...you first have to convince them they even like Canadian movies.